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Limiting remote access exposure in hybrid work environments

Remote work began as a temporary measure during the pandemic but has long been a permanent fixture in our new way of working. Organizations have shifted to remote desktop work environments at an increasing speed since then – simultaneously expanding their attack surface and exposing themselves to greater cybersecurity threats. The remote work revolution has pushed companies to rethink their security and data protection practices amidst hybrid work and cloud environments. In turn, threat actors have continued to exploit the vulnerabilities companies exposed themselves to, including those publicly identified, in keeping pace with rapid digital transformation efforts. McKinsey & Company estimates that the annual increase of costs related to cybercrime will reach $10.5 trillion by 2025, as cyber risk management has not kept up with digital transformation posing serious risks to organizations’ security and revenue.

As a result, companies find it increasingly difficult to manage their attack surface at the speed and scale necessary to prevent attacks. Here are the top attack surface exposures and trends from the past year, and ways institutions can remediate these threats before they transform into critical issues.

Top attack surface exposures

Palo Alto Networks’ 2023 Unit 42 Attack Surface Threat Management report found that the top attack surface exposures exist via two methods: actions directly taken on a compromised device (such as exfiltrating sensitive files stored locally on the device) or leveraging unauthorized access on a compromised attack surface asset (such as compromising VPNs) to gain further access within an organization. Both methods affect hybrid work environments and exist in various forms. However, the cloud is one increasingly popular attack surface cybercriminals have homed in on. Cloud is the dominant attack surface through which these critical exposures are accessed, due to its operational efficiency and pervasiveness across industries. The key types of exposures, in order of prevalence, include web framework takeover, remote access services, IT and networking infrastructure, file sharing, and database exposures and vulnerabilities.

Web framework takeover and remote access service exposures accounted for over 40% of exposure types. Such services are heavily utilized in hybrid work environments and are fundamental to smooth business operations. Over 85% of organizations analyzed have RDPs accessible via the internet for at least 25% of a given month, leaving them open to ransomware attacks. Given that threat actors exploit critical vulnerabilities within mere hours of publication, this poses a serious security risk for companies.

The attack landscape has evolved to target critical infrastructure. These targets are more appealing to threat actors because they haven’t been regularly maintained in the past. Some of the most at-risk industries include several critical infrastructure sectors such as:

  • Healthcare
  • Utilities and energy
  • Manufacturing
  • Education
  • State/national governments 

The growing trend of targeting critical infrastructure is concerning, as we’ve seen attacks like SolarWinds have devastating impacts.

Interestingly enough, high-tech companies were also among the top organizations targeted by threat actors. These companies heavily rely on remote access services, which can be a significant attack vector due to insecure servers, inadequate security protocols, cloud misconfigurations, exposure of security infrastructure (such as routers and firewalls), and more. Organizations across all industries can benefit from secure practices to limit their remote access exposures.

Key recommendations

Today’s threat actors are adept at exploiting organizational vulnerabilities to gain access to remote environments. In addition to implementing the below suggestions, I suggest monitoring for emerging threats through comprehensive efforts that will set up a strong baseline for your company, such as a service retainer for threat landscape briefings or an audit of your organization’s attack surface for risk.

Here are key recommendations and best practices organizations should consider strengthening their security posture and actively manage their attack surfaces.

  1. Change your vulnerability mindset to identify legacy vulnerability management systems. This will assist your organization in resolving issues before they become mission-critical.
  2. Implement strong authentication methods for key internet-facing systems, such as multi-factor authentication. This way, organizations can secure remote access services and monitor for signs of unauthorized access attempts.
  3. Ensuring continuous visibility into on-premises and cloud assets is a must for security. By maintaining a real-time understanding of all company assets that are accessible online, you set your teams up for success in premeditating attacks.
  4. Attack premeditation is another vital way to secure your systems. Focus on addressing the most critical vulnerabilities across severity and likelihood through the Common Vulnerability Scoring System and Exploit Prediction Scoring System scores, respectively.
  5. Address cloud misconfigurations head-on. Regularly review and update your organization’s cloud configurations to align with industry best practices; have your security and DevOps teams work together to drive secure deployments. While remote access services are crucial for hybrid work environments, their faulty configurations pose significant risks to company security.
  6. Respond to threats quickly. It is of chief importance that your security team respond instantly. Install protocols and mechanisms to help your team quickly leverage attack surface management tools to prioritize patches and remediate common exposures.

Understanding the threats you face, and what you need to protect your organization against them, is critical for a successful cybersecurity program. As research shows, companies and government agencies struggle to understand which assets expose them to the most risk. By implementing these key recommendations, organizations can take a more proactive and holistic approach to maintaining control over their infrastructure and evolving with the changing nature of their attack surface.

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About the Author:

Matt Kraning is the Chief Technology Officer of Cortex at Palo Alto Networks and was previously Chief Technology Officer and Cofounder of Expanse, which was acquired by Palo Alto Networks. Matt is an expert in large-scale optimization, distributed sensing, and machine learning algorithms run on massively parallel systems. Prior to co-founding Expanse, Matt worked for DARPA, including a deployment to Afghanistan. Matt holds Bachelor’s, Master’s, and PhD degrees from Stanford University.

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