Friday, April 17, 2009

Balancing Security and Productivity – Part 1 of 4

This is the first part of an ongoing discussion. The additional parts will be posted in the coming weeks.

An often challenging debate in any IT organization is the proper balance of security and productivity. Most organizations struggle to balance a loss in productivity for staff due to tighter security restrictions around passwords, data access, allowed applications, automated monitoring and threat detection. People at various levels within an organization will have differing solutions for balancing risk and ease of completing work for various staff. Every risk that must be understood for security changes has an associated cost, either in the cost of lost data, lost capability or bad publicity. On the flip side, every change made in the name of security and lowering risk could potentially lower employee productivity which can both affect output and have a cost, as well as affect morale if tasks become more difficult to complete.

In addition to evaluating risk for security policies and it's impact on staff and their productivity is assessing that impact across different staff with different duties at the company. Often times staff with more tightly controlled tasks are easier to limit impact for then staff that have a larger range of duties that may require off hours work, remote work or constantly changing duties and tasks.

With any activity within an enterprise, be it adding an application, adding a new mobile device or adding a new network connection poses a level of risk. That risk must be weighed against the benefits gained by adding that network connection. Take one of the most common tasks for an IT department; adding a new active network connection to someones office within a company facility. This activity has little risk associated with it because most often only staff will be in the area and able to physically use the connection. The benefit of this can be great by allowing an additional productive staff member, an additional printer for staff use or allowing faster network access then existing connections would allow. In this case this risk to reward balance is reasonable. Now take an activity that is just as common; installing VPN software on a laptop so that a staff member can connect to the company network remotely. What if this laptop is then lost and has company data on it? What if this laptop is infected with a virus that could infect other corporate machines? I intend to explore various trade offs that must often be reviewed by IT departments and the associated risks and rewards that go with each.

Passwords versus Tokens

One of the most common methods for increasing security within a computing environment is by eliminating one-time passwords and replacing them with a token based approach for non-reusable passwords. In this forum I call any authentication solution that provides a challenge response or requires an external token to be the alternative to standard passwords. There are several trade offs that must be considered for this approach to provide a high-level of assurance that accounts are only used by the designated owners:

  • Login Speed – Using tokens or other 2-factor methods for logins has the potential to slow down staffs' ability to login. If a staff member can not find their token for login that will slow down their ability to complete tasks. Additionally, the time needed to use a token is often longer then the time required to enter a traditional password from memory and be authenticated.

  • Seamless Integration – Integration company wide can pose a challenge for tokens and 2-factor authentication solutions. While much improvement has been made on this level with modern identity management tools, most firms still have a diverse range of applications and integration with all of them is often not possible. This leaves companies in a situation where they must decide which applications and tools make sense for token based authentication and which should remain password based.

  • Ease of Memory – Tokens often use a pin number that is shorter then common passwords. This shorted pin paired with a specific token that is time specific creates a combination of information that is easier to remember, and thus less likely to be written down by staff. This ease of memory of necessary login information can ensure a situation where staff passwords are

VPN versus Public Secure Web Sites

There are two primary methods for ensuring that company data is secure when being accessed by employees and authorized personnel; the primary method is to use web based applications that run over encrypted channels, the https protocol is the most common. Often times companies will implement a virtual private network (VPN) solution to further ensure that all data transmitted is secure.

The primary issue being discussed here is providing access to company applications to staff that are located in remote locations, this could be working from home, while on travel or via remote devices.

  • VPN Assurances – VPNs, when properly used can ensure compliance with a variety of company security policies around virus protection, password length and expiration and a systems patch status. These policies can ensure all hosts connected to the companies network are secure. The trade off is that VPNs are often difficult for users to utilize because of the time necessary to connect and the technical challenge in ensuring users can always connect to the VPN when necessary.

  • VPN Restrictions – While VPNs ensure that systems connected to the network meet compliance, they restrict an employees ability to login quickly and complete a task. If an employee needs access but does not have a company computer, a VPN only approach may limit their ability to use nearby computers to complete the task.

  • Availability of Web Based Applications – Web based applications that are encrypted and outside of company VPN infrastructure allow staff to connect in a secure fashion, regardless of who's computer they are using. While this does enable productive work to be done in more locations, it increases the potential that data or passwords could be compromised by keystroke loggers on non-company controlled machines.

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