Work has changed dramatically thanks to the global COVID pandemic. Workers across every market sector in Australia are now spending their workdays alternating between offices and other locations such as their homes. It’s a hybrid work model that is certainly here to stay.
But moving workers outside the network perimeter presents cyber security challenges for every organisation. It provides an expanded attack surface as enterprises ramp up their use of cloud services and enable staff to access key systems and applications from just about anywhere.
Senior technology leaders gathered in Melbourne recently to discuss the cyber security implications of a more permanently distributed workforce as their organisations move more services to the cloud. The conversation was sponsored by Palo Alto Networks.
Sean Duca, vice-president, regional chief security officer, Asia-Pacific & Japan at Palo Alto Networks, says with the primary focus now on safety and securely delivering work to staff, irrespective of where they are, organisations need to think about where data resides, how it is protected, who has access to it and how it is accessed.
“With many applications consumed ‘as a service’ or running outside the traditional network perimeter, the need to do access, authorisation and inspection is paramount,” Duca says.
“Attackers target the employee’s laptops and applications they use, which means we need to inspect the traffic for each application. The attack surface will continue to grow and also be a target for cybercriminals. This means that we must stay vigilant and have the ability to continuously identify when changes to our workforce happen, while watching our cloud estates at all times,” he says.
Brenden Smyth from Palo Alto Networks adds the main impact of this more flexible workforce on organisations is that they no longer have one or two points of entry that are well controlled and managed.
“Since 2020, organisations have created many hundreds if not tens of thousands of points of entry with the forced introduction of remote working,” he says.
“On top of that, company boards need to consider the personal and financial impacts [of a breach] that they are responsible for in the business they run. They need to make sure users are protected within the office, as well as those users connecting from any location,” he says.
Gus D’Onofrio, chief information technology officer at the United Workers Union, believes that there will come a time when physical devices will be distributed among the workforce to ensure their secure connectivity.
“This will be the new standard,” he says.
Iain Lyon, executive director, information technology at IFM Investors, says the key to securing distributed workforces is to ensure the home environment is suitably secure so the employee can do the work they need to do.
“It may be that for certain classifications of data or user activity, we will need to set up additional technology in the home to ensure compliance with security policy. That challenge is both technical and requires careful human resource thought,” he says.
Meeting the demands of remote workers
During the discussion, attendees were asked if security capabilities are adequate to meet the new demands of connecting remote workers to onsite premises, infrastructure-as-a-service and software-as-a-service applications.
Palo Alto Networks’ Duca says existing cyber capabilities are only adequate if they do more than connectivity (access and authorisation).
“It’s analogous to an airport; we check where passengers go based on their ID and boarding pass and inspect their person and belongings. If the crown jewel in an airport is the planes, we do everything to protect what and who gets on.
“Why should organisations do anything less?” he asks. “If you can’t do continuous validation and enforcement, what is the security efficacy of the security capability?”
Meanwhile, Suhel Khan, data practice manager at superannuation organisation, Cbus, adds that distributed workforces need stronger perimeter security and edge security systems, fine-grained ‘joiner-mover-leaver’ access control and entitlements, as well as geography-sensitive content management and distribution paradigms.
“We have reached a certain baseline in regard to the cyber security capabilities that are available in the market. The bigger challenge is procuring and integrating the right suite of applications that work across respective ecosystems,” he says.
Held back by legacy systems
Many enterprises are still running legacy systems and applications that can’t meet the demands of a borderless workforce.
Palo Alto Networks’ Smyth says cyber impacts of sticking with older systems and applications are endless.
“Directly connected to SaaS and IaaS apps without security, patch management, vendor support – the list goes on – means organisations will not have full control of their environment,” he says.
Duca adds that organisations running legacy platforms could see an impact on productivity from their employees, and the solution may not be able to deal with modern-day threats.
“Every organisation should use this as a point in time to reassess and rearchitect what the world looks like today and what it may look like tomorrow. In a dynamic and ever-changing world, businesses should look to a software-driven model as it will allow them to pivot and change according to their needs,” he says.
Cbus has challenges around optimally integrating software suites for end-to-end seamless process flow, like most enterprises that have built technical systems for core business functions over the past 10 years, says Cbus’ Khan.
“There are several app modernisation transformation programs to help us move forward. I believe that there will always be ‘heritage systems’ to take care of and transition away from.
“The only difference is that in the near future, these older systems will be built on the cloud rather than [run] on-premise and we would be replacing such cloud-native legacy applications with autonomous intelligent apps,” Khan says.
Meanwhile, IFM Investor’s Lyon says that like very firm, IFM has several key applications that are mature and do an excellent job.
“We are not being held back. Our use of the Citrix platform to encapsulate the stable and resilient core applications has allowed us to be agnostic to the borderless nature of work,” he says.
Centralising security in the cloud
The advent of secure access service edge (SASE) and SD-WAN technologies has seen many organisations centralise security services in the cloud rather than keep them at remote sites.
Palo Alto Networks’ Duca says that for many years, gaps will continue to appear from inconsistent policies and enforcement. With the majority of apps and data that sit in the cloud, centralising cyber services allows for consistent security close to the crown jewels.
“There’s no point sending the traffic back to the corporate HQ to send it back out again,” he says.
The decision about whether or not to centralise security services in the cloud or keep them at remote sites is based on the risk appetite of the organisation.
“In superannuation, a good proportion of cyber security programs are geared towards being compliant and dealing with threats due to an uncertain global political outlook. Organisations that can afford to run their own backup/failsafe system on premise should consider [moving this function] to the cloud. Cloud-first is the dominant approach in a very dynamic market,” he says.
United Workers Union’s D’Onofrio, adds that the pros of centralising security services at remote sites are faster access and response times, which is ideal for geographically distributed workforces and customer bases. A con, he says, is that a distributed footprint implies stretched security domains.
On the flipside, security domains are easier to manage if they are centralised in the cloud but will deliver slower response times for customers and staff who are based geographically afar, he says.