What should security executives stop doing?

Netskope

As a CISO, it’s likely that you often hear about what you should be doing to protect your systems and data better: Buy this software. Deploy that system. Use this service. Hire these people, etc..

However, how often do you hear about what you should stop doing, which technologies you should turn off, or which projects you should cancel?

Recently I posted a query about this to a security expert community on LinkedIn, and also spoke with hundreds of CISOs during roundtable dinners as part of a research project with a large group of CISOs and other experts. The goal of the project is to redesign our operating model of security and challenge every aspect of how we manage our controls today to prepare for digital transformation.

The post asked participants to help build a list of things security executives need to stop doing. The query drew more than 200 comments, covering a range of cybersecurity areas — including firewalls and their place in the modern security program. One of the examples provided from the CISO group was to stop thinking the firewall is the most crucial security control or technology, or that it is even going to be relevant in the cloud-based future to come.

Challenging assertions about the need for long-standing industry technologies is a controversial topic in the cyber security world. Firewalls are like a religion to many security people, the tried-and-true mechanisms for keeping the bad actors out of corporate networks and systems.

Ask many security executives to identify their most trusted and essential assets, and they will almost certainly mention firewalls. Companies continue to spend a good portion of their cybersecurity budgets on firewall products, and security organizations can’t imagine their security programs without these long-standing guardians of the enterprise network.

However, this is an outdated approach, and it could make organizations more vulnerable to attack over time because it does not address the types of threats and adversaries companies are facing today. For that reason, blind devotion to firewalls can become toxic for organizations, keeping them from providing the level of security they need in today’s environment.

To be clear, this is not a suggestion that organizations immediately rip out their firewalls because they are no longer needed. However, security leaders need to accept the fact that the firewall is much less significant than it was in the past, and it will become even less significant in the future as more of IT infrastructure moves to the cloud.

Firewall products have primarily become commodities that were critical components of cybersecurity in the days of strictly on-premise computing. Today they play a much less vital role in the era of cloud services such as software-as-a-service (SaaS) and infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS), and mobile technology.

Cloud services use application programming interfaces (APIs) and mobile devices to bypass the network perimeter, and this is having a profound effect on security. Security tools, such as firewalls, have not kept up with the changes and are not designed to understand unique APIs. They are designed to allow or block traffic; which does not yield equivalent value in the cloud; where those same rules and configurations are by default just applied as code.

Firewall proponents might counter that the firewall can be virtualized, making it more suitable for today’s needs. However, the goal of moving to the cloud is not to lift and shift existing monolithic applications and a flat architecture out of the perimeter and into the cloud, and then put a firewall in front. All that achieves is getting rid of the physical layer, without getting the benefits of the cloud.

In many cases, endpoint devices and applications are not even on the enterprise network, so the firewall plays little or no role in protecting these assets. As businesses further mature their digital transformation strategies, more data and applications move outside of what has traditionally been considered the “enterprise,” to far-flung devices that might not even be within the purview of the IT department.

Think about the times when companies have been hacked or compromised in some other way. It wasn’t the firewall that made the difference. They didn’t suffer a data breach because they had a specific brand of a firewall in place. It was always other controls that failed. The type or brand of firewall didn’t matter.

For all these reasons, the firewall is increasingly being cut out of the security conversation. When the technology does come up in conversation, it’s generally because modern-thinking security leaders are voicing their opinions that the firewall’s best days are in the past.

As one participant in the LinkedIn discussion noted, security needs to move further up the stack into the application layer and APIs.

Companies need to deploy security technologies that take the cloud and mobile devices into account, that eliminate blind spots by going deeper to quickly find and control activities across cloud services and Web sites that indicate suspicious behavior. In this way, they can continuously protect data and guard against advanced threats.

The firewall we know today will no longer exist in the future. Many CISOs at some of the largest enterprises in the world already know this and are acting on this knowledge by changing their approach to security. They’re more proactive and less reactive, adding automation wherever possible, and getting out in front of threats before they become a problem.

They also realize that, in a rush to buy security technology in recent years, many companies have ended up with too many tools that don’t work well with each other and don’t easily scale. They’ve added more and more tools, which has increased the complexity of their security infrastructure, and as a result, increased their operating costs.  It also creates an opportunity for both additional security gaps and additional attack surface.

Security doesn’t have to be complicated. However, it does have to be effective, comprehensive, proactive, scalable, and built for the cloud. Those capabilities will not come from firewalls, but from the latest solutions designed with the new technology environment in mind.

Controlling the medium in which we talk— ports and protocols—is irrelevant because there’s no context. Sure, you know user A called user B, but what did they discuss? What does user B know now that he didn’t know before? What if this communication or data exchange took place over chat?

You can’t get this level of context with a firewall, and the firewall does not focus on the context, sensitivity, and criticality of the information that transits its interfaces. However, as practitioners, we need the context, and we need to deploy the technology that provides the capability to control not just the method of communication (which ports, protocols, etc.), but the data transmitted.

As we move toward the future, networks will increasingly provide only connectivity over the concept of trust, and trust must be developed using new, emerging approaches designed for today’s security challenges. If the network now only provides connectivity, by default we cannot trust the network.

What we know as the perimeter has dissolved decentralized is that it is everywhere! Your identity, your data, and your app in the cloud are everywhere. Therefore, trust must be built on the concepts of identity and data and not delivered by the network. This is the same concept of what we all have relied on firewalls to provide — to create trust.

As security leaders, we need to focus on identity and the data that provides all the context of the conversation. This is quickly accelerating to become new normal and is a vital part of the future of cybersecurity.