One security policy to rule them all: securing the remote workforce

February 2008 Information Security

Lifestyles and values have changed – and so has the workplace. A remote workforce has become a vital part of most organisations' operations.

The benefits? Workers are more productive, the company does not have to maintain as much real estate and even the environment benefits with less congestion and pollution. However, remote workers introduce new security vulnerabilities to the company's network and data. Minimising and controlling this risk calls for a security policy for remote workers, including both technical and behavioural elements.

Since remote workers function in an uncontrolled and often unprotected environment, the primary danger is that they may introduce threats such as malware to the company's network, or unknowingly enable hackers or intruders with malicious intent to gain unauthorised access to sensitive company information. Regardless of whether employees use their own or company laptops and PCs, the organisation remains responsible for protecting its information assets and operations. Security procedures, policies and technologies thus need to be extended beyond the boundaries of the organisation to include remote workers.

Mobile workers need to be aware of the risk they pose to the organisation and of their own vulnerabilities. A security policy for mobile workers should thus comprise guidelines for not only the configuration, use and care of the physical client device (eg, laptop, PC, PDA); but the management of applications and software on the device, including version updates and security patches; the securitisation and backup of data or information stored on the device; and securing the remote office.

While technology can be of significant assistance in automating some of these management and housekeeping tasks, it is critical to communicate policy to remote workers clearly, provide regular updates, and constantly monitor and enforce the policy.

Security technologies

IT departments' key concerns with regard to mobile workers include:

* Securing the connection between the mobile user and the corporate network.

* Putting in place a firewall, intrusion detection and prevention solutions.

* Implementing access control and authorisation.

* Automating management of patches and updates.

* Designing an enforceable strategy for data backup and recovery.

A virtual private network (VPN) will provide a safe connection between the user and the corporate network. There are two popular options, an IPSec VPN or an SSL VPN. An IPSec VPN routes traffic through the company firewall and is typically ideal for site-to-site connectivity. Since it requires that VPN client software be loaded on all remote users' laptops or PCs it can, however, become complex and unwieldy to manage. An SSL-VPN appliance provides greater simplicity. There is no need to install client software - all the remote user needs is a standard Web browser.

However, there is no point in having a secure communication 'tunnel' if the data being transferred is corrupt or contains malware. To minimise this risk a unified threat management (UTM) firewall can be implemented. It will scan all network traffic for threats, automatically update signatures against network threats on a continual basis and maintain comprehensive protection against worms, viruses, Trojans, spyware and other malware. A global management tool can also be used to ensure Web browsers and operating systems on remote devices are appropriately configured and maintained.

Together, a VPN and firewall take care of perimeter protection and secure remote access. Internal protection may also be necessary, however, as remote workers often access the corporate network directly from the company's premises, plugging storage devices or laptops into the network. Enforced desktop threat prevention will prevent users from logging onto the network if their computer is infected, while firewalls with LAN switching capabilities can secure particular 'zones', such as networks, servers or internal workgroups.

The next challenge is to ensure the right people have access to the right data. SSL VPN technologies make this a breeze, allowing the administrator to authorise access to defined resources for individuals and groups.

The final hurdle is backup and recovery. Mobile storage media and appliances can be lost or accidentally damaged so ensuring availability of important data is critical to business continuity. Backup thus needs to be done regularly and, where possible, automated. Offsite backup is particularly important in the case of loss or damage to the device on which the data was created, while continuous data protection (CDP) technologies will automatically replicate any new or changed data in realtime.

To leverage the tremendous benefits and opportunities this new mobile segment of the workforce offers, security is essential. It need not be difficult, however. Security technologies are continually evolving to counter new threats. They are also becoming easier to implement and manage, and more affordable. In fact, many solutions that were previously only available to the enterprise are now within reach of small and medium enterprises.

Martin Tassev is the MD at Loophold Security Distribution.

For details contact Loophold Security Distribution, +27 (0)11 575 0004,,

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