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Duking It Out Over Endpoint Admin Rights

Endpoint rights policies should mean something for elite users, too
No matter how much detection software is in place, how advanced the antimalware technology installed may be, and how much user education is doled out to the masses, at the end of the day, when users retain full control over their endpoints, IT loses a big piece of the endpoint protection puzzle.

"Endpoint security is often at the mercy of the end user because it's possible for an end user to turn it off or reconfigure it incorrectly," says Pierluigi Stella, CTO of Network Box USA. "The IT department needs to set things up very carefully to avoid this. And even then, there are users who still manage to circumvent such measures."

At the root of the circumvention and the lack of control is the great business culture struggle over PC administrator privileges. IT security and operations professionals generally know that revoking admin rights is the right thing to do from both a protection and efficiency standpoint. In fact, according to a survey held last year, 50 percent of IT decision makers said they would expect a decrease in support calls and costs as a direct result of removing admin rights. And, yet, many endpoints within the enterprise remain fully under the control of users because so many line-of-business stakeholders pitch a fit at the whisper of revocation of privileges.

"While organizations are aware of the many benefits of removing admin rights, there's still mounting pressure from employees that demand full privileges," says Mark Austin, CEO of privilege rights management firm Avecto.

[How have attackers managed to 'break' AV with a glut of malware? See 10 Ways Attackers Automate Malware Production.]

The obstructionists come from all quarters, whether it is sales people who say it is difficult to work without administrator rights, traveling executives who worry that they won't be able to fix a problem when they're halfway across the globe from tech support, or the CEO who says she just wants to have the control of administrator rights, says Leonid Shtilman, CEO of Viewfinity, a privilege rights management company.

"It is very difficult to remove administrative rights in this atmosphere of opposition," he says.

But Austin says that organizations "invite infections" on their networks when they provide excessive administrator rights to users. Shtilman agrees, stating that there are many threats out there that depend on users being logged in as administer to execute. Unfortunately, the folks who are most likely to be targeted by attackers and consequently need the greatest protection also tend to be the loudest complainers about retaining administrator rights.

"A huge problem within organizations is senior management and executives demanding they be excluded from such controls," says Ken Pickering, director of engineering for CORE Security. "The irony of this situation is that executives and senior leadership often lack even the most basic knowledge of security threats, so by excluding themselves from controls they actually become the weakest link for compromise within their own organization."

Even at organizations with well-established and enforced endpoint policies, exemptions can add up. If you're playing the odds, and enough endpoints are left open with full privilege, then some of them will eventually be compromised.

"There is a big difference in security between 90 percent of computers without administrator rights and 99 percent," Shtilman says.

Consider an organization with 10,000 endpoints, for instance. If just 10 percent of those machines are left wide open, that leaves a whopping 1,000 machines exposed to much higher risks. Shtilman says that this gap should be closed. Shtilman suggests other organizations take a page from big banks, which have more than 99 percent of machines locked down with standard users rights. He reports how one multinational bank with tens of thousands of machines reports that it has just 20 of them open with full administrator privileges. Austin is of the same mind.

"No user, from desktop users to IT admins, needs an admin account to perform admin tasks." He says. "To give users just enough rights to perform their roles, without compromising security, organizations should follow the concept of least privilege, which grants privileges to applications, not users, therefore empowering employees to be productive."

Companies like Avecto and Viewfinity are trying to make it easier to break through the culture barrier by providing technology that offers more granular control over what users can or can't do compared to the standard binary on-off method offered out-of-the-box on Windows machines. But it'll take more than technology to chalk up a political win among the dissenters.

Shtilman likes to point to one organization he witnessed that navigated the political waters by actually testing tighter controls among a pilot group of some of the biggest obstructionists to pulling endpoint administrator controls: the developers.

"What they did as a first step is they experimented with at least two vendors and installed software on computers of developers who were at the front line of opposition for removal of administrator rights. After a month of tuning the software, they made the most opposed internal customers happy," he says. "This was the best example I have seen for handling it because this group was more difficult to make happy, and they became the biggest evangelists in their organization."

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