5 Priorities to Uplevel Identity Security with the Technology Modernization Fund

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Modern threats require modern solutions to solve them.

In its first few months, the Biden administration has hit the ground running on not only vaccine distribution and financial relief plans for citizens, but also on cybersecurity policy and information technology funding. 

Recognizing the connection between modernized IT systems and cybersecurity, President Joe Biden as part of American Rescue Plan, included a $1 billion infusion to the Technology Modernization Fund. The TMF, authorized by the Modernizing Government Technology Act of 2017, had only been given an initial $175 million from Congress to move government IT and security projects forward. With this focus from the administration on IT, recent large-scale cyberattacks and funding, agencies have no excuse to not address their outdated, insecure networks.

As widely reported in early May 2021, technology officials have “announced plans to use the TMF to strengthen the federal government’s cyber defenses and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.” 

One critical aspect of improving our federal government’s cyber defenses is addressing privileged access abuse that is the leading cause of breaches, especially for interconnected government agencies. According to Forrester, 80% of all hacking-related data breaches involve privileged access credentials. This concern was further amplified by the recent executive order outlining a number of identity and access controls aimed at modernizing the nation’s cybersecurity.

A major contributing factor to this modernization push is that the threat has outgrown the government’s approach to privileged access management, or PAM. Modern threats require modern solutions to solve them and mitigate risk, and that means a cloud-ready approach based on zero-trust principles to protect against access abuse in today’s dynamic threat landscape is needed.

The ongoing impact of the SolarWinds attack is a constant reminder of the need to significantly improve privileged access rights and prevent attackers from mounting large-scale, deep targeting of federal agencies. Organizations that are looking to secure access to infrastructure, DevOps, cloud, containers, big data and other modern use cases can work to address these issues via the TMF. To do so, they should consider five key functional priorities:

Privileged Access Management

Modern PAM solutions based on zero-trust principles can leverage the cloud to secure networks and stops access abuse, which appears to have played a prominent role in the SolarWinds attack. The incident only serves as an important reminder that organizations should grant least privilege access based on verifying who is requesting access, the context of the request, and the risk of the access environment.

In doing so, it becomes possible not only to minimize the attack surface but also improve audit and compliance visibility, while reducing the complexity and costs that are a feature of today’s hybrid environments.

Multifactor Authentication

In addition, privileged access increasingly requires multifactor authentication, or MFA, to comply with regulations and ensure that only authorized users access privileged accounts and systems versus malware or bots trying to impersonate IT staff. The May executive order specifically mandated deployment of MFA to enforce stronger authentication of users beyond just a username and password.

Ideally, any access control solution should support the broadest range of authenticators to provide the flexibility to support authenticating your IT staff using the most convenient form factor as well as to enable users to leverage existing MFA systems and authenticators that they may already have.

Privilege Elevation and Delegation Management

Privilege elevation and delegation management, or PEDM, is a critical component of a modern PAM strategy, enabling agencies and organizations to take a stronger approach to security by only granting administrative access rights for individual tasks, applications, or scripts that require them on a limited basis. 

This type of fine-grained capability allows an organization to effectively implement the principle of least privilege, providing workers with just enough access to do their jobs only for the amount of time needed, and then closing those privileges so they are not left open to be exploited.

Password Vaulting

While today’s threatscape is heading toward granting privileged access based on individual identities rather than shared accounts to achieve increased assurance levels as mandated by newer legislation and industry best practices, many organizations still use shared passwords. 

Password vaults allow organizations to securely manage shared accounts and passwords, serving as a vital first step in discovering and registering all machines and their associated access credentials such as root and administrative accounts. By vaulting all shared, alternate admin and service accounts, access to those accounts can then be brokered for users, services, and applications.

In using password vaults, a key objective should be to reduce risk when sharing privileged accounts, and to only do so during emergency “break glass” scenarios. Ideally, organizations should adopt solutions that can automatically discover systems and service accounts for subsequent management, while also enforcing centralized control over who can access credentials and audit administrator activity—including securing third-party access.

Secure Remote Access

Effective secure remote access solutions should effectively control access without a virtual private network, or VPN, providing IT administration teams, outsourced IT and third-party vendors with secure, granular access to critical infrastructure resources, regardless of location and without the full network exposure granted by a VPN. Many users also look for a solution that enables secure remote access to data center and cloud-based infrastructures through a cloud-based service or on-premises deployment.

In order to effectively address the widespread and dangerous vulnerabilities present across public-sector infrastructure, government organizations should look to the TMF as a catalyst to potentially fast track improvements to their cybersecurity strategy. In doing so, they can more effectively address the root causes of privileged access abuse and put themselves in a much stronger position to resist the wave of sophisticated cyberattacks currently challenging the integrity of vital state and federal government infrastructure.

Bill O’Neill is vice president of public sector at ThycoticCentrify.

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