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Security: Article

Protecting the Network with Proactive Encryption Monitoring

Encryption technology is everywhere: in applications, data centers and other foundation infrastructure

Encryption is a key element of a complete security strategy. The 2013 Global Encryption Trends Study shows a steady increase in the use of encryption solutions over the past nine years. Thirty-five percent of organizations now have an encryption strategy applied consistently across the entire enterprise, up from 29 percent in 2012. The study showed that, for the first time, the main goal for most organizations in deploying encryption is mitigating the effects of data breaches. There is good reason for this shift: the latest Ponemon Institute research reveals that the cost of a data breach is $3.5 million, up 15 percent from last year.

On the surface, the 35 percent figure seems like good news, until one realizes that 65 percent of organizations do not have an enterprise-wide encryption strategy. In addition, even a consistently applied strategy can lack visibility, management controls or remediation processes. This gives hackers the green light to attack as soon as they spot a vulnerability.

While organizations are moving in the right direction when it comes to encryption, much more needs to be done - and quickly. Encryption has come to be viewed as a commodity: organizations deploy it and assume they've taken the steps they need to maintain security. If breaches occur, it's rarely the fault of the software or the encryption protocol. The fault lies rather in the fact that encryption management is left in the domain of IT system administrators and has never been properly managed with access controls, monitoring or proactive data loss prevention.

Too Many Keys Spoil the Security
While recent high-profile vulnerabilities have exposed the need to manage encrypted networks better, it's important to understand that administrators can cause vulnerabilities as well. In the Secure Shell (SSH) data-in-transit protocol, key-based authentication is one of the more common methods used to gain access to critical information. Keys are easy to create, and, at the most basic level, are simple text files that can be easily uploaded to the appropriate system. Associated with each key is an identity: either a person or machine that grants access to information assets and performs specific tasks, such as transferring a file or dropping a database, depending on the assigned authorizations. In the case of Secure Shell keys, those basic text files provide access to some of the most critical information within an organization.

A quick calculation will reveal that the number of keys assigned over the past decade to employees, contractors and applications can run up to a million or more for a single enterprise. In one example, a major bank with around 15,000 hosts had over 1.5 million keys circulating within its network environment. Around 10 percent of those keys - or 150,000 - provided high-level administrator access. This represents an astonishing number of open doors that no one was monitoring.

It may seem impossible that such a security lapse could happen, but consider that encryption is often perceived merely as a tool. Because nothing appeared on the surface to be out of place, no processes were shut down and the problem was undetected.

Safety Hazards
Forgetting to keep track of keys is one problem; failing to remove them is another. System administrators and application developers will often deploy keys in order to readily gain access to systems they are working on. These keys grant a fairly high level of privilege and are often used across multiple systems, creating a one-to-many relationship. In many cases, employees or contractors who are terminated - or even simply reassigned to other tasks that no longer require the same access - continue to carry access via Secure Shell keys; the assumption is that terminating the account is enough. Unfortunately, this is not the case when Secure Shell keys are involved; the keys must also be removed or the access remains in place.

SSH keys pose another threat as well: subverting privileged access management systems (PAMs). Many PAMs use a gateway or jump host that administrators log into to gain access to network assets. PAM solutions connect with user directories to assign privileges, monitor user actions and record which actions have taken place. While this appears like an airtight way to monitor administrators, it is incredibly easy for an administrator to log into the gateway, deploy a key and then log in using key authentication, thereby circumventing any PAM safeguards in place.

Too Clever for Their Own Good
Poorly monitored access is just one security hazard in encrypted environments. Conventional PAM solutions, which use gateways and focus on interactive users only, are designed to monitor administrator activities. Unfortunately, as mentioned earlier, they end up being fairly easy to work around. Additionally, encryption blinds attackers the same way it blinds security operations and forensics teams. For this reason, encrypted traffic is rarely monitored and is allowed to flow freely in and out of the network environment. This creates obvious risks and negates security intelligence capabilities to a large degree.

The Internet offers many articles on how to use Secure Shell to bypass corporate firewalls. This is actually a fairly common and clever workaround policy that unfortunately creates a huge security risk. In order to eliminate this risk, the organization must decrypt and inspect the traffic.

Traffic Safety
Decrypting Secure Shell traffic would require an organization to use an inline proxy with access to the private keys - essentially a friendly man-in-the-middle - to decrypt the traffic without interfering with the network. When successfully deployed, 100 percent of encrypted traffic for both interactive users and M2M identities can be monitored. Also, because this is done at the network level, it's not possible for malicious parties to execute a workaround. With this method, enterprises can proactively detect suspicious or out-of-policy traffic. This is called encrypted channel monitoring and represents the next generation in the evolution of PAM.

This kind of monitoring solves the issue of decrypting traffic at the perimeter and helps organizations move away from a gateway approach to PAM. At the same time, it prevents attackers from using the organization's own encryption technology against itself. In addition, an organization can use inline access controls and user profiling to control what activities a user can undertake. For example, policy controls can be enforced to forbid file transfers from certain critical systems. With the more advanced solutions, an organization can even block subchannels from running inside the encrypted tunnel, the preferred method of quickly exfiltrating data.

Encryption technologies are often set up without effective monitoring or proper access controls, which also blinds layered defenses. A major vulnerability could potentially compromise the entire server, which could in turn expose other areas of the network to subsequent attacks.

A Healthy Respect for Encryption
Encryption technology is everywhere: in applications, data centers and other foundation infrastructure. While it has been widely embraced, it has also often been abused, misused or neglected. Most organizations have not instituted centralized provisioning, encrypted channel monitoring and other best practices, even though the consequence of inadequate security can be severe. IT security staff may think conventional PAM is keeping their organizations safe, when commonly-known workarounds are instead putting their data in jeopardy.

No one understands better than IT administrators how critical network security is. This understanding should spur security professionals to do all in their power to make their organizations' data as safe as possible. Given all that can go awry, it's important to examine encrypted networks, enabling layered defenses and putting proactive monitoring in place if they have not yet done so. An all-inclusive encrypted channel monitoring strategy will go a long way toward securing the network.

More Stories By Jason Thompson

Jason Thompson is director of global marketing for SSH Communications Security. He brings more than 12 years of experience launching new, innovative solutions across a number of industry verticals. Prior to joining SSH, he worked at Q1 Labs where he helped build awareness around security intelligence and holistic approaches dealing with advanced threat vectors. Mr. Thompson holds a BA from Colorado State University and an MA for the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

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