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Who Knows When, Or If, We’ll Go Back to the Office? We Must Make Good Security Moves Regardless.

Jan 26 2021

The management consulting firm Korn Ferry recently surveyed professionals about what they were most looking forward to when they return to the office, and more than 20 percent of them said “nothing.” (No kidding.) Some 64 percent of respondents are cited as saying that they’re more productive at home. (Not surprised.)

There are numerous articles, surveys, blogs, and speculative pieces just like this one, like this one, almost all with interesting, or confusing, or downright curious data—even a year into the global COVID-19 pandemic. But it’s not hard to understand why; figuring out if and when to bring employees back to work at offices is one of the biggest question marks in business and government right now, given the obvious, and ongoing, uncertainty. 

Some companies, particularly U.S.-based tech firms, are already allowing permanent work-from-home and positioning flexible work location choices as competitive benefits, which we also saw in our 2020 survey of security practitioners. Others, including multinational firms with offices in many countries, report concerns about adequate in-office protections and too-hasty returns to “the old normal,” especially with the virus having spiked again as of early 2021 in areas once thought to have contained it. And ideas for how to continually advance the accommodations for certain WFH necessities—such as robust Internet infrastructure and living conditions with sufficient personal workspace—that vary widely depending on where employees are located.

This shifting sand represents one of the hardest challenges ever faced by IT and Security teams. They are tasked with planning for the next 24 months and beyond based on a range of potential in-person/WFH scenarios, the balance of each depending on geography, capacity, technology, and a host of other concerns. 

Reconsidering your next steps

In security terms—and hey, I’m a CISO, so this is of course how I think—many teams might be most worried about trade-offs. Do my employees stay majority-remote and sacrifice security so they have a good user experience when accessing the cloud applications needed to do their jobs? Do I hope that my security infrastructure will hold up to so much remote access and keep my users, data, and applications safe? Do I buy new tools, restructure or re-train my team, and re-architect my network over things that might be different in the next year or so? How much budget do I need?

Do I simply shut my eyes and “hope for the best”? 

Really? We’re still saying that a year into this mess?

As we all know, “hope” is not a strategy, and neither are trade-offs between security and productivity. 

Providers need to flexibly address all scenarios, from majority-at-home to majority-in-office, and do so in a way that’s scalable. Cybersecurity is amazingly dynamic and always changing, but threats aren’t getting any less frequent, or less sophisticated. Breach headlines remain constant, more than 30 percent of successful cyber attacks are a result of social engineering, network segmentation strategies are challenged, insider threats are increasing as an attack vector with so many people remote, WFH is the new network expansion, old systems and WFH transport devices that aren’t patched are still in some way responsible for more than half of all successful breaches.

So how do we keep pace, and with so much uncertainty over what the next two years will bring?

Security has entered into the realm of change management. The threats are continuing to evolve, the architectures are continuing to evolve, the expectations are continuing to expand, and capabilities are not what they once were when it comes to defending our cyber frontier—and that was before we had a global pandemic to deal with. It’s tough out there.

Change is imminent, rapid, and one of the hardest things for us to embrace and I’ve heard many infosec professionals say “this is uncharted territory” or “haven’t we done this before.” But guess what? We have. Not so long ago, we embraced a mindset that if we pursued security we would get compliance. That leap of faith required us to depart from a path of, “I met the expectations the compliance regulations asked of me” to realize instead we needed to build up our resources, tools, and processes in a thoughtful, deliberate manner that would achieve compliance and maintain security. By many measures of success over the past decade or so, we achieved something!

Embracing change to prepare for the future

As we continue to innovate our companies and realize a rebirth in the cloud, we must once again call upon our ability to embrace change. Cloud services have enabled businesses to grow faster than many IT, information security, and compliance teams can support. Business teams can quickly enable new software and business services without the hurdles of traditional IT requirements of architecture, systems development, and rollouts. This is now forcing the choice for many organizations (whether or not they are consciously aware of it) to either significantly slow this growth or allow it without adapted controls and risk assessments—compromising existing security and compliance control effectiveness. In other words do some unnatural and heroic things to achieve the short-term outcomes, while relying on “hope” as a strategy.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the rapid, nearly overnight shift to WFH accelerated these trends at speeds no one anticipated a year ago. But by the middle of 2020, forward-thinking providers were already implementing Zero Trust principles, moving controls away from individual applications to focus on data and traffic, and driving solutions that can scale at the speed required, including the adoption of Next Generation Secure Web Gateway (NG-SWG) and cloud access security broker (CASB) technology, and the use of vendor management and risk review platforms that offer predefined risk scores and compliance communities. 

There is a recurring theme, providing for increased capabilities: visibility and control. When we are fundamentally unable to see transactions or interactions as they occur—whether among users, applications, and/or data—our security posture weakens Configuration management still plagues us, especially in legacy architectures. So, if we can make good on moving the protection closer to the data, provide visibility to web traffic, and couple this with the ability to provide an immediate action based on what we’re seeing, we can win. 

Almost 90 percent of users are working in the cloud daily, and the average number of apps per organization has again doubled year-over-year, underscoring how web traffic is no longer just websites. Those work habits don’t slow down in WFH scenarios—they accelerate. I believe it’s safe to say we’re not going back to the “old normal.” So ask yourself with a big dose of intellectual honesty: what’s holding me and the organization back? If you haven’t refactored and evaluated your organization’s cloud usage digital modernization plans and aligned them with your security and compliance plans, you aren’t in a position to succeed—now, or after the pandemic.

Almost nine months ago, I made a list of recommendations for how to address the new normal. What stands out from that list—apart from how much of it holds true in 2021 as well—is to think about the shape you want your team and security program to be in when we finally emerge from the pandemic. “Beyond the immediate firefights, will you accelerate out of this or be in the same place you were in before it all started?” Based on an informal poll of many of my peers, we’re here in January 2021 and it can be hard to see past the firefight, still. But many of us are making moves, and we’ve tried to look past the question of “majority in office” vs. “majority remote work” to how cloud security can scale to support all scenarios. 

Connect with me on LinkedIn and I’ll share some of what I’m seeing, as well as welcome your thoughts on how we’re all going to get there.

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Lamont Orange
Lamont Orange has more than 20 years of experience in the information security industry, having previously served as vice president of enterprise security for Charter Communications (now Spectrum) and as senior manager for the security and technology services practice at Ernst & Young.