Talent [R]evolution

A proactive not reactive data security plan is critical for external apps

The rapid development of technology means data has proliferated exponentially. In tandem, IT systems have become more complex, comprising various hardware and software, and internal and external components. As a result, software designers and security managers are finding it more challenging to identify weaknesses and shore them up, and naturally, lawbreakers are attempting to take advantage. Ideally, security managers should take steps to mitigate these weaknesses before they even appear: after all, data is the contemporary enterprise’s most valuable asset.

However, this task is made more challenging still by the development of extensive computer networks, external apps and cloud systems. When organisations and staff enjoy the benefits of convenient, third-party developed wireless services, they also face threats. Here, we examine the principal causes of vulnerabilities in these components and how a data security expert can work to fortify an organisation’s defences, cultivating a proactive rather than reactive approach to data security. 

The source of web and app vulnerabilities

Design flaws

IT systems are composed of two main components: hardware and software. Despite the long history of both, they remain susceptible to design flaws. Admittedly, hardware is less at risk, as it tends to be less complex and thus easier to test via time-honored methods such as network polling. Equally, hardware comes with a limited number of possible inputs and expected outputs, which makes it easier to test and verify.

Thus, the biggest data security weaknesses often occur as a result of software design flaws. These are caused by a number of factors, including human error. Lapses in concentration and memory can lead to missing or incorrect code, and overconfidence in untested algorithms or sequences can result in security flaws. Other culprits include pressure to take products to market by management or clients, or indeed, mere complacency – even by the most experienced engineers.Moreover, there are millions of software products on the market.

Today, we download and install software products like smartphone apps without even thinking about their provenance. Thus, it’s entirely possible we have downloaded at best a product with vulnerabilities, or at worst, a deliberately malicious piece of code. This issue is compounded by the growing instability of the market; software startups can be flashes in the pan that are nigh-on untraceable once the business closes. Furthermore, the growth of shareware, freeware, and open source programs have opened all-too-easy entry points for Trojan horses.

Poor data security management

Proper information security management is both a technical and administrative task. It involves formulating security policies, implementing tools, and monitoring and evaluating the effectiveness of these strategies. The most effective way to ensure a network is secure is to take a proactive rather than reactive approach: conduct a robust cybersecurity assessment to identify potential weaknesses before they’re breached. In turn, the proposed security plan needs to have integrity, confidentiality, with highly visible and available information about potential threats.
As is clear from this brief synopsis, proper data security management is akin to a military manoeuvre – it requires strategy, clarity, and organisation. As such, poor security management is the result of a lack of control over implementation, administration, and monitoring of security threats.
Poor security management is becoming more of a pervasive issue along with the growth of wireless networks, cloud systems and third party apps and software. Some organisations won’t even have a security plan for these components, leading to disarray.

Incompatible components and incorrect implementation

As the number of third party software, apps, and products proliferates, implementing and interfacing these components becomes more complex. Generally speaking, two modules can only work together if they’re compatible: that is, the module must be additive, so the environment of the interface remains intact. If an incompatible module is introduced, the existing interface can glitch or fail.

In essence, incompatible components result in poor or incomplete implementation, which in turn, leads to a sensitive or weakened security framework. For instance, the addition of an external app, software product, or the removal of an argument can trigger an imbalance in the interface. This change can be as seemingly insignificant as a symbol or condition, but these changes can cause other apps or components to malfunction. 

When this concept is transplanted onto a wider system framework, you’re left with a network of both hardware and software components with different technologies and no standards – which naturally, is easy for hackers to exploit. Of course, the software development has no industry standards by its very nature, so the last thing that organisations want to do is make this existing vulnerability even more pronounced. Thus, companies need to implement methodologies and algorithms to check interface compatibility, transmitting errors from when module to another.

Evolving hacker strategies and tools

Of course, malicious forces are just as capable of taking advantage of technological developments as business. In fact, it sometimes feels like hackers are growing their arsenal faster than cyber security managers are shoring up their defences. Moreover, it used to take a fairly exceptional person with a powerful computer to become a hacker; now, all it takes is a search engine and a bit of perseverance to learn some hacking skills. 

Plus, there are thousands of script technologies available online about how to code and implement a virus or worm. The availability of these tools is supported by the increasing ease with which hackers can hide their identities and locations. Equally, automated attack tools can further distance the attacker from the malicious code. This makes cyber crime increasingly attractive to new generations of hackers, as the practice seems less risky. 

These automated systems have also dramatically reduced turnaround times, which make it extremely challenging for security experts to react – causing viruses and worms to spread faster than ever before. Take some notable global security events like the ILOVEYOU and Blaster worms: the pace of their spread really illustrated why such attacks are referred to as ‘viruses’.
However, the most ubiquitous security threat today is ransomware. Usually distributed via email phishing, this variety of malware takes control of a system and incripts files. The attacker then demands payment from the victim to restore access to the data. This threat is particularly complex as it not only demands a technical solution, it also requires education; phishing scams tend to be successful due to poor judgement, so you need equally robust human and technological defenses.

The characteristics of effective vulnerability search and analysis

Vulnerability search and analysis is a process that assesses a system to identify, monitor and manage – or ideally preempt – flaws in system security. The nature of these tests will depend on the scope of the system; for instance, it could contain desktops, servers, firewalls, routers, websites, and external apps. 
This information will be presented in a final report that will detail data security strategy. This will include recommendations about how to eliminate or mitigate weaknesses, and in turn, prevent them in the future. This is the hallmark of a robust report: a document that details a proactive rather than reactive approach to data security.

The key aspects of proper security management 

Vulnerability search and analysis is a process that assesses a system to identify, monitor and manage – or ideally preempt – flaws in system security. The nature of these tests will depend on the scope of the system; for instance, it could contain desktops, servers, firewalls, routers, websites, and external apps. 

This information will be presented in a final report that will detail data security strategy. This will include recommendations about how to eliminate or mitigate weaknesses, and in turn, prevent them in the future. This is the hallmark of a robust report: a document that details a proactive rather than reactive approach to data security.

The key aspects of proper security management 

However, this process is most valuable as part of a proper security management programme. A good information security audit is composed of several components, including:

  • Risk management 
  • Information security procedures and standards
  • Identity and access management (IAM)
  • Security guidelines
  • Data classification
  • Monitoring
  • Crisis management planning
  • Security education

Each of these points is the cornerstone of a data security plan that deploys controls, people, processes and technology to preempt attacks rather than merely react to them. Primarily, a risk analysis will identify at-risk assets and estimate the impact of a security breach. The results of the analysis will help management draw up a security budget and strategy, and subsequently, implement policies and procedures. 

Standards and guidelines will ensure that compliance is tracked across the organisation. In some instances, it’s possible to implement automated tools to ensure processes are followed. Equally, education is critical: the entire team should participate in training sessions to mitigate the impact of human error. Meanwhile, information classification manages the search, identification, and isolation of vulnerabilities to better protect the system on an ongoing basis.

Naturally, a good security audit will also contain reactive elements. Security monitoring will detect and prevent intruders, manage security events in real time, compile event logs, and analyse the information for trends. This monitoring framework will also play a key role in parameter security, including firewalls and external components. 

Zoom-in on cybersecurity assessment techniques

Vulnerability scanning

Vulnerability scanning provides a full picture of potential system weaknesses, including the perimeter, internal components, and external apps. The aim of the process is to identify these vulnerabilities and gaps in the organisation’s security protocol. The final report will consist of recommendations and strategic advice about how to shore up the organisation’s defences, in order of priority. Once a vulnerability scanning system is installed, this process can be scheduled and run automatically, and finally, stored on a secure server for future review and trend analysis.

Penetration testing

Penetration testing – colloquially referred to as pentesting – is a hands-on approach to vulnerability assessment. This process can test previously identified weaknesses and scan for unknown ones by using hacking techniques and tools to stress test the system. This process recreates real-world security breach scenarios, which often, will reveal novel vulnerabilities. Equally, it gives security experts an insight into the processes and procedures of an attack, which will help them react rapidly should one occur. 

The final pentesting report should provide explanations of where the vulnerabilities lie, which assets are affected, how they were discovered and what an attacker could do if the vulnerabilities are left unaddressed. From here, the network will be mapped and all known vulnerabilities marked and ranked based on the likelihood and potential impact of their exploitation. The assessor will then arrange each misconfiguration in order of priority.

App and cloud system assessment 

In the context of the proliferation of external components, organisations should consider targeted vulnerability scanning and pentesting for apps and cloud services. This is especially the case as these tools become more common across every aspect of business, from e-commerce to internal emails and instant messaging. 

Increasingly, these third-party components are the main interface between users and the network. As the prevalence – and indeed the reliance – on these tools grows, so does their complexity and dynamism. Thus, the security management associated with these components becomes more complex. Many organisations recognise this issue and have drafted in external expertise to devise bespoke security solutions for web apps and the cloud.

Full security support at every stage [robust data security plan]

As concluded in the final section, the ubiquity of third party components in organisations’ IT infrastructure means that information security is becoming an increasingly complex task. As such, robust vulnerability assessments are critical; these reports not only detail weaknesses, but also outline strategies to preempt and manage attacks. This information provides a wealth of additional security intelligence, facilitating a proactive approach to data security. 

Therefore, a devising complete data security strategy is a multi-faceted, ongoing task – especially as organisations’ systems become more multifaceted themselves. Overworked and under-resourced system administrators can feel overwhelmed by the task, and often, are in desperate need of support. This is where third-party security experts can be absolutely invaluable.

These professionals bring not only a wealth of knowledge, but also a fresh set of eyes to evaluate and mitigate vulnerabilities. Today, online digital talent platforms help companies access the trusted support they need, via a curated pool of verified experts. Such experts are useful for general IT security and specific product launches, where they can monitor vulnerabilities throughout development. This keeps projects secure, on time, and fully compliant.

“One of our clients operating in multiple jurisdictions, did a major change on the product and upon performing VAPT we found several critical vulnerabilities on the product, which could leak PII of the customers.
The launch was delayed by a few days to remediate the vulnerabilities, but there was no major loss. It is better to involve a security expert in all phases of product design & delivery.”

– Cyber security expert, Jayesh Daga

Get the right expertise

Cloud networks and external components have substantially increased the number of entry points for attackers, making a data security audit an even more complex endeavor. However, this isn’t to imply it’s an impossible task: along with the proliferation of attackers and viruses, has come the growth of data security expertise.

With the right partner, full cybersecurity assessment and detailed preemptive action plan, organisations can protect the delicate information stored in the cloud and handled via external apps. 

Now, there is an army of information security and crisis management experts in the freelance market. These professionals can advise organisations on how to meet the evolving data security challenges brought with the increased use of external web apps and the cloud.

With services including scanning, pentesting, and bespoke application assessment, organisations can address existing and evolving data security threats with the right expertise.

Head of Product & CTO, partner at Outvise. Industrial Engineer by ENSAM. Has led the creation of various digital platforms from scratch, as consultant or partner, in Startups and Corporates. Combining strong tech, marketing and strategy skills, Fred is an enthusiast of UI/UX and automation, to build usable, friendly and scalable digital products.

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