System Hardening: Everything you need to know
One way to help defend your organization against cyber threats is by using system hardening. System hardening can minimize the chances of a hacker or malware infiltrating your company’s network and gaining access to your organization’s valuable data. If you want to implement system hardening into your company’s technology setup, it’s essential to first understand the various components and steps of system hardening.
What is System Hardening?
System hardening refers to the best practices, methods, and tools to reduce the attack surface. It will help you in reducing the attack surface in your hardware, data systems, and software. The main aim is to reduce the vulnerable areas or threat profiles of your systems. It involves the identification, remediation, and auditing of security vulnerabilities that can be present in your organization.
Its main aim is to reduce security risks. This can be done by minimizing the attack surface. Attackers will have fewer entry points for conducting a cyber attack. The attack surface is defined as a combination of all the backdoors and potential flaws that are present in your network. These vulnerabilities generally include the following things:
- Improperly configured IT security tools.
- Unencrypted data.
- Unpatched firmware and software.
- Default credentials or passwords are stored in public files.
- Poorly configured IT assets.
Importance of System Hardening
System hardening ensures that the risk of cyberattacks on organizations is greatly minimized. One of the major reasons that result in audit issues and security breaches is configuration changes that result in compliance drifts. Every time a new server or user is added, or a new application is installed, it creates an opportunity for vulnerabilities to arise.
When organizations have numerous assets in the fleet with multiple configuration options, bringing every asset, old and new, in line with CIS benchmarks can take a long time with manual effort and introduce newer errors. Since these events are inevitable within the IT ecosystem, great care should be taken to ensure secure configuration and continuous compliance with the dynamic and ever-changing IT infrastructure. This can only be achieved by implementing automation tools that help in system hardening by continuously monitoring and auditing the organization’s heterogeneous IT assets and remediating drifts as and when they arise.
What are the benefits?
- Greater System Security: Improved security posture is the goal of system hardening, and if done correctly, it significantly reduces the risk of you becoming a victim of common security threats. This is because cybersecurity experts constantly update best practices for system hardening to match emerging threats and vulnerabilities.
- Improved System Efficiency: Your infrastructure can experience a boost in performance due to installing security patches, and system updates, and disabling unnecessary processes while following system hardening guidelines.
- Long-Term Cost Savings: Enhancing your system’s security levels through system hardening means you’re less likely to experience incidents that compromise your security. As a result, you save money that would have been spent on disaster recovery efforts in the event of a security breach.
- Regulatory Compliance: Most governments and industries recognize the growing threat of cyberattacks and their impact on citizens/stakeholders. As a result, they have made it mandatory for organizations operating within their jurisdiction to comply with regulations based on information security and data protection best practices. These best practices also serve as the foundation for most system hardening guidelines, which means you can effortlessly kill two birds with one stone.
Types of System Hardening
System hardening isn’t just one thing; it’s a comprehensive measurement of your system’s security. Different technologies require different tactics for hardening. As such, each subcategory of system hardening has its own nuances and checklists. They’re all enacted and measured differently, so they should be evaluated against applicable best practices and mitigated as part of an overall risk management program.
The types include:
- Server Hardening: Securing components and permissions of hardware, software, and firmware layers of a system. This can include patching, updating, multi-factor authentication (MFA), and strong password use.
- Operating System (OS) Hardening: Securing the software that grants server permissions to application software. Usually handled with automatic updates and patches, but can also include tasks like unnecessary driver removal, limiting user creation, HDD/SSD encryption, and more.
- Network Hardening: Configuring network firewalls, disabling services, auditing access privileges, encrypting traffic, and more. Usually achieved by using intrusion prevention and detection software to monitor suspicious activity and prevent unauthorized network access.
- Application Hardening: Patching application code, using antivirus software, encrypting and managing passwords, and using firewalls to secure a server’s applications.
- Database Hardening: Controlling database privileges, disabling database functions, and encrypting database information. Includes patching the database management system (DBMS), using role-based access control (RBAC), restricting administrative privileges, and more.
- Physical Hardening: Preventing access to technology resources in a physical space. Includes intrusion sensors, personnel barriers, and other solutions to harden physical perimeters around system technologies.
What are some System Hardening standards?
Several organizations within the technology industry have created standards or guidelines about system hardening. These standards often include a section on best practices for organizations looking to successfully implement system hardening. As an example, The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) recommends some of the following as best practices:
- Creating a system security plan
- Deleting or disabling services, network protocols, and applications your organization doesn’t need
- Updating or installing patches for your network’s operating systems
- Establishing resource controls
- Using encryption and authentication systems
Challenges of System Hardening
System hardening is complex and labor-intensive. Frustratingly, it is often not enough to prevent hackers from accessing sensitive company resources. The majority of malware comes from users clicking on emails, downloading files, and visiting websites that, unbeknownst to them, load viruses onto their systems. Once inside the operating system, attackers can easily gain access to privileged information.
To help combat this, some enterprises lock down users’ devices so they can’t access the internet, install software, print documents remotely, and more. However, this makes employees, and thus the business, much less productive. It’s also incredibly frustrating to people just trying to do their jobs. As a result, users sometimes try to bypass those restrictions without understanding the implications.
IT teams trying to harden the endpoint OS, therefore, continually struggle between security and productivity requirements, especially when so much of the workforce is working remotely and BYOD has become more prevalent.
Systems hardening is a term used to describe the process of modifying or increasing the resistance of a computer system against attacks. By understanding systems hardening, you can better protect your computer from becoming compromised by malicious actors. Additionally, it can help prevent unauthorized access to data and networks.