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How to Use Automation to Reduce Your Attack Surface


Companies are diversifying their resources and data silos. Some enterprises move this information to cloud providers, while others swear by on-site hardware. Internet of Things (IoT)-connected devices and digital nomadism are expanding the number and type of devices attached to a business, and it’s no wonder hackers are finding more avenues to breach sensitive data stores. Entities must reduce attack surface area to stay protected.

Automation is an invaluable addition to a risk prevention and remediation strategy when reducing the attack surfaces in an organization. What are these tactics, and how can they relieve the burdens of stressed analysts?

What Is an Attack Surface in Cybersecurity?

Several buzzphrases float around to describe points of entry for cybercriminals. Attack surfaces encapsulate every pathway and vulnerability a threat actor could exploit. Experts refer to them as attack vectors. The more attack vectors there are, the larger the attack surface is — expanding how much confidential and sensitive data is up for grabs by malicious individuals.

Every attack vector allows ransomware, phishing, or malware to creep in, compromising identities and infrastructure. These are some of the most common gateways businesses may not even acknowledge as entryways for criminals:

  • Weak or compromised credentials
  • Outdated software that requires patching
  • Utility connections
  • Remote desktop connections
  • Social engineering to produce insider threats
  • Email or text message inboxes
  • Third-party vendors and suppliers
  • IoT-connected devices and sensors
  • Security systems and cameras
  • Data centers

Attack surfaces take physical and digital forms, making protection methods diverse. These are only several, shedding light on how many forms an attack vector can make.

Overseeing every digital and physical corner to prevent threats would require more power than most companies can justify. Automation can handle countless mundane scans and tasks to aid workforces in defending each path, especially as attack surfaces are more varied than ever.

What Are the Best Ways to Minimize Attack Surfaces With Automation?

Reducing attack surface can take many forms, but automation can make the most of time and financial investment in a few high-value ways.

1. Execute Scheduled Data Minimization

Data minimization and inventory management — digitally and physically — are the top recommendations in the cybersecurity landscape, especially as regulations become a hot topic for world governments. The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the U.S.’s American Data Privacy Protection Act (ADPPA) explain how corporations must rein in and be transparent about data collection and use.

The fewer data stores programs that handle that information, the better. Instead of manually combing through countless bytes daily, automation could perform minimization practices on a schedule with proactive programming and secure code, such as:

  • Deleting ex-employee or outdated, irrelevant data
  • Performing automated data backups to segmented or isolated systems
  • Removing data that doesn’t include what’s necessary for operations
  • Limiting employee or customer input when gathering data via forms

However, a strategy like this could be a double-edged sword. Programmers and cybersecurity experts may schedule codes to perform these tasks, but more programs running expands the surface area. Experts must optimize the codes to perform various tasks so the surface area remains minimal.

2. Leverage AI and Machine Learning Data

Incorporating AI into a cybersecurity strategy could save companies around $3.05 billion for a much cheaper upfront investment. They must do more than purchase an AI system and hope for the best — it must integrate with an organization’s current technological ecosystem. Otherwise, it could present more attack vectors in the surface area than intended.

Using AI with appropriate tech could remove some drawbacks, including false positives. With well-curated oversight and data management, machine learning could adapt to productive learning environments over time.

AI and machine learning data can funnel into a centralized program to provide more holistic visibility about potential attack vectors. A localized scope of the attack area with data to prove what’s most threatening can guide analysts to eliminate or update these pain points proactively. This eliminates reactivity after a breach.

Real-time data can also indicate trends over time, where IT professionals can see how attack vectors perform as companies implement new tech or adopt digital strategies. It can show how many attempts hackers made against redundant legacy software versus cloud servers. It can gather historical data about vulnerabilities from misconfigurations or out-of-date software to change patching and update schedules. Automating will be invaluable for budget allocations and task prioritization.

3. Reduce Access With Zero Trust

Perhaps a tech stack has to be expansive to cover services and tasks. Reducing the attack surface area could compromise efficiency or service availability. However, automation can execute zero trust to minimize threat vectors by automatically denying access or packet requests. It is still an impactful way to maximize security and automation while keeping tech assets and creating walls against vectors.

Automation can analyze requests based on the time of day and the habits of the credential holder. It could require multiple authentication points before allowing entry, even if someone is granted access. It reduces the chance of hackers taking advantage of human error by remotely questioning a request.

Combining this with the principles of least privilege can get the best of both automation worlds. Automation can assign access controls based on role responsibilities, and zero trust can analyze those assignments to determine safety. It can minimize the 79% of identity-related breaches that will undoubtedly rise if automation doesn’t hone in on authorization and access.

4. Perform Vulnerability Scanning and Management

Many corporations undergo penetration testing, using internal or third-party services to try to break through the digital barriers of businesses actively. Hopefully, they don’t find any vulnerabilities. However, playing the role of an attacker can reveal mismanaged priorities or efforts.

Vulnerability scans do not have the same degree of attention as manual penetration testing but can supplement the time between trials. It can highlight the most critical issues first so organizations know where to place efforts between more human-driven defensive strategies. The scans could execute asset discovery, revealing attack vectors companies never previously recognized and allowing them to fill the hole or eliminate it from the equation altogether.

Recent research revealed these figures about attack surface discovery that vulnerability scans could assist with:

  • 72% of respondents claim executing attack surface discovery takes more than 40 hours
  • 62% say surfaces have expanded in the last several years
  • 56% don’t know which attack vectors are critical to the business, meaning there is little direction on what to protect

What if Companies Don’t Reduce Attack Surfaces?

What is an attack surface other than an opportunity? Increasing the number of attack vectors benefits nobody except for the offensive side of the digital battle. Therefore, defenders must minimize them to prevent the worst from happening.

It’s more complicated because humans have developed tech landscapes past what perimeter security can guard. Companies that don’t attempt to make their nebulous digital borders tangible will be misguided about how protected they are.

The price of cybersecurity breaches rises yearly, especially as businesses move to remote operations inspired by the pandemic. Massive media scandals from careless data breaches reflect the damage one uncared-for attack vector can have on a company. It potentially jeopardizes decades of enterprise forging and risks employees’ livelihoods.

A company that’s hacked could lose its reputation as publications spread the word about its inability to protect consumers, employees, or third-party relationships. Bad press equates to lost revenue, making public relations and marketing departments work overtime to salvage what automation can do a relatively accurate job of preventing.

Reduce Attack Surfaces to Eliminate Hackers’ Options

Minimize the attack surface in an organization’s tech stack with intelligently deployed automation tools. They can take many forms, either as external equipment or software, but it will always come back to how well programmers crafted the tools and how attentively analysts oversee them.

Automation can relieve stress and perform many tasks with high accuracy, but it must align with dedicated professionals who take care of these systems for optimization.

Featured Image Credit: Pexels; Thank you!

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