Risk should be the focus of IT and Network Engineers in 2017. It sounds boring or maybe like it’s "not my problem” but many of the threats facing organisations today could be mitigated by careful analysis and risk mitigation strategies. I often use Stuxnet as an example in what is ultimately a flawed analogy when talking to clients about risk. Stuxnet most probably did not reach it’s target via a network but it is the most memorable internally resident threat that I can think of. It’s threats of this type which are currently the most overwhelming risk to organisations' data and productivity. The threat acts from within the system and sometimes it’s successfully authenticated to the network. We need to think about networks and interconnectivity differently.
The benefits of successful risk mitigation is the reduction in downtime for users or maybe t’s zero financial loss to an organisation. Pretty compelling, right?
The problem we face with computers, as we have learned over time, is that we cannot make risk equal to zero. We fight the battle with one threat and a new one appears. Software and hardware inherently holds a flaw somewhere along the way that can be compromised and there is a growing bucket of humans who are incentivised to find and take advantage of such flaws. Though we can’t win every battle it should be our duty to reduce the impact of the battles we happen to lose.
Through frequent analysis of risk we can strive to better prioritise our tactics and tools for risk mitigation.
Before WPA2 was available I worked my way through a Microsoft document to implement 802.1X for my wireless network. I walked through what felt like hours of steps to deploy a root CA certificate to clients, sign a certificate for a Windows IAS RADIUS and create a few rules that allowed devices to authenticate to the network. At the time it was a huge feat and a largely un-acknowledged win for security in my organisation. It was probably the best network access control of the time short of some attributes to define appropriate VLANs. When WPA2 emerged I was amazed at how simple I could convert my previous configuration to support the new standard. Back then it was all new and mostly magical, to me.
Today I consult for organisations who need to enhance their network access as a basic step in risk mitigation. We make the authentication process more resilient by intelligently profiling devices as they connect to the Wi-Fi and flagging or denying devices that don’t match that profile. We enhance the authentication process so that not only does the server authenticate the client but the client mutually authenticates the server to be sure it is good. I particularly love drawing huge whiteboard diagrams of Wi-Fi based client devices and user types so we can profile who and what connects and best determine the appropriate level of access granted. For most these alone are large leaps forwards, ACLs and traffic controls are a thought for the future.
In my opinion layer 2-4 traffic rules should be applied as a baseline to enhance the efficiency of Wi-Fi networks as well as reduce impact of network traversing threats. With experience and confidence in building networks with these types of controls Network Engineers will be empowered to take advantage of the next wave of risk mitigation. We are finally at the cusp of networks having a level of self awareness where real-time analysis can determine the flows of application traffic and actions can be taken to enhance or destroy the transport of the applications data.
Large analyst firms are helping vendors sell new and exciting technology by building infographics showing statistics of how threats are internally born vs the “legacy” external, in-bound attacks. It’s true that we pretty much have the perimeter, Internet facing border, of our networks locked down with firewalls. It’s been that way for years. But some of that same technology that empowers our "Next Generation Firewalls” can be employed within the network because of the enhanced processing capability available today. We are seeing emerging tools which allow live analysis and risk profiling of devices and users which highlight potential internal threats as they emerge and enable action or further investigation. It’s these types of tools that will take us beyond simple authentication at the point of connection and static traffic rule-sets, to dynamic authorisation and access control.
Wi-Fi networks have had deep packet inspection capability now for a few years and have allowed Network Engineers to prioritise or block network applications. This type of capability is becoming more widely available, even across the entire campus network. We will see big data collection and increasingly smart machine-learning capabilities in this space. This will allow us to make better networks that are more finely tuned to the needs of our users and critically important, will help us to reduce risk.
Written by Matt Sutherland
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