SaaS discovery tools target growing shadow-IT problem

An emerging breed of security tools, designed specifically to rein in use of software as a service (SaaS) offerings, promises to help companies fight the security-vulnerability tidal wave posed by unchecked employees – and it's none too soon, according to new research that found most companies face broad exposure to unchecked use of online email, file-sharing and other popular tools.

The integration of millennial workers into the workforce “is pushing the use of those SaaS services more heavily within our customers,” IBM Master Inventor and executive security architect Chris Hocking told CSO Australia. “The risk of undiscovered SaaS services is critical.”

IBM's recently launched Cloud Security Enforcer – partially developed by the company's 30-strong Gold Coast-based Australian Development Laboratory, which Hocking heads – seeks to help companies rein in the variability of the SaaS environment by using prebuilt connectors to assemble federated identity frameworks that allow centralised control of users' access to a range of cloud services.

The cloud-hosted tool proactively scans corporate networks, automatically identifying both authorised and unauthorised SaaS application usage that can be leveraged to help CSOs build and enforce shadow-IT usage policies.

“This is delivered as a SaaS tool, so from an enterprise customer perspective the end user does not have to change their behaviour,” Hocking said, noting that the cloud-hosted design offers new visibility into the “mobile blind spot” that has prevented network administrators from seeing what employees are doing with their personal smartphones and tablets.

Employees relying on insecure platforms can be identified and steered towards alternate corporate-standard platforms – all the while delivering the benefits of single sign-on (SSO) platforms, such as the ability to deauthorise employees from a range of systems once they cease employment.

Because the tool leverages the ongoing data collected through IBM's Xforce threat-intelligence arm, it can continually adapt to new threats and identify usage of specific applications that have been identified as being problematic.

“The Xforce data as it exists categorises the Internet, and is able to identify those services in a particular category,” Hocking explained. “That's very useful information for us to then start to consider the [SaaS application] connectors, which from a continuous development perspective will just keep growing over time.”

That sort of protection may prove invaluable for CSOs struggling to rein in SaaS usage that, the latest Palo Alto Networks Application Usage and Threat Report suggests, has surged in recent years.

The average company, that report found, has 316 unique SaaS applications in use – up from 259 a year ago and 218 two years ago – and most of these are not company-sanctioned.

“Given the large percentage of usage and the high number of unique SaaS applications observed, it can be concluded that users are likely not following these types of usage policies, and are instead engaging in rampant usage of nonsanctioned SaaS applications,” the report's authors warn.

“This further increases the risk of data leakage to enterprises, due to the lack of visibility from regular logs or notifications from the unauthorized SaaS storage providers.”

File-storage tools accounted for 40.7 percent of the detected SaaS applications – including Dropbox (21.33 percent), Microsoft SkyDrive (5.69 percent), Crashplan (3.97 percent).

SaaS email platforms comprised a further 38 percent of application traffic – with Microsoft Outlook Web (16.09 percent), Google's Gmail (12.01 percent), and Google Docs (7.65 percent) dominating. Some 41.1 percent of scanned emails contained malicious content, with 82.4 percent of executable attachments found to contain malware.

While statistics suggest users are embracing a range of SaaS applications comprising low percentages of all traffic, targeting well-known services will, Hocking says, address a significant share of SaaS-generated vulnerabilities – something that he believes will make tools like the company's Cloud Security Enforcer invaluable in helping companies rein in employees' usage of shadow IT.

“Protection mechanisms are put in place to ensure that once user are connected to these services, they're able to use them in a safe, effective manner. All of this enables users to consume SaaS services, and to reduce the prevalence of shadow IT.”

Read more: The Failed Promise of New Cyber Security approaches.

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Tags palo alto networksSaaSshadow-ITsmartphonesSoftware as a Service (SaaS)Chris Hockingsecurity tools

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