Secure Remote Access: What is It and Best Practices

Beyond Identity Blog | Tuesday, September 21, 2021

With more and more workplaces either going fully remote or implementing a hybrid workplace, securing remote workers has never been more important. The concept of secure remote access refers to a set of security procedures and solutions aimed at preventing unauthorized access to digital assets and preventing data theft. A secure remote access solution may consist of several different methods, including Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), multi-factor authentication (MFA), and endpoint encryption.

Employees who work from home rely on home devices, home routers, and insecure Wi-Fi networks. Attackers can easily compromise all of them, yet corporate IT personnel find it difficult to monitor and safeguard them.

Because of the rapidly evolving threat landscape and the rise in remote employees due to the coronavirus pandemic, secure remote access has become a critical component of today's IT infrastructure. In order to succeed, it's imperative to educate users, strengthen cybersecurity policies, and develop best practices in security hygiene.

What are the benefits of secure remote access?

Secure remote access benefits are numerous, but the following four are particularly valuable:

  • It facilitates secure Internet browsing and use
  • It offers better data protection due to extra security features in place
  • It protects laptops and mobile devices
  • It keeps security awareness at the forefront

Pros and Cons of Secure Remote Access Technologies

VPNs

VPNs enable secure remote access between distant network nodes. A process known as "tunneling" is used to provide secure data transmission between the endpoints of a VPN connection. VPN connections can be classified as Site-to-Site or Client-to-Site connections. Site-to-Site VPNs connect numerous Wide Area Network (WAN) sites.

Establishing VPNs that connect business partners and other branches of your organization gives rise to some questions and considerations, regardless of whether you utilize the hub-and-spoke, mesh, or hybrid network configurations.

For example, a large corporation with offices in different locations can use a VPN so that IT staff at one office can monitor servers in another office. However, keeping the VPN connection on all the time can allow unscrupulous employees to access corporate resources they are not authorized to access.

A record number of employees are now working from home, resulting in security incidents, often associated with VPN vulnerabilities. Deploying patches to avoid these VPN vulnerabilities requires time, diligence, and monitoring. If a hacker has already collected credentials through a VPN vulnerability a patch will do nothing and the malicious attacker will have access to sensitive data. 

The lack of scalability is another problem, which is a priority for many organizations as their workforce becomes scattered. VPN services were designed for the use case where a small percentage of employees work remotely. The consequence is that VPNs are highly limited in scalability and agility. 

Privileged Access Management (PAM)

PAM is a suite of tools and technologies for securing, controlling, and monitoring access to an organization's resources through privileged accounts. Ensuring continuous monitoring of these target areas reduces the risk of unauthorized network access and makes it easier for IT administrators to identify unusual network activity.

Nonetheless, it's a fact of today's threat landscape that many attacks rely on or exploit some aspect of privileged access management and privileged credential abuse is a popular target for hackers. According to a recent report, 74% of organizations that experienced a data breach said it involved a privileged account. 

On top of all this, the time involved in managing PAM, which includes granting and revoking access, is also a significant time cost for companies.

Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP)

RDP is a Microsoft-developed secure network communication protocol for managing and accessing virtual desktops and applications remotely. RDP facilitates remote user logins, as well as the use of network computing and storage resources. If you use the cloud for RDP, you can avoid purchasing and maintaining dedicated server and storage solutions.

Although RDP has some benefits, it is susceptible to vulnerabilities that may compromise your internal network and can be a target for man-in-the-middle attacks. Moreover, RDPs can be used for credential harvesting, remote code execution, or even to drop malware directly on the computer.

If RDP ports are left open on the internet and can be accessed with simple passwords, severe security issues can arise, like passwords being compromised. If this happens, hackers can get into company networks through insecure RDPs. Unauthorized access through RDP gives attackers access to corporate servers, which in turn allows them to launch ransomware attacks.

RDP is a large attack vector for many types of malicious cyber activities, including increasingly ransomware attacks, because millions of computers have their RDP ports exposed online without any security.

Best Practices for Secure Remote Access

Passwordless Authentication

Passwordless authentication refers to an authentication method that does not require a password at all. Passwords aren't used as a backup or as an alternate authentication mechanism. In addition, passwords are never stored in a password vault or manager.

Passwordless authentication improves security posture and eliminates password management costs for organizations. Passwords create friction for users, impede productivity, and are fundamentally a weak mechanism of authentication.

MFA

In traditional multi-factor authentication, two or more authentication methods (such as knowledge-based, possession-based, or entity-based) are used. Multi-factor authentication makes it harder for an intruder to hack into company resources. This is because the intruder must also possess the hardware device or body part necessary for authentication in addition to knowing the username and password. 

MFA that relies on passwords as one of its factors can no longer keep up with the sophistication of cyber attacks. With the rapid growth of remote working, it is imperative that companies ensure the identity of the user behind each device and assess the risk level before granting access. 

Passwordless MFA protects your organization from phishing, ransomware, and other password-based attacks by eliminating passwords and relying solely on secure factors such as cryptographically-verified devices and biometrics. 

Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) Security Procedures

A majority of organizations store their sensitive data in a data center accessible through the network. Allowing employees to bring mobile devices to the workplace poses a number of concerns. One area of concern is security.

It is extremely important for companies to develop policies and procedures regarding mobile devices. This could include centralized management of mobile devices and applications, staff training, and comprehensive BYOD guidelines. The following are issues that an organization needs to take into consideration when it comes to mobile devices in the workplace:

  • Loss of company or customer data
  • Unauthorized access to company resources
  • Malware infections
  • Compliance with industry standards
  • Device management

Mobile devices come with a wide range of operating systems. One major concern is that the devices and applications do not belong to the company. To resolve the problem of mobile devices in the workplace, a company can create a guest or separate networks.

You can review the mobile device security checklist we have to make sure your organization is protecting itself against insecure devices.

Risk-Based Authentication

Risk-based authentication refers to a process that calculates risk scores for any given access attempt in real-time by considering a variety of factors, including the time of login and location. Higher risk scores indicate a higher likelihood of a fraudulent login attempt and would require more levels of verification.

Risk levels are evaluated against a threshold score, which is defined in your identity and access management (IAM) platform. This evaluation identifies the type of authentication required for the login attempt.

Access Control

An access control mechanism allows organizations to restrict access to information, information assets, and other tangible resources to those individuals who have a legitimate business need. Access control ensures that only authorized users gain access to trusted areas of an organization, whether it's logical access to the organization's information systems or physical access to its facilities. Access control is maintained by a set of policies, programs that implement these policies, and technologies that enforce these policies.

You can learn more about what makes a good access control policy and how to pick an access control solution. 

Zero Trust

Organizations employ zero trust as one of the most effective methods of limiting access to their data, applications, and networks. It's based around the concept of "never trust, always verify."

In order to improve security, zero trust requires secure, authenticated, and authorized access to all resources no matter the user's status within the organization. The least privilege principle limits access to resources users need to accomplish their tasks. Enterprises can strengthen their security posture and ensure they are prepared to deal with sophisticated attacks by adopting zero trust principles.

Ensure remote access to your data is secure

It is essential to ensure your security systems keep pace with the ever-changing threat landscape and your internal processes adapt as organizations continue to work remotely or in hybrid environments.

Learn more about how Beyond Identity eliminates passwords and provides a secure remote access solution that is frictionless and scalable. Get a demo today.