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Patching Poses Security Problems with Move to More Remote Work

Security teams were not ready for the wholesale move to remote work and the sudden expansion of the attack surface area, experts say.

A growing body of survey data suggests that the move to remote work has caused a growing number of headaches for security teams, especially regarding securing remote systems and maintaining up-to-date software through patching. 

In mid-March, 45% of companies encouraged workers to move to remote working, up from only 13% of companies in 2018, according to IT community Spiceworks. Yet security teams consider their company's capability to patch remote systems to be inadequate, according to a recent study released by Automox, a cyber-hygiene tools provider. While 48% of security teams patch on-premises desktops and laptops in the first three days, that declines to 42% for remote desktops and laptops, according to the firm.

"Remote desktops usually play second fiddle in terms of patching and prioritization — it's usually more difficult to manage them," says Chris Hass, director of information security and research for Automox. "Most teams have a good idea of what is going on with the corporate machines, but they often don't have any visibility into remote workers' systems, so there absolutely has been a large increase in the attack surface because of remote work."

A major impact on businesses from the coronavirus pandemic is the speed with which companies have moved to remote working, changing the way that employees access business applications and increasing the potential attack surface area — a particular headache for IT security. 

Most companies were not prepared for such a broad-based move to working remotely. While, on the whole, anywhere from 56% to 62% of employees could work from home, according to remote work analyst Global Workplace Analytics, only about 15% of respondents said their disaster recovery plans do not require any changes at all, according to a survey by Spiceworks of IT professionals

Because companies were taken by surprise, most are not prepared to patch and attest to the security of remote systems, says AJ Singh, co-founder and vice president of product management for remote management services firm NinjaRMM.

"Remote work has absolutely increased the complexity and scale of patch management in organizations," he says. "Now, in addition to maintaining and patching servers and devices on-prem, IT professionals must also manage the devices used by remote workers, making sure they are secure before accessing a business's data."

Patching is already an expensive proposition, with hundreds and thousands of vulnerabilities affecting a business's software and systems, says Sumedh Thakar, president and chief product officer at Qualys. The only way for most companies to deal with the issue is to prioritize the vulnerabilities based on the criticality of the assets affected by the issues. For example, companies should only focus on the BlueKeep vulnerability if they have Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) services in place, for example. 

However, the move to remote work has changed the calculus of prioritization for many companies and reduced their visibility, he says.

"It is becoming immediately clear that traditional enterprise security solutions deployed inside the organization's network are completely ineffective in patching [and] remediating these remote endpoints due to the pressure they would put on VPN concentrators, bandwidth for deploying patches or sheer amount of time they would put to tweak these solutions," Thakar says, adding: "Now, prioritization based on risk becomes interesting because vulnerabilities critical for these remote endpoints are probably different than those posing risk to traditional server farms."

Automation is another critical tool for better handling the patching of remote workers' systems. To get patching under control, businesses need to have the right tools in place to automate large parts of the patching process, says NinjaRMM's Singh.

"Ultimately, companies need to accept the fact that patch management is a constant chore regardless of remote work or working in an office," he says. "For the foreseeable future, however, it will be more important than ever to make sure end users' machines are tightly secured to avoid any loss or breach of sensitive data."

For vendors, the move to extensive remote working may result in significant business. While 44% of companies had already committed to spending more on IT in 2020, now 39% have further increased their budgets, according to Spiceworks

And remote working is the area most in need of improvement, the survey found. Almost all — 92% — of IT professionals are concerned about the security of company-owned devices used from home and connecting to a home network.

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Veteran technology journalist of more than 20 years. Former research engineer. Written for more than two dozen publications, including CNET News.com, Dark Reading, MIT's Technology Review, Popular Science, and Wired News. Five awards for journalism, including Best Deadline ... View Full Bio

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