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June 17, 2021//Joel Burleson-DavisLast Updated: June 14, 2022
If you work in the cybersecurity field, or if you’ve ever worked from home, you’re probably pretty familiar with a virtual private network, or as we all know them, a VPN. VPNs offer a method of secure remote access connection between users and a private corporate network.
In other words, it gives you the access you need to files (or anything else) that are found locally on a server, but from the comfort of your home (or airport, coffee shop, or anywhere in between).
What you might not be as familiar with are VPN alternatives for business – solutions that offer the same functionalities as VPNs, but offer stronger and more advanced security solutions – and why your organization might need to consider alternatives to VPNs.
Now, don’t get us wrong – VPNs are great for what they’re meant for, but the problem is that VPN technology comes with several risks and hasn’t really evolved with the changing nature of businesses. VPNs are missing much of the functionality of better cybersecurity practices that aid in proactively preventing data breaches from occurring, and we can see this in current events such as the pandemic and the Colonial Pipeline cyberattack.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States in March 2020, the entire nature of the workforce changed, but nothing about VPN connections did. Workplaces transitioned to work-from-home environments while the framework of VPNs stayed the same, even though new partnerships and technologies changed the access needs of users. This left network managers scrambling to maintain a secure environment while trying to control internal access and third-party external access. While VPNs can handle internal access, using a basic VPN connection for third parties can expose a business network to more vulnerabilities, like hackers exploiting third-party connections or shared passwords.
The recent cyberattack on the Colonial Pipeline Co. was also a wake-up call to those using VPN connections. The ransomware attack resulted in paying nearly five million dollars to the hacking group plus a sharp halt in fuel production that impacted the eastern coast of the United States. The cause of the attack was due to the hacking group finding a leaked password and accessing Colonial Pipelines IT systems through an old, inactive VPN account. Without proper access controls and provisioning/de-provisioning of VPN accounts, there isn’t any effective way to manage active vs. inactive VPN accounts or disable them once an account has expired or is no longer in use. And without VPNs changing, there isn’t any way to properly secure network access from hackers like those in the pipeline attack.
While many businesses still use VPNs for all remote access, it’s imperative that all organizations realize a VPNs limited capabilities and start looking for alternatives to VPN for remote access, especially when dealing with the specific unique access needs for different types of users. A VPN is not a good catch-all technology for all remote access use cases, especially for third parties and vendors. You shouldn’t give internal users the same access permissions as external users, right? You need to ensure that the level of access given to external entities, like vendors or contractors, is tailored specifically to what they need, and nothing more.
Organizations might not know that there are several alternatives to VPNs that offer similar functionalities and security features. The following platforms are some suggestions to consider as VPN alternatives for your business.
Some of the most common choices when replacing VPNs are efficient alternatives like identity and access management, privileged access management, third-party security platforms, and Zero Trust network access.
An Identity and Access Management, or IAM, platform can provide additional protections for a VPN. Instead of only needing a username and password, identity management technology incorporates a comprehensive (and necessary!) verification process to confirm the validity of all login attempts (If you need an argument as to why this is necessary, please scroll back up the page to read about the Colonial Pipeline attack that happened because of a lack of authentication). This solution enables you to implement multi-factor authentication on top of the VPN connection. You can also integrate it with your third-party vendor’s IAM solution to delegate the authority to them.
An additional security feature is that session activity and access privileges are connected to the individual user, so network managers can be sure each user has authorized access and can track each network session. IAM solutions also often provide additional levels of access so that users can only access the resources they are authorized to use.
However, while this VPN alternative (or a solution to pair with your VPN) manages identity protocols allowing for more granular activity monitoring, it does not provide any additional protections for privileged credentials. In order to securely manage the credentials for privileged accounts, a different solution is needed.
If identity management establishes the identity of individual users and authorizes them, privileged access management (PAM) tools focus on managing privileged credentials that access critical systems and applications with a higher level of care and scrutiny.
These high-level accounts must be managed and monitored closely, as they present the largest risk to security and are heavy targets for bad actors because of the administrative capabilities they allow.
The key areas of a PAM solution include advanced credential security like the frequent rotation of complex passwords, obfuscation of passwords, systems and data access control, and user activity monitoring. These features reduce the threat of unauthorized privileged credential use and make it easier for IT managers to spot suspicious or risky operations.
Another critical element that VPNs lack is the ability to enforce least privilege policies. PAM tools allow network managers to ensure that internal users only gain access to the applications and systems that they need at the time they need them.
As a business expands, it will have a growing number of technology partners or vendors that require some level of privileged access to networks and systems. These third-party privileged accounts introduce a unique challenge that a PAM solution alone cannot address.
When a business uses vendors, partners, or IT consultants, those third parties must be granted secure remote network access to support its technology and applications; thus, privileged access is often necessary. These elevated permissions require a different remote access approach and more advanced security than internal access accounts, which often have more limited oversight. Additionally, third parties can have many support representatives that join and leave the organization. Because of this, it becomes challenging for an internal IAM or PAM solution to manage all of the moving parts when thinking about which external entities should or shouldn’t access your network and confidential information.
To mitigate these risks, businesses can implement a third-party remote access security solution. Using a third-party security platform allows for controlled onboarding, elevation, and termination of access privileges for external users. In addition, new proposed regulations concerning remote access require specific features to stay in compliance. Third-party remote access solutions incorporate those guidelines to offer robust authentication protocols, access controls, and auditing tools while ensuring compliance at all times.
One of the most important features of a third-party remote access platform is the ability to granularly control the access permissions of each individual user. This feature has been referenced in the aforementioned VPN replacement technologies; however, none are able to offer this specific functionality to external parties besides a third-party remote access solution. Implementing least privileged access allows network managers and administrators to assign levels of access to third-party vendor reps which only permits access to the areas of the network that are needed and nothing more. This capability is one of several functions of the Zero Trust cybersecurity model, which is considered one of the best approaches to securing internal systems, controlling permissions, and maintaining compliance.
Zero Trust Network Access (ZTNA) is a cybersecurity approach that assumes all individuals or users are threats (not trusted) and must be verified in order to grant access. The old castle-and-moat mentality of cybersecurity has proved ineffective, meaning that Zero Trust approaches must be considered for internal and external user access – a functionality that VPNs cannot provide.
Zero Trust methods are able to perform the basic capabilities of a VPN, such as granting access to certain systems and networks, but with an added layer of security in the form of least privileged access (down to the specific applications), identity authentication (MFA), employment verification, and credential storage. ZTNA digs into who the user is (internal vs. external), what levels of access they need, and how granular a network administrator needs to make those permissions in order to securely allow users to access only the areas of the network that are essential to their job duties.
It’s important to note that you shouldn’t go and “throw out” your VPN after reading this blog. VPNs are helpful and necessary – just not for third-party remote access. Today, we’re regularly inundated with options for everything in our lives, whether it’s software or a new pen. It’s important to understand your needs no matter what you’re researching to purchase so that you’re able to choose the best VPN alternative for your business.
If you’re looking for a solution that was built for third-party vendor remote access, ask our team for a demo to view your options and help you choose the best tool for your company’s third-party remote access management program.