What is Endpoint Security & Why is it Important?

Endpoint security refers to the strategies and technologies for preventing, containing, mitigating, and remediating threats to endpoints. Endpoint threats can involve external attacks as well as insider threats, which may be either malicious or unintentional in nature. A compromised endpoint can give an attacker a foothold within an environment. From that foothold, the threat actor can launch further attacks on systems to access data and compromise additional endpoints via lateral movement.

This glossary post will explore:

  • The challenges of managing and securing endpoints
  • Key endpoint attack vectors
  • Strategies, technologies, and solutions for implementing endpoint security

What is an Endpoint?

An endpoint can be defined as any physical or virtual device or hardware that connects to the corporate environment. An endpoint will either use a TCP/IP (v4 or v6) address or another protocol for networking (wired or wireless). Endpoints are anything from end-user devices, such as desktop PCs, laptops, tablets, and smartphones to servers, medical devices, IoT devices and sensors, industrial control systems (ICS), point-of-sale (PoS) devices, ATMs, printers, network switches, routers, and much more.

Some endpoint security and management technologies can be applied across a diverse variety of endpoints. However, other solutions are device or platform-specific (Windows, macOS, Unix, Linux, Android, iOS, Azure, AWS, Google Cloud etc.).

The grid below roughly breaks down the device coverage across some common types of endpoint security solutions. Coverage may vary even between different vendor product offerings within a solution space.

Endpoint Security Device Coverage by Solution/Tool Type

When is Endpoint Security Needed?

Endpoint security is one of the broadest cybersecurity categories. It overlaps, integrates with, and complements network security, data security, identity-based security, and application security. Many IT security solutions provide capabilities that cover multiple security categories across endpoint, network, data, and identity-based models.

Since a corporate IT network is essentially a linkage of endpoints, endpoint integrity and security may be prioritized before implementing security at the network layer.

How Does Endpoint Security Work?

Endpoint security strategies and solutions aim to protect endpoints whether they are connected to the network, or have transient interconnectivity.

Endpoint security software may be:

  • Centrally managed via agentless technology
  • Installed as client or agent on individual endpoints
  • Cloud-based
  • Involve a combination of the above implementations

Whereas endpoint security for individual consumers focuses on technologies deployed on the device, enterprise strategies rely heavily on centralized management across the corporate network to administer patches, configuration changes, deploy policy updates, gather logs, and more.

The Differences Between Rules-Based, Signature-based, and Behavioral-based Security

Endpoint security solutions often leverage the following three approaches to detect, prevent, and/or mitigate threats:

Pattern matching and signature-based: (i.e. traditional antivirus, vulnerability management, etc.): This entails relying on threat signatures to block known threats, and/or heuristics to block suspicious code or actions that shares similarities with known threats.

Rules-based and enforcement of advanced policies (i.e. privileged access management, endpoint firewalls, encryption, etc.): This entails applying rules and policies that enforce security best practices, such as least privilege, block lists and allow lists, endpoint firewall rules, and more. The results are highly predictable based on rule matching processing.

Behavior-based (endpoint detection and response, etc.): Modern endpoint security solutions may apply advanced behavioral analysis, machine learning, and even some forms of artificial intelligence to identify threats or inappropriate access. These solutions can process information locally or rely on management servers to aggregate information for advanced detection and response.

Strategies for securing endpoints encompasses such practices as endpoint hardening, endpoint isolation, endpoint lifecycle and policy management, and more. These are typically signature and rule-based.

Challenges in Securing Endpoints

Evolving cyber threats, complex and diverse endpoint environments, corporate misalignment of security technologies to threats, and an ever-more stretched IT team are some of many colliding factors that put an organization’s universe of endpoints at risk. On top of this, many technologies deployed as part of an endpoint security strategy provide overlapping capabilities in some areas, while leaving gaps in other areas. Overlapping features may also cause incompatibility issues and produce unpredictable results, or negatively impact endpoint stability.

Let’s explore some of the most significant challenges and weaknesses present with enterprise endpoints:

Lack of visibility into the endpoint estate. Most organizations struggle to understand the scope of their endpoint estate, let alone how to manage it. An organization may have millions of endpoints, and even tens of thousands of undiscovered or unknown endpoints that connect to the network.

Overwhelming number and diversity of endpoints: The sheer number and diversity of corporate endpoints within any corporate environment presents massive challenges and makes it hard to standardize security. Non-traditional endpoints proliferate. IoT devices, such as sensors, security cameras, healthcare devices, etc. are now commonplace. Many IT teams struggle to discover and securely onboard legitimate devices at scale. Compounding this issue, IoT and edge computing devices commonly have hardcoded credentials, software or firmware that cannot be updated, and other severe security drawbacks. The devices may also use unsafe, or uncommon protocols, and even have built-in backdoors. Because most IoT devices have little computing power, they most likely cannot run security software or host an agent. Over the last decade, sophisticated attacks, such as Stuxnet, waged on industrial control systems (ICS) has been a growing concern. ICS endpoints were traditionally “air-gapped”, meaning they were isolated from internet-facing networks. However, these critical infrastructure endpoints are, like everything, becoming increasingly connected, and thus, exposed to cyber risk. ICS endpoints can include programmable logic controllers (PLCs), supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems remote terminal units (RTUs), intelligent electronic devices (IEDs), human machine interfaces (HMI), and much more. The rise of the virtual desktop is another challenge. Virtual desktops share many of the risks as physical desktops, but their dynamic and ephemeral nature adds further complexity.

Threat actors continue to learn new tricks and acquire more sophisticated tools with powerful automation capabilities. Modern cybercriminals can easily scale attacks across tens of thousands of endpoints and target across organizations, types of devices, and many other ways. Attackers can readily acquire toolkits off the dark web, with nation-state caliber tools. These tools can be anything from credential hacking tools and password dictionaries, to advanced, polymorphic malware that incorporates machine learning. In addition, malware is ever-improving at evading antivirus and other security defenses, and blending in with normal processes. Even phishing, particularly spear phishing, attacks are getting more savvy. Spear phishers may use scanning tools to mine relevant data across vast resources. They may then leverage machine learning to craft phishing messages that target their victim with eerie precision. While the vectors used by threat actors are too broad to cover here, one worth mentioning is Living of the Land (LotL) attacks. LotL attacks refers to the leveraging of tools or features that preexist within the target’s environment. These are considered fileless attacks because no execution of files (i.e. malware) is needed to perform their illicit activities. LotL attacks essentially turn a system's own native applications and commands against itself. PowerShell scripts, VB scripts, WMI, and PsExec., and Windows script host executables are common culprits in fileless attacks. Finally, another potential threat that has lurked on endpoints for decades, but gets little attention today, is spyware. While this unwanted software is often merely an annoyance, it can compromise privacy, leak data, and potentially perform other malicious actions.

Overprovisioning of privileges/privileged access: Endpoints typically have far more privileged access than absolutely necessary. Additionally, applications, operating systems, and other software all tend to have default system privileges that exceed what is safe or needed for daily operations.

Often, the privileges are persistent (also called “standing privileges”), meaning they are constantly in an active state, ready to be used, or exploited. Each instance of excessive privilege opens up the endpoints and, by extension, the enterprise, to a privilege-based attack. Threat actors can exploit privileges to gain an initial foothold on an endpoint. Then they can use other endpoint privileges to move laterally to other endpoints and assets across the corporate network. Along the way, they may be able to escalate privileges. According to research published by IBM, 70% of attacks involve attempts to move laterally. Managing privileged access on endpoints is critical. Almost every single cyberattack today—whether to gain initial access, or to move about once on the inside—involves the use of privileged access. Different endpoints, applications, software, and users (human and machine) each have unique privileged access implications. For instance, default privileges are created and managed differently across different operating systems. Here are a few examples:

  • In Windows systems, the Administrator account holds superuser privileges. Only the System Account built into the operating system is more powerful. Each Windows computer has at least one local administrator account. Typically, local admin rights far exceed what is needed for most users, and present a bloated threat surface. Administrative rights should be removed from most non-IT users so the typical user only has standard account rights. Some endpoints should be configured with only guest account access, which generally limits rights even further, to just basic application access and internet browsing.
  • In Linux and Unix-like systems, the superuser account, called ‘root’, is virtually omnipotent over the system. The root account has unrestricted access to all commands, files, directories, and resources. Organizations should eliminate root access and put tight security controls and session auditing around any superuser access. The sudo (“superuser do”) command, which allows the user to temporarily elevate privileges to root-level without having direct access to the root account and password, may suffice in some instances. However, sudo introduces its own security and management limitations.
  • For macOS endpoints, IT may need to create non-privileged accounts for users (standard users), and manage the local administrator account.

Endpoint vulnerabilities represent one of the largest security exposures organizations have that can potentially be exploited via cyberattacks. Most mid-to-large sized organization will have thousands of software vulnerabilities strewn across its fleet of endpoints due to the infeasibility of remediation. Fixing a vulnerability on an endpoint is not without its own risks. A vulnerability "fix" may cause downtime or create other problems. Thus, organizations must closely assess the risks and benefits of remediation. Indeed, many vulnerabilities are known and present across an enterprise for many years. Of course, the risk is heightened when there is a known exploit targeting a vulnerability. According to a Ponemon/Morphisec Study, it takes organizations, on average, 97 days to apply, test, and fully deploy patches. Here are the three main types of software vulnerabilities found on endpoints:

  • Firmware vulnerabilities: Firmware is the code/software built into a specific hardware and enables operation of basic device-level functions. On some devices, firmware is loosely considered the device’s operating system. Some examples include iOS for Apple iPhones. With the proliferation of devices, such as IoT and smartphones, firmware vulnerabilities have become a much greater concern in recent years. However, firmware vulnerabilities with massive security ramifications can also arise in mature vendor products. Because they enable operation of basic functions, firmware vulnerabilities can be exceedingly dangerous. Some firmware vulnerabilities essentially give a threat actor root access to a device, completely undermining security features like encryption.
  • Operating system (OS) vulnerabilities can be errors or bugs in code. OS vulnerabilities can also be shortcomings of actual features, such as permitting unnecessary access, that may pose risk. Common operating systems found in enterprise environments include Windows, macOS, Unix, and Linux.
  • Application vulnerabilities are bugs or weaknesses in installed applications. Vulnerabilities could include anything from a privilege application vulnerability, to backdoor root access, to embedded default credentials. Unlike with firmware and OS systems, end users often have the necessary privileges to install applications. Without the vetting of IT, these self-provisioned applications (known as shadow IT) pose an elevated risk to introduce vulnerabilities or other security risks.

Deficiencies in native OS security and toolsets. As mature as Windows is, many of the OS toolsets are basic, and fall far short of the security needed within enterprise environments. Native Windows security components, such as Windows Defender Antivirus, Windows Firewall (called Windows Defender Firewall in Windows 10), and Local Administrator Password Solution (LAPS), provide only basic protections, and are often disabled entirely within enterprises. On the other hand, Windows BitLocker encryption is often an important part of corporate endpoint security.

Linux has some advanced auditing capabilities, but that's far from enough. The sudo program enables users to elevate system privileges on Unix and Linux systems, without receiving root access. Sudo certainly helps mitigate threats given no alternative. However, sudo itself has many limitations and introduces its own security risks. Put simply, sudo falls woefully short of the enterprise-class privileged access security needed for these environments.

macOS systems have traditionally lagged in security, management, and monitoring toolsets, though security has received a bigger focus from Apple in recent years.

Shadow IT refers broadly to any IT technology within a corporate environment that is not provisioned by IT. It can either be installed on the endpoint itself, or accessed via the cloud, or even be an unauthorized device connected to the network. When end users self-provision applications or connect unauthorized endpoints to the network, it can introduce a number of security and operational issues. Shadow IT may be incompatible or interfere with other network systems, suffer from dangerous vulnerabilities, have excessive privileges, and may even introduce a backdoor. Controlling shadow IT has been a decade-long IT challenge. During the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, shadow IT spiked as users scrambled to implement tools that could help them maintain productivity while working from home. In some cases, this included insecure remote access and teleconferencing tools, some of which attackers promptly exploited, with devastating results.

Insider threats (employees, vendors, contractors, etc.) have always presented one of the most significant risks to corporate endpoints and networks since they already have access on the endpoint. These users tend to fly under the radar of many traditional threat detection solutions. An employee could infect their device by inadvertently opening corrupted content from a phishing email or by visiting a malicious website that initiates a drive by download of malware. If the insider is ill-bent and possesses high levels of privileged access, they can easily inflict catastrophic damage. Insider threats, when they happen, tend to be the most harmful. The 2019 Human Factor Report by Proofpoint found that more than 99% of threats observed required human interaction to infect user devices.

Immature password lifecycle management and authentication: Endpoints – whether they be desktops, servers, mobile, devices, IoT—almost always have credentials. Many of these credentials are privileged. Privileged credentials allow the user (human or machine) to perform powerful functionalities or give them sensitive device or application access. According to Forrester Research, over 80% of breaches today involve privileged credentials. Verizon’s 2020 Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR) found that threat actors are increasingly prioritizing acquisition of credentials over deployment of malware. After all, with the right credentials, an attacker obtains instant access to the network. Unfortunately, poor, incomplete password management practices are commonplace within enterprise environments. Here are just a few:

  • Credentials are manually managed, resulting in poor practices, such short passwords, uncomplex passwords, and password reuse. The shorter and less complex the password, the easier it is for automated tools to crack the password. Password reuse is tremendously risky. If a duplicated password is compromised, those stolen credentials can potentially be used to compromise all the other endpoints that share the same credentials. Personal devices typically have much lower cyber defenses than enterprise endpoints. When employees repeat the same passwords across their personal endpoints and applications and work environment, it poses a considerable risk to the corporate network.
  • Default and hardcoded passwords may be present in IoT, legacy applications, and various networked devices. Attackers can also find these embedded within compiled code, using tools even when developers try to obfuscate them. If the same default password is reused across a device model, that information can be used to compromise all similar devices.
  • Credentials are often shared between users, particularly to perform IT administration tasks. This both heightens the risk of password exposure and makes it almost impossible to trace endpoint activity to a single user. A clear session activity trail is a requirement for many common compliance and audit initiatives.

Inadequate encryption: Encryption cracking tools are getting increasingly powerful. Yesterday’s encryption standards can’t always withstand modern attacks. WIthout proper encryption, data can be easily read and compromised should an unauthorized user or threat actor gain access.

Lost or stolen endpoints: In the years of mainframes and desktop computing devices, stolen devices were a rarity. However, once devices went mobile, the number of lost or stolen enterprise devices soon skyrocketed. Stolen or lost devices can create security and compliance risks, especially if the information or access provided by the device is sensitive. The potential for security, legal, and brand fallout increases substantially if the device was not properly secured.

Insecure remote access pathways: An increasingly mobile and remote workforce means endpoints commonly operate outside the network perimeter. These endpoints often connect remotely via home networks and unmanaged WiFi. RDP, VNC, and SSH protocols can provide basic remote access. The problem is that these tools are often stretched beyond their appropriate use cases, which poses serious security and operational ramifications. RDP by itself is insecure. Organizations using RDP should wrap additional security and connectivity solutions around it to ensure remote access sessions are not exposed. In addition, VPNs should never be used on an employee’s personal devices (BYOD) for connecting to corporate networks. Vendor endpoints and internal endpoints that need to perform privileged access remotely require more robust technologies. VPNs can’t granularly control, monitor, or report on privileged access; only access in general. Another security issue is that attackers often plant remote access technologies on targeted endpoints (such as a vendor or IT service provider support systems). The attackers then leverage the remote access on those devices as a jumping off point for attacks on the vendor/IT service provider’s customers. Almost all cyberattacks leverage remote access as a vector, so it’s a critical security piece to get right.

The use of personal devices (BYOD) for work introduces risks and challenges. A personal device may lack many of the endpoint protections and hardening that are applied to corporate-provisioned devices. It’s also possible that family members or housemates share the device and have accounts on it too. Any of these users’ activities could potentially imperil the corporate network. BYOD and VPN should never mix, yet, organizations frequently allow protocol tunneling via these methods. Another complication that occurs with bring your own device deployments is what to do when a device is lost or stolen. The device owner may object to a remote data wipe due to the potential loss of content with high personal value, such as family pictures or videos. On the other hand, it's in the company's best interest to instantly disable a device if there is potential for it to be in the wrong hands.

Vendor access/vendor endpoints represents perhaps the weakest cybersecurity link for most organizations. According to research published by Opus & Ponemon, the average organization shares confidential and sensitive information with approximately 583 third parties. Threat research published by BeyondTrust found that organizations, have, on average, 182 vendors logging into their systems every week. That adds up to a lot of potential security “weakest links!” Opus and Ponemon reported that 59% of companies incurred a breach due to a vendor, while the BeyondTrust report put that number at 58%. Why are so many organizations incurring breaches as a result of vendor endpoints and access? VPNs and many other commonly used technologies don’t provide the granular access controls needed. Many organizations are unable to identify the vendor endpoints accessing their systems, let alone monitor or control what is occurring during the sessions. Do the vendor’s own security standards meet those of your enterprise? How do you enforce and validate that? Do some of a vendor’s employees use personal devices to access your network? What happens if these employees are terminated or leave—could their access remain as an orphan account? The risks arising from vendor endpoints are massive. Since vendors play such an important role for most organizations, getting the vendor access security piece correct is imperative.

Misconfigured endpoints may not only hamper operations, but also introduce attack vectors. Poor configuration settings could involve open ports, outdated exceptions, insecure protocols allowed, etc.

10 Best Practices for Endpoint Security

No single strategy or technology is by itself sufficient to protect your entire, heterogeneous endpoint universe from all threats. Some strategies (i.e. endpoint hardening) and technologies (i.e. privilege management), may be effective security controls against the vast majority of threats on any type of endpoint. Other strategies (i.e. remote wiping, anti-theft protection, etc.) and technologies (i.e. antivirus) may only work, or be applicable, for specific types of endpoints. Every enterprise should adopt the following endpoint security best practices:

1. Define, communicate, and consistently apply your endpoint security policy. Your endpoint security policy is a living, evolving document that should be part of your overarching IT security policy. It should programmatically define best practices and how they should be applied. The policy should define strategies, technologies, and data ownership. For instance, if your organization allows BYOD, the policy should clearly define what data is owned by the company, and what data belongs to the end user. The policy should also detail what should happen in case of a lost or stolen device. Any personal device used for corporate access should also have some form of mobile device management installed on it. MDM can enforce separation of personal and corporate resources, and provide other security functionalities. Your policy should also establish the security controls you will put around vendor access, and the security controls you expect the vendor to implement around their own endpoints. Finally, ensure there is a method in place to measure, test, and audit all of these policies to ensure they are functioning as desired.

2. Discover and onboard, or deny access to, endpoints. The next step involves finding and inventorying every endpoint that connects to your network and onboarding them. This also implies applying your organization’s security policies to the endpoints after they are discovered. Discovery and onboarding should be a continuous process. In some cases, this step will occur proactively, such as when IT is specifically provisioning a device for a user or deploying a server. In other cases, this will occur reactively, such as when a new, unknown device touches the network. Devices should also be properly registered and monitored for issues, necessary updates, and to reconfirm overall health status.

3. Endpoint hardening involves removing or disabling unnecessary programs, access, embedded or other features to condense the attack surface. It is a continuous process performed throughout the lifecycle of technology—from initial installation, through configuration, maintenance, and support, to end-of-life decommissioning. Endpoint hardening practices vary by endpoint, with more complex and powerful endpoints generally requiring more steps. Endpoints should always be hardened before being connected to the internet or corporate networks. Application and Operating system hardening are two of the most important aspects of endpoint hardening.

OS hardening can entail the following:

  • Removing unnecessary drivers, file sharing, libraries, software, services, and functionality
  • Encrypting local storage
  • Tightening registry and other systems permissions
  • Implementing privileged user controls

Application hardening can entail:

  • Restricting app-to-app communications
  • Removing or turning off unneeded features
  • Eliminating embedded credentials and replacing them with API calls

Endpoint hardening is really a subset of actions aligned with the principle of least privilege (PoLP), which is described next.

4. Enforce least privilege across all your endpoints. This means restricting access rights and permissions to the lowest level required for endpoints, the processes, software, and applications that run on them, and the users that use them. Privileged accounts and access should be outright eliminated wherever possible. Holistically enforcing least privilege is one of the most surefire and fundamental security protections organizations can implement to minimize their risk surface, condense, threat windows, and improve endpoint performance. Because of the immense potential for destruction, if misused or abused, inherent to superuser/IT admin privileges—particularly Administrator, Domain Admin, or Root—these users should only be able to log into privileged accounts when absolutely necessary, and only for the finite moments (known as just-in-time access) that privileged access is required. The risk-reduction potential of least privilege is well established. The Microsoft Vulnerability Report 2020 found that eliminating local admin rights (removing privileges) on endpoints would have mitigated 83% of Critical Microsoft vulnerabilities over a 5-year period. BeyondTrust CTO/CISO Morey Haber published vulnerability research showing similar reductions could also be achieved by enforcing least privilege across third-party applications, including Oracle, Google, Adobe, VMware, and Cisco. Since most malware requires privilege to execute, least privilege can prevent attacks from compromising an endpoint in the first place. In instances where an endpoint has already been successfully breached, malware and cybercriminals typically need privileges access to move around the environment, known as lateral movement. Reducing privilege to the minimum level means that, even if attackers gain a foothold, they are essentially marooned, and the attack is contained. Moreover, by enforcing just-in-time privileged access—which is done by triggering access when certain parameters within a context are met—you limit the duration that privileges are actually available for use and exploit, condensing the threat window. The ability for least privilege to work across three dimensions—preventing attacks from landing and executing, limiting and preventing movement, and restricting privilege availability based on time, makes least privilege arguably the most important and powerful security best practice. Least privilege can protect against both known and unknown threats, whether they originate internally or externally.

5. Apply encryption to protect data stored on the device and in transit. To minimize the risk of data leaks, the strength of encryption should at least meet what is required by applicable regulatory standards. More sensitive data (for instance, health data or superuser credentials), may necessitate higher levels of encryption than less sensitive data. Even if a device is stolen or an email is intercepted, if robust encryption is in place, the data will be unreadable. Under many regulatory and compliance initiatives, including the HIPAA Breach Notification Rule, the theft or loss of adequately encrypted devices is not considered a reportable data breach.

6. Identify, prioritize, and remediate vulnerabilities. This involves scanning for and assessing the impact of known vulnerabilities, such as Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVE), against the operating system, firmware, custom software, commercial applications, etc., running on your endpoints. Your organization should have a mature patch management program and a strong policy that dictates desired software configurations and how any changes should occur, if needed. Also ensure devices are running supported versions of firmware, software, applications, etc. In some cases, risk-benefit analysis may dictate no remediation action be taken. This often happens when a vulnerability poses a low risk, but the fix for it may cause disruption across many endpoints, or impact mission-critical systems. Vulnerability remediation can entail applying a patch, performing a configuration change, eliminating embedded or default credentials, etc. Many regulations and security frameworks (NIST, PCI DSS, HIPAA, etc.) emphasize vulnerability management as one of the most fundamental IT security practices. Aside from patch management, vulnerability management may also involve pen testing and threat hunting. Pen testing typically involves third-party security professionals and tools probing for vulnerabilities across your endpoints that can be exploited. In the absence of a working exploit, a vulnerability by itself is just a theoretical risk. However, once an exploit has been architected for a vulnerability, it becomes a threat. Threat hunting refers to the process of proactively seeking out threats by looking for indicators of compromise (IoCs). When threat hunting, you assume that an attack has already occurred and a threat actor is active in your environment.

7. Implement threat detection, prevention, and mitigation. Many viruses, ransomware, and other malware threats are already known and documented. This knowledge should be applied to block, quarantined, remove, or mitigate these threats. While signature-based threat protection may only protect your environment against up to 40% of malware threats, it remains an important line of defense as well as a requirement for all regulatory compliance mandates.

8. Protect devices from physical threats. This entails such security controls as:

  • Implementing anti-theft technology on the devices (i.e. smartphones, PCs)
  • Enabling GPS location awareness, providing security cables for laptops
  • Restricting physical access to where the devices are used or stored.

For instance, you may want to ensure laptops are locked in a secure cabinet in an area under constant human and/or video surveillance.

9. Secure vendor endpoints and remote access: Organizations should strive to achieve the same security best practices they uphold within their perimeter beyond their perimeter as well. This means ensuring only the right identity on the right endpoint (which has been properly hardened) has access to the right resources, and within the right context. To ensure the right identity is doing the right things with the vendor account/endpoint, you need to apply basic identity management and privileged identity controls. Important controls include:

  • Enforcing least privilege
  • Applying multi-factor authentication
  • Rotating passwords and using one-time passwords (OTPs)
  • Implementing session management and monitoring to audit and control all vendor/remote access-initiated session activity

10. Integrate your endpoint security technologies with each other and across the rest of your security and IT stack. When evaluating any new IT security tool, one of the first questions you should ask is: how does this tool integrate with the rest of my security ecosystem? Does it create synergies, or does it create more complexity and administration issues? Any new tool/solutions should naturally fit within, and become an integrated part of, your IT and IS environment. Thee more holistic your picture of risk, the more rapidly you can orchestrate a pinpoint response to prevent, mitigate, or remediate attacks.

The Benefits of Endpoint Security

With the right mix of endpoint security strategies and technologies tailored to their environment, organizations can realize at least several distinct benefits:

  • Improve security: This is the most obvious benefit. Enforcing least privilege and managing vulnerabilities drastically reduces the threat surface. Applying JIT access controls condenses threat windows. Employing signature-based tools keeps endpoints safe from known threats. Implementing this layered strategy drastically drives down the risk of security incidents and data breaches that may arise from external or internal threats.
  • Enhance endpoint performance: Eliminating superfluous privileges and hardening devices translates into fewer misconfigurations, incompatibilities, security incidents, and other issues that may cause disruption. Preventing malware infection or endpoint compromise by an unauthorized user also protects against endpoint instability.
  • Simplify compliance and auditability: Restricting features in accordance with least privilege and hardening practices reduces endpoint complexity. This also makes it easier to performing auditing activities and prove compliance. Implementing security controls like session monitoring and management and vulnerability assessments may also provide instant visibility and reporting necessary for compliance efforts. The more tightly an endpoint system is integrated, and the better the visibility across the endpoint universe, the more straightforward the path to compliance.
  • Enable the enterprise: A strong endpoint cybersecurity posture enables the enterprise in a number of ways. With the right tools, IT can securely enable more types of endpoints, heterogeneous infrastructure, and confidently pursue business-enabling changes to the environment, including the roll-out of new technologies. For instance, organizations with robust endpoint security were well-prepared for the seismic shift to remote work during coronavirus pandemic. Increasingly, cybersecurity posture is also assessed before entering a partnership with another company. Cybersecurity posture is also evaluated when companies undergo an acquisition process. Acquiring companies are increasingly sensitive to negative security surprises.

Top Endpoint Security Technologies

According to a 2020 Ponemon/Morphisec Study, 68% of organizations have experienced one or more endpoint attacks that have compromised data assets and/or IT infrastructure over the last two years. Moreover, anti-virus / anti-malware solutions reportedly miss an average of 60 percent of attacks, Of the attacks that compromised an endpoint, 80% characterize the attack as a zero day threat (for which signature-based antivirus/anti-malware is ineffective), but 17% say it was known, and 3% are unsure.

While traditional AV/anti-malware remains relevant, it is just one part of a multi-layered approach to protecting your endpoint universe. Together, your endpoint security solutions should protect against both internal and external threats, whether on-premise, connecting remotely, physical, virtual, or in the cloud.

Here are the core endpoint security solutions, ordered by priority:

Antivirus / antimalware are perhaps the most traditional and well-recognized forms of endpoint protection. AV / antimalware typically works by scanning traffic to a device and/or the device’s content for patterns that match a database of virus signatures. While many IT thought leaders have touted the demise of AV, it remains widely deployed. Basic antivirus software provides detection and protection against known threat signatures. Today, most AV and anti-malware solutions have evolved to incorporate some advanced protection methodologies that incorporate heuristics, behavioral analysis, and even machine learning. Enterprise AV / antimalware solutions are typically installed on a wide array of devices, including servers, desktops and laptops, gateways, and more. These solutions, which may include “next-generation AV”, are centrally managed from the corporate network in most instances. Some devices, such as smartphones, require specialized AV solutions that work at the device-level only. However, one limitation with AV is that many types of endpoints, such as IoT, lack the computing necessary to install and run AV, though cloud-based AV deployments may be of some use in these cases. Other well-known drawbacks of solutions in this class include:

  • Device or network performance degradation when the solution is running
  • High numbers of missed threats
  • Numerous false positives and security alerts that hinder IT’s ability to respond to what is important

‘Next-generation’ AV solutions tend to avoid some of these issues by leveraging cloud processing and foregoing the use of bloated agents. Some solutions also include sandboxing capabilities. A sandbox essentially quarantines an unknown/suspicious program and runs it in isolation to see if malicious characteristics present themselves.

Privileged Access Management (PAM) solutions manage privileges for users (human and machine), endpoints, systems, applications, processes, etc. PAM solutions also monitor, manage, and record activity occurring during privileged sessions. While there are many point solutions in this space, complete PAM platforms are comprised of the following three functional areas:

  • Privileged Credential/Password Management solutions (also called Privileged Account & Session Management (PASM)), enable automated discovery and onboarding of all privileged accounts, secure access to privileged credentials and secrets for humans and machines, and auditing of all privileged activities. Privileged credential management solutions also eliminate embedded passwords in IoT, applications, scripts, and DevOps tools. These solutions replace the embedded credentials with API calls, or, in the case of DevOps and CI/CD toolsets, implement dynamic secrets. Session monitoring and management capabilities empower organizations to audit all activity and home in on and pause or terminate suspicious sessions. By enforcing password security best practices across all types of credentials (passwords, secrets, SSH keys, etc.), privileged credential management solutions eliminate or mitigate threats such as password reuse, pass-the-hash (PtH), and stolen credentials. They also create unique and complex passwords able to withstand automated cracking tools, and that are never revealed to the end user.
  • Endpoint Privilege Management solutions (also called Privilege Elevation & Delegation (PEDM)), combine least privilege management and advanced application control capabilities to condense the endpoint attack surface, eliminate unwanted lateral movement, and minimize threat windows by applying just-in-time access models. Endpoint privilege management can be applied to Windows, Mac, Unix, Linux systems, network devices, IoT, and more. These solutions remove admin rights from end-users and dynamically elevate access to applications just for the moments needed. Endpoint privilege management solutions can securely elevate applications via powerful rules engines and comprehensive exception handling. Some solutions can also enable passwordless administration, which is the ability to perform administrative functions on an endpoint without the need for privileged or administrator credentials. Endpoint privilege management protects endpoints from insider threats and external threats. These solutions can even protect against sophisticated attacks such as from fileless malware/living off the land (LoTL) attacks, ransomware, and zero day exploits. The combination of application control and privilege management can also be used to eliminate, or at least put controls around, shadow IT.
  • Secure Remote Access solutions enable organizations to extend PAM best practices to remote access. These solutions apply least privilege and robust audit controls to all remote access required by employees, vendors, and service desks. With secure remote access solutions in place, users should be able to quickly and securely access any remote endpoints, running any platform, located anywhere. The granular privilege control and specialized security capabilities of this software far transcends that of VPNs, which it often replaces. Vendor credentials can also be securely managed (rotated, encrypted, etc.) from a centralized vault, and injected when needed so the vendor never sees them. These PAM solutions also provide granular auditing to make traditionally complex requirements straightforward.

Comprehensive privileged access management solutions deliver powerful threat reduction and risk mitigation across an organization’s entire privilege universe. PAM solutions can be deployed on-premise, in the cloud, or hybrid. They can also a key requirement of any zero trust initiatives.

Endpoint protection platforms (EPP) are generally comprised of a multilayer set of security technologies managed through a centralized console. These solutions aim to protect against multiple threat vectors across an enterprise’s endpoint estate. Many EPPs leverage the cloud to perform analysis, eliminating any processing hit to endpoints. Endpoint protection platforms can be delivered as SaaS and managed remotely, or they can be installed directly on devices with central management software hosted on a server. EPP solutions typically perform scanning of files via an advanced AV/antimalware engine that protects against signature-based attacks and that incorporates behavioral analysis to expand threat protection. EPPs usually incorporate endpoint firewalls that help tightly control network traffic through specific ports on the individual endpoints. These solutions may also incorporate basic application control (whitelisting, blacklisting), sandboxing, and machine learning capabilities.

Endpoint management encompasses a range of solutions and processes around managing the lifecycle of endpoints. Endpoint management solutions may be capable of centrally discovering, onboarding, registering, provisioning, updating, monitoring, and troubleshooting endpoint devices. Solutions in this category include mobile device management (MDM), enterprise mobility management (EMM), unified endpoint management (which may integrate a number of capabilities, including MDM, EMM, etc.). While point solutions, like MDM and EMM, work across certain types of mobile devices, UEM solutions strive to wrap lifecycle management capabilities around a diverse array of devices. UEM solutions may cover servers, desktops, mobile devices, IoT, and more. Endpoint management solutions play a key role in optimizing device performance, ensuring correct configurations, and establishing a consistent baseline of device hygiene. These solutions also allow for remote management. They can even wrap security controls, such as remote data wipe, anti-tampering, and geo-tracking, around devices to provide protection in the event a device is lost or stolen.

Endpoint detection and remediation (EDR) solutions continuously inspect files and applications that enter a device to extend protection beyond simple signature-based threats. This includes protecting against some types of ransomware, zero-day threats, fileless malware, and more advanced attacks. In contrast to EPP solutions, EDR solutions can provide intrusion detection and a deeper level of advanced threat analysis and forensics. Thus, EDR tools play a bigger role in containing and responding to a security incident or breach event once it has already occurred. However, one of the drawbacks of EDR solutions can be a high number of false positives and security alerts. Increasingly, IT service providers are offering managed detection and remediation (MDR), which provides the customer with capabilities backed by a team of analysts. More recently, EDR has been evolving into XDR. XDR solutions incorporate data sources beyond the endpoint, such as traffic analysis, so provide a more holistic and context-informed approach than EDR.

Encryption refers to the encoding of data so that it is unreadable and unusable without the correct decryption key. As encryption cracking tools have become more powerful, encryption methodologies have had to evolve to ensure data security. While encryption capabilities are important components of many endpoint security solutions (PAM, DLP, endpoint firewalls) as well as natively on device firmware and software, there are also standalone solutions designed to encrypt endpoint data. Endpoint encryption software typically either protects individual files, or is applied across the entire hard drive, known as full disk encryption.

Application control solutions protect endpoints, most commonly end-user devices and servers, from executing unauthorized applications. Traditionally, these solutions make use of allow lists (whitelists), block lists (blacklists), and greylists. Greylisted applications are applications that have been identified, but have not been added to allow or block lists. Special security rules may be put in place so that greylisted applications can run in some circumstances, as needed.

Application control solutions may also be able to enforce granular control over application usage. For instance, application control could allow a specific user/endpoint to execute a certain sub-function of an application, while disabling or blocking the execution of other application functions for that user/endpoint. Cloud-based reputation services may also be leveraged to determine whether an application is safe to run. Application control can be sold as a point solution, or be included in other platforms, such as endpoint privilege management, or next-generation firewalls (NGFWs). Integration within these other platforms often allows for natural augmentation of the capabilities that provide advanced application protection. Application control solutions must be finely calibrated to enable seamless use of authorized applications for legitimate use cases, while preventing against malware, ransomware, and other threats.

Patch management solutions automate the process of downloading patches, identifying the endpoints, applications, or other software that need the patches, and then—usually after testing of the patches and if then given verification from a human—applying the patches. In some instances, patches may need to be manually applied. However, automating the patching process as much as possible helps organizations scale to meet the thousands of vulnerabilities across their endpoint estate. When dealing with a dangerous vulnerability for which an exploit already exists in the wild, time is of the essence, so automation is key. Patch management is a core part of vulnerability management and is often tightly integrated with enterprise vulnerability management solutions.

Vulnerability management (VM) solutions provide a proactive approach to discovering, analyzing, and remediating vulnerabilities. Drawing from vulnerability databases (CVE, etc.) these solutions perform vulnerability scans that deliver a snapshot of the vulnerabilities found across the endpoint environment. VM solutions put context around the risk. This context helps the organization evaluate the scope and level of risk posed by the threat, weighing that against the mitigation options for the vulnerability. Vulnerability scans generally only represent a moment-in-time snapshot, though some scans that are low-impact on resources may run continuously. Scans often need to run on sensitive resources that require privileged access. These are called credentialed scans as they require injection of credentials to be run. Due to the highly sensitive and privileged nature of such scans, the credentials should be injected into the VM solution using an enterprise privileged credential management solution. Credentialled scans tend to uncover more dangerous threats than credential scans. Vulnerability scanning can be highly automated Some VM solutions can scale across the entire IT infrastructure. However, human input is typically required to determine and initiate the best course of action. Of course, most vulnerability management solutions are dependent on databases of known vulnerabilities (signatures) and provide limited, if any, protection against zero-day threats. A good vulnerability management tool should be continuously updated with the latest vulnerability signatures.

Web filtering solutions (URL filtering, etc.), put controls around the sites that users can access via their browsers and help mitigate the human element in threats. Organizations can block content by category and/or blacklist certain URLs. Employees reaching a blocked page will typically see a message informing them why access to the request page has been restricted. Web filtering solutions can protect endpoints from visiting malicious sites that pose a risk of infection. Web filtering can also block content that a company deems inappropriate, which in some settings, such as k-12 schools, may be required by compliance.

Data Loss Prevention (DLP) solutions aim to prevent leakage or unauthorized transmission of data. DLP is an important endpoint data protection technology. The solutions analyze context and content to help ensure only the right individual or systems can access the data. Some use cases for DLP include preventing a user from:

  • Uploading or downloading unauthorized information from a USB
  • Accessing a sensitive file attachment in an email when using a personally-owned device
  • Emailing a sensitive document (such as containing financial results) to an individual who is not authorized to receive it
  • Inappropriately sharing sensitive content with a teammate or other individual over a messaging app—even if the app itself is authorized by the organization

DLP can be deployed across many types of endpoints and systems, including end-user devices, servers, and gateways. These solutions leverage encryption, rules-based structure, and database fingerprinting to make fast, accurate decisions about the legitimacy of data access requests. DLP solutions can also send alerts of inappropriate data access requests to the appropriate IT or compliance personnel.

Penetration (Pen) Testing solutions allow security teams and researchers to simulate attacks against an environment and probe for potential vulnerabilities. This process yields information useful for hardening the organization’s defenses. Pen testing is a highly proactive methodology that is part of an overall vulnerability management program. Some vulnerability management solutions may have built-in pen testing features. Pen testing is a useful way to find potential threats that other tools may miss. The practice can also contribute a better understanding of how potential changes to IT infrastructure and endpoint configurations could create new attack pathways.

Endpoint firewalls/host-based firewalls are software that runs on endpoints. This is in contrast to the types of firewalls (stateful, packet filtering, next-generation, etc.) more closely associated with network security. Endpoint firewalls are sometimes referred to as “personal firewalls” and they may be installed on and protect desktops, laptops, and servers. Endpoint firewalls inspect traffic, apply rules, and may even perform behavioral monitoring to protect the endpoint from malware and attacks originating either within or outside the corporate network. A web application firewall (WAF) is a subtype of endpoint firewalls. WAFs are used to protect endpoint-hosted applications and web services, such as WordPress, from SQL injections and other malicious attacks.

Anti-spyware detects, prevents, and removes unwanted software, including adware. While organizations tend to purchase anti-spyware as an add-on module to their anti-virus solutions, standalone software also exists, but is generally consumer-grade.

Mapping Enterprise Endpoint Security Solutions to Best Practices, Cybersecurity Capabilities, & Device Coverage

Comparing Endpoint Security Solutions

Evolving to Modern Endpoint Security

Endpoint security has evolved considerably over the last several decades—from simple, signature-based antivirus software to a holistic strategy and technology stack designed to protect against known or unknown threats to endpoints. Today, protection of endpoints is necessary to prevent, contain, mitigate, and remediate external and internal threats, and scale to meet the growing diversity of devices whether on-premise or remote, employee, or vendor. It also needs to be forward-looking so it can accommodate the evolving IT and threat environment, and withstand new tests, such as the high-velocity attacks that could soon emerge as 5g becomes more widespread. Most importantly, your endpoint security technology stack should be built with solutions that communicate and collaborate with your broader IT and security ecosystem.