Your Vendors: Cold Beer or Malicious Attack Vector?

Your Vendors: Cold Beer or Malicious Attack Vector?

Your Vendors: cold Beer or Malicious Attack VectorThe word vendor may be most frequently associated with a guy selling beer or tossing bags of peanuts at your local stadium. Good times. Back at the office, there’s an entirely different kind of vendor: the one whose software is the backbone of your business operation.

Vendors are an important and potentially devastating population of users that should be handled with extreme care. Even a mid-size hospital will have 100 or more third parties that require remote access to service and support the MRI machine, the patient billing system and/or the electronic medical records platform.

Target disclosed that a vendor credential was a key component of its breach. A compromised administrator login was used to install malware that scooped credit card data and transferred it to a remote server. How did the attackers get network access to exploit the login? This story begins much earlier than what’s being reported.

There are two key things that make vendors very different than employees. First, one vendor may have thousands of individual technicians. Without the right controls, a login given to Tom on Tuesday may be used by Wendy on Wednesday. Credentials are not only stored in the vendor’s CRM system, they’re written on sticky notes affixed to monitors around the world.

Secondly, vendors require admin rights to their systems. As we learned in the Target breach, the network privileges granted to an admin are extremely powerful.  Your employees can view a sales report; your vendors can copy a database.

So, what to do? Here are my five golden rules for managing vendor access:

  1. Be aware. Vendors are not typical users and should be treated as very special guests.
  2. Have a realistic policy. Insist on individual logins and demand accountability, but don’t expect a technician to send you a copy of her passport. It’s not going to happen.
  3. Integrate policy in your purchasing process. Remote access should be negotiated before the vendor needs it. If your POS system is down, your IT staff (or someone else) is going to open a door that may be left open. The best time to negotiate access methodology is when the software is being purchased (amazing how accommodating the salespeople are at that time) or when your maintenance/subscription agreement is being renewed.
  4. Control the platform. If left to their own devices, a vendor may choose a remote support method (often a simple screen-sharing tool) that meets their needs more than yours. Your platform should support multi-factor authentication, provision granular access privileges, keep credentials private and audit all activity at the individual user level.
  5. Monitor vendor activity. While it may not be practical to track every keystroke, a consistent audit of vendor remote access should create alarms when a server is accessed repeatedly or large files are being transferred outside the network.

Managing vendor access is a critical component of any network security strategy. With awareness, proper policy and the right platform, it’s possible to avoid a malicious visit from these very special guests.

About the Author

Jeff Swearingen is co-founder and CEO of SecureLink, an Austin, TX-based software company that helps manage the chaotic space between enterprise technology vendors and their customers.

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