Some cybersecurity best practices, such as never sharing or reusing passwords, patching known vulnerabilities, and enforcing least privilege, withstand the test of time, remaining unaltered after the passing of decades. Other IT security recommendations have proven more fickle, evolving over fairly short stretches of time to reflect changes in attack vectors, technology stacks, security maturity models, or simply, just better data on what works and what doesn’t.
Let’s review some security policies once regarded as best practices, but that it’s now time to break up with. Then, I’ll discuss how to get your employees to unlearn outdated security practices too.
Only download software directly from the vendor
Most commercial applications are only accessible directly from the manufacturer, but modern applications, such as Microsoft Office, are usually available from the Application Stores for Windows and MacOS.
Downloading the applications right from the source may provide a slightly heightened assurance that the software has not been tampered with. On the other hand, installing an application from an authorized application store, whether via the operating system or managed by your organization, helps ensure that compatibility issues, updates, and security vetting has been addressed up front.
For instance, with Microsoft Office 365 now available in the MacOS Application Store, users and commercial organizations alike can feel confident that a single update mechanism is being used to deliver security and feature updates. This additional screening provides assurance that the software has not been tampered with.
With the above in mind, consider secure, authorized application stores as a viable option for software delivery.
Frequent changing of personal passwords
Currently, NIST guidance advises against forcing frequent, arbitrary changes to personal passwords (the recommendation is to only change the password in special cases, such as in a known password theft or compromise). While this might sound negligent to some, rest assured, certain preconditions apply. Most importantly, this practice refers to personal passwords for a single credentialed account. These passwords are stored for your personal use only, and should not be re-used for any other resources. Beyond this, they should also meet proper complexity parameters.
Keep in mind, privileged accounts, shared accounts, and application and service accounts are not included in this recommendation. These privileged credentials should be rotated frequently, including after every use for the most sensitive accounts/credentials. In most environments with even minimal complexity, this is best accomplished with a commercial privileged password management solution, which can automate password security workflows at scale.
So, why the change in NIST guidance? It turned out that imposing password changes on humans for personal accounts actually proved counterproductive in practice. When forced to frequently change their passwords, people chose easy-to-remember passwords, while also repeating the same passwords across many accounts. And, when they did try unique passwords, they often paid for it with downtime, getting locked out of accounts from forgetting the login information.
So, while frequently changing passwords, in theory, would help mitigate password re-use attacks, the other bad practices humans succumbed to when choosing new passwords had the effect of undermining any potential security rigor introduced by frequent password changes.
Unlearning corporate training recommendations.
Outside of IT security teams, most corporate employees are not immersed in security enough to be aware of the subtle (or big) implications of new technologies, evolving cyberthreats, and the nuances of shifting cyber defense strategies. Rather than imbibing security knowledge on an everyday basis, they receive their training periodically, in quick bites (such as internal emails about phishing exploits), or in small training “meals.” And sometimes, these new lessons skip them over, and they retain outdated information for years.
Once something is learned, it can be difficult to unlearn it. How do you going about overwriting the obsolete security practices with the new best practices?
One action I recommend is that each time updated training is performed, provide a clear overview of the changes from old practices. Highlight and outline the new security best practices. It can also aid memory if employees learn why the change has happened. This clear instruction juxtaposing the old with the new, along with a rational explanation, helps avoid any conflict that reflects, “I learned this last year and now they are teaching me something contradictory.”
Take training for phishing attacks as an example. While the recommendation has always unwaveringly been to not click on links embedded in emails, there are many applications that embed links that cannot be accessed directly per best practices. Standard employee security training dictates that you should always inspect the URL for HTTPS and domain names before using a link in an email, it potentially trumps clicking on any embedded link. So, which is the best practice your organization should follow, and which one is now obsolete? As you continuously update training material, make sure something as simple as this is highlighted, and, when exceptions should occur, to break up with the previous best practice.
We should all periodically consider how to make a clean break with obsolete behaviors, recognize when they are present, and embrace the new ones to protect ourselves, our businesses, and our data.
Morey J. Haber, Chief Security Officer at BeyondTrust
Morey J. Haber is the Chief Security Officer at BeyondTrust. He has more than 25 years of IT industry experience and has authored three books: Privileged Attack Vectors, Asset Attack Vectors, and Identity Attack Vectors. He is a founding member of the industry group Transparency in Cyber, and in 2020 was elected to the Identity Defined Security Alliance (IDSA) Executive Advisory Board. Morey currently oversees BeyondTrust security and governance for corporate and cloud based solutions and regularly consults for global periodicals and media. He originally joined BeyondTrust in 2012 as a part of the eEye Digital Security acquisition where he served as a Product Owner and Solutions Engineer since 2004. Prior to eEye, he was Beta Development Manager for Computer Associates, Inc. He began his career as Reliability and Maintainability Engineer for a government contractor building flight and training simulators. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering from the State University of New York at Stony Brook.