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Hiding in Plain Sight: Protecting Enterprises from the 'New' Shadow IT

Three steps to fight this increasingly vexing problem.

In the pandemic, work-from-home (WFH) era, "shadow IT" looms large as a cybersecurity challenge: More than seven of 10 IT leaders and half of employees agree that security is the most pressing business problem created by technology that is unaccounted for and unmanaged.

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The issue is growing more complex. Previously, CISOs and their teams struggled to stay on top of employees using devices and applications that the IT department neither approved of nor managed (or even knew about). But, in our experiences with customers, we're seeing a new and potentially more harmful wave of hidden activity. This new wave of shadow IT essentially breaks down into the three following categories:

  • Remote management tools. As indicated, WFH is redefining the enterprise, and it's not going away — at least not entirely: 83% of employers consider the shift to remote work to be a success. Fewer than one in five executives want to return to the office as they did before pandemic. And 55% of employees say they'll seek to work remotely at least three days a week once the COVID-19 crisis passes.

    To enable and sustain wider remote work almost indefinitely, IT and help desk teams deploy software tools (such as TeamViewer) that let administrators troubleshoot problems and configure systems consistently. These tools save the day when IT snafus threaten productivity and deadlines. If misconfigured or abused, however, these tools can be weaponized to go to the heart of nearly every connected device. Because remote management tools are legitimate software, they're often overlooked by security teams focused on hunting ransomware and other outright malicious, noisy files. Yet, as the recent Florida water plant intrusion illustrates, if you have an installation of TeamViewer that someone discovers how to access, or poor policies governing where these tools can be deployed and who has access, a remote system can move under the radar of security oversight.

  • Cloud databases and services. To test features and/or get quick assistance on a pressing project deadline, more types of employees are able to sign up for trial accounts of various software-as-a-service (SaaS) tools, whether for business development, marketing, employee benefits, or other purposes. Crucially, test-driving these apps might be viewed as a safe "trial," especially if the user assumes the SaaS provider will delete any data entered the moment the trial ends. But entering live business data into ad hoc apps on the fly can be dangerous as it breaks corporate and security policies, and if these applications are not configured correctly (even during a demo phase) or not securely wiped, if abandoned, this creates pockets of volatile data ripe for exposure and other combustible breach consequences.

  • Modernized facility equipment. Not everyone is working from home, which means standard building systems are still supporting factories, offices, retail locations, and other businesses. They rely upon commercial appliances, manufacturing equipment, heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, etc. that are increasingly connected to networks and data to enable automation or "smart" technologies that boost operational efficiencies. The data generated locally on these types of Internet of Things devices and operational technology equipment frequently exists unencrypted and far outside security controls.

    Why? Sometimes facility and operations managers have no choice to adopt gear with more embedded wireless connectivity and data-handling features because it's impossible to find new equipment without these features, or the connectivity might be explicitly required to benefit from manufacturers' warranty and support coverage. In any case, facility and IT teams generally don't communicate or collaborate enough about how these purchases introduce new connectivity that needs to be segmented and likely affects the overall security posture. Thus, another vulnerable layer of the new shadow IT is added to the enterprise ecosystem.

"Shadow" is a relative term and can be subjective, depending on who is holding the flashlight. Digital risk managers must fight complacency by assuming there will always be a portion of IT assets and workflows skirting the reach of policies and security controls. That said, the cyclical wave of new shadow IT form factors can be readily countered with a few pragmatic approaches.

  1. Try to avoid tunnel vision in viewing the shadow IT problem, like traditional scenarios of rogue USB sticks and smartphones. If you orient your policies and hinting around a couple of traditional scenarios, you will gain a false sense of security from "solving" what you find and feeling accomplished.

  2. Embed this topic in wider conversations across departments. At a time when more businesses have flatter organization charts, with more freedom for different departments to innovate and transform their respective operations, this invites more people to become power users and experiment with cheaper and more feature-risk network-attached storage (NAS) devices, SaaS platforms, and other vectors that could swing vast amounts of data outside of reach, inadvertently. Reminding teams about the pitfalls of not using provided encryption features or neglecting to verifiably delete data from shuttered trials can save headaches down the road.

  3. Turn disruption to your advantage, whenever possible. The past year has seen dramatic changes in how workforces interact and stay productive. Automated equipment has accelerated at warehouses and logistics hubs. Remote work has forced many organizations to consolidate around a smaller number of more capable cloud and collaboration platforms to give more users the benefit of integrated file-sharing, videoconferencing, and other productivity essentials. Regardless of whether your organization returns most or all employees to offices — or when this happens — it's a healthy exercise to prune back less-used or obsolete devices, apps, and partners that aren't being utilized in the new big picture.  

Shadow IT can simply be a manageable symptom of pressure and productivity that you address as a security pro/risk manager by talking with your teams — the people under pressure and striving — not just focusing on devices. Or, shadow IT can be a sign of much bigger problems in a company if this type of communications and engagement has little effect because that suggests a culture where there may be insufficient leadership, policies, and accountability to keep cyber-risk from swamping the enterprise and keeping employees focused when everyone is on the cyber-risk front lines, especially during a remote-everything pandemic situation. It's up to security practitioners to bring objective eyes to the problem, to make sure we are not fighting yesterday's battles, and to remind stakeholders that it is security's role to enable business as part of a team effort.

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