February 25, 2021

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Cure worse than disease? Patching riskier under COVID-19 work-from-home policies

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Original Post from SC Magazine
Author: Teri Robinson

Patch management was challenging enough before the world was upended by a rapidly spreading pandemic. But with security teams working remotely, and employee-operated devices dispersed across large distances, quickly prioritizing and fixing critical vulnerabilities has become both more difficult and more important.

As the 2017 Equifax breach showed, delays in patching can result in a devastating data breach or malware infection. Then again, if security teams act too hastily and without a plan, they can potentially open up their corporate systems or employee devices to additional exploits due to incomplete patching or careless use of remote administration tools.

“In the immediate future, patch management concerns will
extend far beyond the established, known, managed and curated networks into a
potentially chaotic mix of uncontrolled system versions and devices of
thousands of employees,” says Eric Welling, North American lead for the Accenture Security, Cyber Investigation and
Forensics Response (CIFR) group. “The balance between functionality and
security is a longstanding consideration, but the extra pressure from COVID-19
will require both agile implementation and a methodical approach to ensuring
continuity while remaining secure.”

The new IT landscape that COVID-19 is quickly shaping
presents numerous obstacles for patching. Among them:

IT resources are strained, resulting in less time to
“With the increase in the number of employees working from home due
to the recent coronavirus pandemic, there has been a huge strain on corporate
VPN networks and the internal bandwidth required to handle the external
traffic,” says a CISO for a Fortune 500 company in the electronics industry,
who requested anonymity. “Many network changes, updates and patches are being
temporarily put on hold until additional network circuits have been installed
to help provide some stability to the increase of external traffic supporting
the remote workforce. This temporary interruption of patches will cause
additional risk to enterprise endpoints.”

But it’s not just network infrastructure that’s being pushed to the limit. With too much to do, security teams are also running short on manpower and time.

Vesh Bhatt, CTO of Attila Security.

“Lack of time leads to skipping critical steps in the process or best practices,” says Vesh Bhatt, co-founder and CTO of Attila Security. “At a time when IT teams can be overloaded with trying to help with the influx of new remote workers, creating new policies, upgrading existing infrastructure to handle the new load, monitoring the uptick in cyber-attacks, etc., it can become easy for them to turn a blind eye to patch management best practices or policy. Sometimes patch management can be put off completely because ‘everything works just fine,’ ‘the patches don’t offer anything new,’ or ‘we can’t afford any down time.’

Visibility and access into certain systems are
This is especially true for devices operating out of employees’ homes.

“…[I]t becomes incredibly hard to have any visibility or
direct access into employees’ home networks due to the routers and firewalls in
place that an organization does not control,” says Nathan Wenzler, chief
security strategist at Tenable. “This means it can be impossible for
traditional patch management tools, which typically have administrative access
to target systems and unrestricted access to the network segments corporate
systems live on, to deploy patches to these remote systems. Even with VPNs in place,
if employees are using personally owned systems to access corporate networks,
the patch management tools may not have sufficient permissions to successfully
deploy and install required fixes.”

Even on-premises servers and systems can present this same
problem if, for a strategic reason, they’re not remotely accessible. For
instance, “local admins and support personnel are being restricted from working
on-prem at manufacturing plants floors,” says the anonymous electronics
CISO. “Typically, these systems are segmented from the corporate network
and rely on manual patching. These plant floor devices will remain at risk
until government shutdown restrictions are removed.”

Software incompatibility issues can also result in a lack
of accessibility and insufficient patching. “Incompatible software versions,
especially between the OS, VPN, remote monitoring and management tool, patch
software, etc., can lead to the loss of remote access to corporate devices,”
says Bhatt. “This means you can no longer monitor, manage or support the device
without the user having to ship or bring the device back.”

It’s a BYOD party, and the CISO isn’t always invited. Typically, corporate-issued devices run on the same operating system and share configuration settings and universal toolsets for pushing across security updates. But the same can’t be said for employee-owned devices that, under ordinary circumstances, certain companies would not even permit for business use.

Nathan Wenzler,
chief security strategist, Tenable.

“Security teams may now have to accommodate operating systems they’ve never had to manage before and deploy far more and far older patches than they may be prepared to deal with,” says Wenzler. “Even if they are able to reach these systems and have the credentials to manage them within their existing corporate patch management tools, there’ll be a need to add more patches to the system for deployment, test them if possible, and change the configuration of the central tool to accommodate these new patches, resulting in more work for both the security and operations teams supporting the patch management program.”

Employees using their own unpatched devices to access
corporate devices is an especially troubling practice, according to Leigh
Metcalf, Ph.D., senior vulnerability research analyst with the CERT Division of
the Software Engineering Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. “This can yield an ecosystem of
unpatched devices that can spread malware, similar to [how] a lack of personal
hygiene can spread COVID-19. Corporations must require automatic patching
before allowing these machines to access their infrastructure; otherwise they
are endangering their own assets.”

Overuse of remote access tools and protocols poses its
own danger.
At the 2020 RSA conference, FBI Special Agent Joel
DeCapua reportedly
revealed that Remote Desktop Protocol – used by network administrations for
remote management purposes – constitutes 70 to 80 percent of the initial
foothold that ransomware actors use when infecting a company.

Meanwhile, remote administration tools used by IT
staffers to troubleshoot individual devices can similarly offer an open door
for attackers if they, for example gain hold of an admin’s credentials. Bhatt
says that hackers can leverage these tools to “steal your data, install
ransomware, or really whatever else they want.”

Ideally, companies should place their RDP servers and remote
admin tools behind a VPN, and use host-based security measures and multifactor authentication as additional
layers of protection. But the makeshift WFH environment created by the COVID-19
pandemic invites the opportunity for sloppiness.

“In trying to gain access and control over remote-based
systems, administrators can introduce a large amount of risk to home networks
if they require the existing security controls in place to be relaxed in order
to accommodate remote admin tools and services,” says Wenzler. “Not only does
this potentially expose employee systems to attackers, but this can create
additional liability for the organization should these systems become
compromised, as these networks and systems are not owned by the company and may
not be directly covered by existing policies. While security teams may be
solving the more obvious patching problem, the introduction of new risks may
outweigh the benefits of trying to protect the remote workforce via patches

James Globe, VP of operations with the Center for Internet Security’s Multi-State Information Sharing and Analysis Center (MS-ISAC), agrees, noting that “Without proper security measures, such as the principles of least privileges and proper MAC or IP filtering, the use of remote access tools can be… like leaving your house door closed, but unlocked.”

Even before the novel coronavirus upended businesses
around the world, unprotected remote connections have represented a major
trouble spot. But COVID-19 further “increases [and] shifts the threat landscape, since the number of employees using remote capabilities
has increased tremendously,” Globe adds.

As security teams strive to adjust to a new normal for an
indefinite period, it is comforting to know that there are ways to lower the
risk associated with WFH environments.

“The real key for any organization is to make sure they
have a good process in place and that there’s proper testing being done prior
to pushing out patches” to ensure that systems will still work
after the change is made, says Globe.

James Globe, VP of operations, MS-ISAC.

It’s not a one-size-fits-all scenario – and what that
exact process is will depend on a particular company’s set-up, Globe continues.
Nevertheless, some strategies are universal, like communication. To that
end, Globe suggests “sending out notifications to users across multiple
internal channels (e.g. e-mail, calendar invite, internal message board),
letting them know patches are coming…”

Other steps companies can take, according to Globe, are instituting
best practices for remote access, including MFA, account lockout, role-based
access control, least privilege, password complexity, auditing, logging and

Companies may also want to invest in cloud-based,
automated remote patch management solutions or mobile device management
solutions as a means to securely push fixes from a central server across a
complex, scattered network of heterogenous devices. Remote monitoring and
management tools and secure configuration management tools are other viable
options. Bhatt says such tools “help the IT staff see which versions of
software are running on their devices and help keep the same software baseline
across the devices.”

Moreover, automated remote patching solutions allow
security teams to “perform rolling updates where a small percentage of devices
are updated first and the others follow after a certain time interval,” Bhatt
continues. That way, “issues can be identified and fixed before the entire
fleet of devices is updated.”

Bhatt recommends starting the process by applying the
updates and patches “in a test environment that closely mirrors the actual
production environment. Afterwards, you can apply the updates and patches to a
small test bed of users in the production environment and ensure everything
works properly for a certain period of time. Finally, you can take a staged
approach where you start updating a small percentage and keep expanding until
you’ve updated the entire production environment.”

But while some say “push,” others prefer a “pull”
methodology, whereby clients initiate access  to receive their updates.

“Agent-based solutions help with this, as the agent
software resides locally and does not require opening inbound connections
through firewalls and other controls, and can instigate requests to assess the
vulnerability posture of the system or pull down fixes from a designated safe
repository,” says Wenzler. “While it requires a bit more involvement to set up
and get employees to install on their remote systems, a pulling strategy is a
significantly safer and more reliable tactic for achieving visibility and
delivering patches.”

For those concerned about the risk posed by employee
devices connecting to corporate systems, Wenzler suggests Network Access
Control (NAC) services, which he says can “serve as a gatekeeper for corporate
networks when implemented at external connection points such as VPNs.”

“NAC can validate that a system attempting to connect to
the corporate network meets basic security requirements in terms of patch
levels, endpoint security controls and other factors deemed necessary by the
internal security team. If a system does not meet the requirements, the user
can be forwarded off to instructions on what they need to do in order to get
their system healthy and secure enough to connect,” Wenzler continues.

Wenzler also advises that employee device connections can
be better managed with more clearly communicated, stronger BYOD policies. “Ideally,
these policies should require that any systems connecting to the corporate
network or utilizing company resources of any type be patched, have endpoint
security software installed and active, and are regularly kept up to date.
While this may not eliminate the possibility of compromise, it will help to
address the liability issues around trying to deliver patches to employee-owned
devices from the corporate patch management tools,” he explains.

A more extreme measure, if enforceable (and therein lies
the rub), is to banish BYOD devices altogether. “All work from home personnel
should be using devices provided for them and managed by the company,” says Metcalf.
“This puts the onus of the patching problem on the organization and not the
person working from home. This is to not only protect the corporation, but
to protect the network outside the corporation from attacks engendered by not
applying patches.”

“Personal computers add additional risk to corporate
networks and data, even when using VPNs, as many of these devices do not have
endpoint security software installed or configured correctly,” says the
electronics industry CISO. “If at all possible, supply remote workers with
corporately configured and secured devices. Additional priority/attention
should be given to the remote workers using VPN. Your VPN should be
configured to allow only corporate devices with properly configured and updated
security controls in place.”

But even if your remote connections are secure, a key
question remains: What to patch first, especially with so many fires to put

Wenzler has a game plan in mind: “Right now, attackers
will likely take advantage of the current chaos and will be looking for quick
wins. This means leveraging known vulnerabilities that already have viable
exploits readily available and going after as many exposed systems as possible
that may not have been kept up to date as well as a typical corporate system
would be.”

“In light of that, if security teams are looking to prioritize
their remediation efforts, patching these known, exploitable vulnerabilities
would be the single most important group to focus on first,” Wenzler continues.
“That said, if you’ve set up your tools in such a way that you’re able to
easily deliver patches to remote systems, it’s a good idea to err on the side
of caution and patch as much as you can in order to close as many potential
attack vectors as possible.”

The post Cure worse than disease? Patching riskier under COVID-19 work-from-home policies appeared first on SC Media.

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Author: Teri Robinson

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