Contributor:
Russell Smith
February 18th, 2013

The Weakest Link: Desktop Security

At the beginning of this year, the South Carolina House of Representatives decided to increase funding for computer security after almost all the Department of Revenue’s tax records were leaked. While testifying in front of a House committee on 3rd January, the Revenue’s former chief of security, Scott Shealy, claimed that management at the agency hadn’t taken the security of taxpayer’s data seriously and had been more concerned with stopping employees from surfing the Internet and cutting end user security training.

Shealy went on to accuse the CIO of micromanagement and not listening to the advice he’d been given, and as a result was unable to do his job. In September 2012, while the hacking attempt was apparently underway, the CIO resigned; although it’s not clear for what reason. Shealy resigned from his post a year before the hacking incident took place. An independent investigation showed that the most likely cause of the hack was an employee clicking on a malicious link that enabled the attacker to set up other entry points to the Revenue’s systems.

Many organizations, despite the advances in security technologies and best practice advice, still rely on network edge firewalls and endpoint antivirus software as the mainstays of their security defenses. Recent research shows that antivirus and firewalls are no longer the top priorities for desktop security, and prove ineffective unless used as part of a defense-in-depth strategy. Most security professionals will also testify that desktop computers are often compromised when antivirus is employed as the only barrier to attack.

It’s common for resources to be ploughed into defending servers and databases, and while this is important, it shouldn’t be forgotten that once users are authorized to access data from a desktop computer, no matter how much time and effort has gone into protecting the back-end, the security of the access device becomes important too. Security dependencies such as this are often overlooked.

Antivirus solutions have evolved to provide more comprehensive protection than just the ability to match files against a signature database. Most endpoint security suites also include a desktop firewall, device control, spam filtering and protection against attacks that rely on social engineering. AV is a well-understood technology that has been the primary form of desktop security for two decades, but even with a comprehensive endpoint security suite, privilege management and application whitelisting are also critical to ensure that when AV fails, there is another layer of defense to prevent malicious software from infecting a system.

With the example of the Southern California House of Representatives in mind, now is the time to re-evaluate your desktop security strategy, particularly if AV is the only protection you have in place.

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