This year, many companies across the world are grappling with the long-term implications of a distributed workforce. Some employers are now fully and permanently remote. Others are bringing team members back to the office, to regain some of the creativity and camaraderie that was lost during the pandemic. Still others have adopted a hybrid model, with remote employees “touching down” at common times and places when in-person collaboration is necessary. In all these cases, remote and hybrid staff need access to sensitive and valuable company data, wherever they are located. Here are the considerations, as well as the steps you can take, to successfully protect valuable data and services with multi-factor authentication (MFA).
When employees or contractors are working in-office, data access has an automatic layer of security provided by the local network. One device or system connecting to another on the same network are automatically authenticated because the access connections frequently happen within the same server cluster.
However, when a staff member’s device or system tries to connect from outside of the local network, it uses a secured path to send and retrieve data. Two of the most common approaches to provide this access capacity are Remote Desktop Protocol and Virtual Private Network.
Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) and Virtual Private Network (VPN) are two of the most popular ways to provide access to remote employees. Each has benefits and drawbacks which are discussed below:
The problem with both of these approaches lies in single reliance on the password. When a non-authenticated user gains access to an employee’s password, they can use it to log in through RDP. That non-authenticated user now has access to everything the employee had, but from their own device. That access allows them to do everything the employee could, including taking or distributing valuable information, deleting files or email messages, and potentially other destructive activity. It’s the same story with VPN – they can take whatever the employee had access to and download it to their own machine. But the solution is the same for both approaches: implement MFA.
Two-factor authentication (2FA) has been around for decades but historically tied authentication to a USB key or dongle. MFA expanded the authentication into other mediums, such as biometrics, RSA keys, SMS text messages, push notifications, and other secure code schemes. However, 2FA and MFA are essentially the same thing, requiring a combination of two things to authenticate:
When a remote employee wants to access the company’s data, they login to their device and try to connect over the internet. After they enter their password, they are prompted by the MFA service to authenticate. Once the employee completes the authentication, they now have access to the data requested. If a non-authenticated user uses that same password, they will not be able to gain the same access, unless they also have access to the MFA service particulars.
As you might imagine, there are numerous ways to implement multi-factor authentication across your enterprise. There are an equal number of providers whose solutions fall everywhere along the spectrum. Here are a few for quick reference:
Using one service versus another really boils down to functionality requirements. Each provider varies in functions, pricing, and compatibility. However, as you move forward with a certain approach, it’s crucial to prepare your workforce for the roll-out ahead of time, so that your business can achieve successful adoption and reduce unnecessary service calls.
Some companies that implement MFA miss an important first step before going live: employee education. Remember that remote access data security is only as good as its weakest link, which is frequently not the system itself. Instead, it is typically user habits that fall outside best practices, specifically with passwords.
Some companies have tried to address this issue by creating policies like requiring passwords to change every three months, or never repeating a password. Unfortunately, these approaches are antiquated and don’t actually address the underlying need: ensuring that employees or contractors who must access data remotely to do their jobs can, without an onerous or overbearing technical process involved. Otherwise, users just create slight variations of the same easy-to-remember passwords (and easy to hack), which aren’t any more secure. So, the goal isn’t to necessarily replace the password. Instead, it’s to put at least two mutually exclusive factors in the right employee’s grasp. The key is that the combination of those actors is difficult or impossible for another user to successfully replicate and gain authentication.
This is especially critical for fintech or healthcare companies, whose data access and security infrastructures are complex, distributed, and provide lots of varying policy levels. We recommend you take these steps before proceeding:
After the pre-implementation has made progress, it’s time to build out the system. Your IT team should define and document the user experience (UX) for consistent adoption. They will likely be very involved in the ongoing user education portion of the initiative, helping populate training materials with screenshots and other content to help employees better understand how to follow the new process. At the same time, your IT team will manage the install and configure everything to properly function as intended, performing UAT and PIV. Also, your development team might need to be involved to protect custom applications.
Even with a compelling, mandatory, and participatory employee training regime, plus a buttoned-up MFA system configured by the team perfectly, problems still happen. Unfortunately, there is no way to completely engineer around the human condition of seeking paths of least resistance. The same things that make MFA authentication easy may be the same places for system failure.
Many employees have developed “notification fatigue” where they automatically click approve on pop-ups, just to continue working on what they are working on. Therefore, push notifications can present an easy social engineering opportunity for external groups to gain unauthorized access, then exploit your network and data. Coming full circle, education is important… but employees must take a moment to pause, read, consider, and judge the veracity of a notification.
There is a significant cost in service calls that come in for basic configuration adjustments. Instead of an IT team addressing external security threats or system downtime challenges, they may be bogged down, dealing with application installations. Consider how to white list certain application installations from a network resource, so that you provide an adequate self-service solution to staff while maintaining version control and overall access safety.
We want to harness the creativity of your workforce to solve business problems, not struggle with authentication regimes. With careful consideration of the user experience around security and authentication, you will gain enthusiastic advocates, instead of begrudged policy-followers. Put the users’ needs first, and build out the methodology, process, and education around those priorities. By doing this, you will find that implementing multi-factor authentication effectively secures all of the valuable data and systems that your enterprise relies upon.
Published on: June 22, 2022 by Jason Killingsworth, Director of Hosting Technologies