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INDUSTRY INSIGHT

5 recommendations for defending your digital core

A government agency’s digital core operates much like a human brain. Different areas are responsible for various functions, and all are critical to sustain the life of the network. Critical processes, transactions and data flow along pathways similar to a neural network. These core functions must work together to keep the agency in motion.  

When something goes wrong in a human brain, impairment to one or many areas of the body may result. Similarly, if an agency's digital core is compromised, then the ability to operate as mandated will be jeopardized.

Several tiers of various production systems make up the digital core, including network devices, data storage, load balancers, gateways and servers. Because the functions of these tiers are interrelated, disruption or outright failure at any one tier would threaten to paralyze the entire digital core. For example, if a gateway or application programming interface server were to be compromised or shut down unexpectedly or if a third party-data suppliers’ system were to stop functioning, then the applications dependent upon those systems would also fail. Therefore, these third-party systems should be considered part of the digital core.

This reality played out several years ago with a credit card company that offered an innovative promotion designed to extend the brand to important new demographics. The program was a raving success – that is, until the CEO started receiving angry letters and emails from users who had been prevented from taking advantage of the promotion without any explanation.

This was news to the company. After a week analyzing what happened, the root cause of the failure turned out to be an API call to a tax table supplied by a third party. Needless to say, the negative experience combined with the bad press about the failure greatly undermined the intent of the promotion. The moral of the story: The digital core extends beyond the physical data center.

For agencies to function smoothly, they must build in redundancies and protect the digital core on all tiers. Because there is no silver bullet for cybersecurity defense, agencies must pursue a comprehensive defense-in-depth strategy. Although most organizations do a decent job of defending applications using defense-in- depth principles, they often fall woefully short in applying those same principles across the full extent of their digital core.

Agencies rarely have knowledge, for instance, of all the root/control access credentials residing within their digital core when they are working with Secure Socket Shell and Remote Desktop Protocol. That’s like locking the front door but leaving the back door open. In this day and age, it’s only prudent to assume that bad actors are checking all doors to gain access. In fact, evidence suggests that these unmanaged and unmonitored back doors are the principal targets of bad actors, both internal and external. Therefore, IT security professionals must take care to apply defense-in-depth principles across all tiers of the digital core, both on premises and in the cloud.

These five steps will help agencies defend their digital core::

  1. Get a clear understanding of all of the components of the digital core, including API and cloud dependencies. Start with the network and map it all back to the databases.

  2. Take stock of all the ways the digital core can be accessed. But don’t stop there; understand the process of granting new access. How is that process controlled? How can these processes be bypassed? If they are bypassed, how would the IT team know?

  3. Decrypt traffic and feed this into other security tools, including – data loss prevention solutions, security information and event management software, malware and antivirus detection applications, etc.

  4. Use multifactor authentication as the primary identity store for all privileged access.

  5. Get rid of old, unused or low-encryption access credentials across the entire environment.

It is extremely important to keep an agency’s “brain” in good working order. That’s why IT managers must protect all tiers within the digital core, not just one or several. The above guidelines help ensure that an agency's security strategy extends far beyond the application layer.

About the Author

Thomas MacIsaac is a cybersecurity strategist with SSH Communications Security.

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