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The mass movement to remote work has forced organizations to rethink their long-term plans for endpoint security. How will things look different next year?

This year has put IT and security teams to the test as organizations quickly transitioned to a fully remote workforce to stop the spread of COVID-19. What started as a hasty response to a global emergency has evolved into reassessing endpoint security strategies as businesses plan for 2021.

Remote work became a necessity in 2020, forcing employees out of conventional workplaces and into home offices. Connectivity was the priority, and people logged on from personal laptops, phones, and home networks – whatever was necessary to keep operations running. 

“The immediate response was, whatever worked,” says Wendy Nather, head advisory CISO for Cisco’s Duo Security. “The emphasis was on availability over just about everything else; on the continuity of business operations.”

Such was the case at Siemens USA, which has an ecosystem of some 400,000 employees across energy, healthcare, and other critical sectors. Because its workforce was already distributed, the company had measures in place to enable remote work without any major changes to security or infrastructure. Even so, its IT team had to scale quickly to accommodate this broad shift, and its cybersecurity team had to “zero in on its top priorities,” says CISO Kurt John.

First and foremost was balancing business continuity with security, he continues. This was key in a business such as Siemens, where so many employees are essential for keeping the lights on in hospitals, power stations, water treatment plants, and other critical infrastructure. Its security team had to decide which factors were non-negotiable, and where it could be flexible. 

Security updates were a non-negotiable, says John. One of the steps Siemens USA took was eliminating the need for employees to be on a VPN in order to receive software updates. Endpoint detection and response (EDR) solutions were another non-negotiable, he continues. 

“It’s already painful working from home, but you definitely don’t want to make it much more painful, not just for that person but for everyone else – IT, the business, cybersecurity – by having malware that could potentially spread throughout the organization,” John explains.

Like John, security leaders around the world faced unprecedented challenges as employees swapped their offices and desktop machines for personal devices and home networks, driving an increase in security risk and prompting infosec teams to rethink their long-term strategies. 

Newly Remote Workforce Creates Endpoint Threats

The overnight shift to remote work introduced a wave of new enterprise security threats.

One of the biggest issues detected when the shift began was the breakdown of third-party supply chains, says Nather. Most businesses were used to supporting at least some remote employees; in these few cases, they would order the equipment needed and send it home.

“But this was a wave of everybody needing the same equipment, and the same access, at one time,” she continues. “Because of supply chain problems … a lot of them had to say, ‘just use whatever you have at home,’ and that was a sudden, sharp shock of BYOD.”

Once businesses figured out access, they had to turn their focus to endpoint security problems. Security teams could no longer rely on vulnerability scanners typically used in office networks, as this traffic looks like an attack to a residential Internet service provider (ISP). This makes it more difficult to detect security threats that could put sensitive corporate information at risk.

“That’s another example of centralized security models that are falling apart,” she says. “We have to come up with a better way of monitoring and enforcing endpoint security, especially if the employee says, ‘This is my personal laptop and I don’t want to put an agent on it.'”

The use of technologies blurred as people worked from home. Employees were using company-owned laptops on home wifi networks; their personal smartphones to access business data. All the while, cybercriminals launched waves of relentless attacks against remote workers.

John calls it a “perfect storm of spamming.” Siemens’ cyber defense center processes about two billion events per day globally; its team has seen an uptick in social engineering and spam in the pandemic. Combined with events such as the 2020 election and new criminal tactics such as vishing and deepfakes, “it really makes for a tricky environment for CISOs to navigate,” he adds.

“As we’ve watched what’s happened with attacks over the years, there’s not a lot of difference in the attacks themselves, and the doors through which bad guys go to get into systems,” says Jeff Wilbur, senior director of online trust at the Internet Society. Many of the attacks he has seen in the pandemic, such as phishing campaigns, are after typical goals like credential theft.

Businesses are worried about their lack of visibility into the devices employees are working on. “There’s also this potential risk that gets introduced because of lack of control,” Wilbur adds. A large percentage of home devices are used by multiple family members, increasing the chance that someone could download malware onto a machine used to handle enterprise information.

Remote Work Is Here to Stay: The Challenges

The initial shift to remote work may have seemed temporary, but companies are now realizing they’ll have to factor the change into their long-term plans.

Siemens USA employees will be remote based on locality and the corresponding regulations for towns and states, says John. This aside, employees who can work from home will have the option to do so for 2-3 days per week. Cisco, which is also already remote friendly, is planning for all US employees to remain remote through the end of the year.

Many CISOs are planning to support a “hybrid model” in which people can choose whether they work at home or at the office, says Nather. It’s expected many employees will want to continue working remotely; there will be others who want to switch between the office and home. An IBM survey of 25,000 people found 54% would like remote work to be their primary way of working; 75% would like to continue working remotely “at least occasionally.”

“Enterprises should plan to support mostly remote workforces into 2021,” says Eric Parizo, senior analyst with Omdia, who notes it’s unclear in many places when the spread of COVID-19 will allow for a safe return to offices.

However, remote work requires different security controls. “Traditional network security infrastructures, which often include firewalls, intrusion prevention, network traffic analysis, Web filtering, and others, often cannot easily be extended to remote workforces,” he continues. An organization can use VPN access to use those controls to safeguard remote workers, but this requires traffic backhauling, which is pricey, inefficient, and often causes latency, Parizo adds.

Continued on pg. 2: Where CISOs Are Investing in Security

Kelly Sheridan is the Staff Editor at Dark Reading, where she focuses on cybersecurity news and analysis. She is a business technology journalist who previously reported for InformationWeek, where she covered Microsoft, and Insurance & Technology, where she covered financial … View Full Bio


, Businesses Rethink Endpoint Security for 2021

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, Businesses Rethink Endpoint Security for 2021