Securing human resources from cyber attack
As COVID-19 forced organizations to re-imagine how the workplace operates just to maintain basic operations, HR departments and their processes became key players in the game of keeping our economy afloat while keeping people alive.
Without a doubt, people form the core of any organization. The HR department must strike an increasingly delicate balance while fulfilling the myriad of needs of workers in this “new normal” and supporting organizational efficiency. As the tentative first steps of re-opening are being taken, many organizations remain remote, while others are transitioning back into the office environment.
Navigating the untested waters of managing HR through this shift to remote and back again is complex enough without taking cybercrime and data security into account, yet it is crucial that HR do exactly that. The data stored by HR is the easy payday cybercriminals are looking for and a nightmare keeping CISOs awake at night.
Why securing HR data is essential
If compromised, the data stored by HR can do a devastating amount of damage to both the company and the personal lives of its employees. HR data is one of the highest risk types of information stored by an organization given that it contains everything from basic contractor details and employee demographics to social security numbers and medical information.
Many state and federal laws and regulations govern the storage, transmission and use of this high value data. The sudden shift to a more distributed workforce due to COVID-19 increased risks because a large portion of the HR workforce being remote means more and higher access levels across cloud, VPN, and personal networks.
Steps to security
Any decent security practitioner will tell you that no security setup is foolproof, but there are steps that can me taken to significantly reduce risk in an ever-evolving environment. A multi-layer approach to security offers better protection than any single solution. Multiple layers of protection might seem redundant, but if one layer fails, the other layers work fill in gaps.
Securing HR-related data needs to be approached from both a technical and end user perspective. This includes controls designed to protect the end user or force them into making appropriate choices, and at the same time providing education and awareness so they understand how to be good stewards of their data.
Secure the identity
The first step to securing HR data is making sure that the ways in which users access data are both secure and easy to use. Each system housing HR data should be protected by a federated login of some variety. Federated logins use a primary source of identity for managing usernames and passwords such as Active Directory.
When a user uses a federated login, the software utilizes a system like LDAP, SAML, or OAuth to query the primary source of identity to validate the username and password, as well as ensure that the user has appropriate rights to access. This ensures that users only have to learn one username and password and we can ensure that the password complies with organizationally mandated complexity policies.
The next step to credential security is to add a second factor of authentication on every system storing HR data. This is referred to as Multi-factor Authentication (MFA) and is a vital preventative measure when used well. The primary rule of MFA says that the second factor should be something “the user is or has” to be most effective.
This second factor of authentication can be anything from a PIN generated on a mobile device to a biometric check to ensure the person entering the password is, in fact, the actual owner. Both of these systems are easy for end users to use and add very little additional friction to the authentication effort, while significantly reducing the risk of credential theft, as it’s difficult for someone to compromise users’ credentials and steal their mobile device or a copy of their fingerprints.
In today’s world, HR users working from somewhere other than the office is not unusual. With this freedom comes the need to secure the means by which they access data, regardless of the network they are using. The best way to accomplish this is to set up a VPN and ensure that all HR systems are only accessible either from inside of the corporate network or from IPs that are connected to the VPN.
A VPN creates an encrypted tunnel between the end user’s device and the internal network. The use of a VPN protects the user against snooping even if they are using an unsecured network like a public Wi-Fi at a coffee shop. Additionally, VPNs require authentication and, if that includes MFA, there are three layers of security to ensure that the person connecting in is a trusted user.
Next, you have to ensure that access is being used appropriately or that no anomalous use is taking place. This is done through a combination of good logging and good analytics software. Solutions that leverage AI or ML to review how access is being utilized and identify usage trends further increase security. The logging solution verifies appropriate usage while the analysis portion helps to identify any questionable activity taking place. This functions as an early warning system in case of compromised accounts and insider threats.
Comprehensive analytics solutions will notice trends in behavior and flag an account if the user changes their normal routine. If odd activity occurs (e.g., going through every HR record), the system alerts an administrator to delve deeper into why this user is viewing so many files. If it notices access occurring from IP ranges coming in through the VPN from outside of the expected geographical areas, accounts can be automatically disabled while alerts are sent out and a deeper investigation takes place. This are ways to shrink the scope of an incident and reduce the damage should an attack occur.
Secure the user
Security awareness training for end users is one of the most essential components of infrastructure security. The end user is a highly valuable target because they already have access to internal resources. The human element is often considered a high-risk factor because humans are easier to “hack” than passwords or automatic security controls.
Social engineering attacks succeed when people aren’t educated to spot red flags indicating an attack is being attempted. Social engineering attacks are the easiest and least costly option for an attacker because any charismatic criminal with good social skills and a mediocre acting ability can be successful. The fact that this type of cyberattack requires no specialized technical skill expands the potential number of attackers.
The most important step of a solid layered security model is the one that prevent these attacks through education and awareness. By providing end users engaging, thorough, and relevant training about types of attacks such as phishing and social engineering, organizations arm their staff with the tools they need to avoid malicious links, prevent malware or rootkit installation, and dodge credential theft.
No perfect security
No matter where the job gets done, HR needs to deliver effective services to employees while still taking steps to keep employee data safe. Even though an organization cannot control every aspect of how work is getting done, these steps will help keep sensitive HR data safe.
Control over accounts, how they are monitored, and what they are accessing are important steps. Arming the end user directly, with the awareness needed to prevent having their good intentions weaponized, requires a combination of training and controls that create a pro-active system of prevention, early warnings, and swift remediation. There is no perfect security solution for protecting HR data, but multiple, overlapping security layers can protect valuable HR assets without making it impossible for HR employees to do their work.