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Shadow IT is exploding — and so are the security risks

The installation and use of IT-related cloud services, hardware, or software without the knowledge of the organization’s IT or security department — this is what we understand the definition of shadow IT to be.

Most users and employees are quite comfortable with technology now, and the consumerization of IT is widespread throughout organizations. This has led to fast and increased adoption of predominantly cloud-based services. Additionally, users do not think twice before downloading, installing, and using cloud-based applications and services for work-related purposes without prior approval or the knowledge of the IT department. Bring your own device (BYOD) has encouraged shadow IT— and it’s not only bring your own device, it’s bring your own applications to the workplace that may cause problems!

The growth of shadow IT is affecting organizations’ visibility and control, which could negatively impact security. This extends to organizations’ data, as employees process and store company data on unapproved cloud services without much thought. This means the implications can extend to data protection obligations as well.

Shadow IT is embedded in businesses, so organizations need a way to encourage a secure practice and convert the negative connotations of shadow IT to positives.

Cyberattacks are continuing to rise, and it’s not unrealistic to expect that shadow IT practices will contribute to some of these problems. It’s even been suggested that a third of successful attacks experienced by organizations will be because of their shadow IT practices.

Ultimately, the IT department still takes on the bulk of the responsibility for the organization’s security, however, if users are installing technologies haphazardly and without appropriate regard for security and it’s not manageable, it’s difficult for to enforce effective organizational security.

Considerations to help secure organizations when faced with shadow IT

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There needs to be a way to ensure that the services brought into the organization are centrally administered and managed for security reasons, so the business can account for all its technology assets and data. Also, to avoid the inefficiency of application sprawl, unnecessary monetary costs, time wastage as well as collaboration complications.

Work proactively and collaboratively with departments

To cut down on the use of shadow IT, companies must understand the challenges that particular departments and users face when doing their work and what’s needed to improve productivity. Also understanding why users choose the resources that they do will help IT departments offer more appropriate solutions. Users want to be productive, and sometimes IT departments must offer more choice and flexibility instead of simply denying everything that is not in your IT playbook. If users can’t find the solutions they need they will be tempted to acquire them with shadow IT.

To help avert a headache that shadow IT creates, make it a priority to address the issue with users on a regular (quarterly, for instance) basis. Meet with users and hear what they have to say regarding the problems that they are facing and the technologies that they believe can address their concerns. By asking which technologies are preferred and discussing this openly and cooperatively, users will feel they have a say in the services that they use and an unauthorized approach may be avoided.

Better service culture should be encouraged by the IT department, and if IT budget is limited, the department in question may be able to fund it, but it will not be without the IT department knowing what’s going on so that control is still in place. It’s a win-win!

Properly managing technology assets


One of the main concerns of the rapid adoption of shadow IT is the loss of control over technology assets and the inability to track technologies to ensure security as well as data security and compliance with regulatory obligations.

A big part of compliance is being able to manage technology assets and data assets properly. It’s fundamental to know at any point in time what technologies are being used and where data is processed. Shadow IT can make this challenging.

There must be a system in place to track and monitor the technologies that are brought on board. Especially since users routinely install and use software applications and services without involving the relevant people or departments.

Automated detection software can be used to help with this. Products can be used to detect any new technologies that connect which can be logged and investigated. It’s advised that technology-asset inventories are reviewed regularly and maintained.

Also, by creating a comprehensive pre-approved catalog of IT services and resources that can be selected from for users to use immediately can help to avoid the bottleneck effect created when users need to wait for a resource to be approved. Additionally, by working collaboratively with users, the IT department can endeavor to maintain the catalog with suitable and relevant services as required by departments.

Zero trust and verify

A zero-trust model assumes that threats exist on the network whereas traditional security models assume that everything inside does not pose a danger and focuses on perimeter security mainly. With zero trust, organizations do not automatically trust but instead verify anything trying to connect to its systems. Users and devices must be verified and authenticated even those existing on the network. Access is denied until verification and authorization have taken place. This process gives better awareness and insight into users’ actions, and policies can be enforced to control access.

Generally, organizations have a framework in place to guide how new IT resources are introduced into the environment. There are rigorous testing procedures to ensure that the resources are safe and secure to use and that they will not impart security gaps or vulnerabilities to the corporate environment if installed and used. When users bypass this with shadow IT, they risk potential threats, attack, and compromise to the organization and its data.

By implementing zero-trust networks, users are forced to abide by corporate security rules. Rules are put in place as required and are enforced. Any anomalies on the system will be picked up. User network access is controlled through predefined security criteria, and network access is denied until all requirements are met.

Setting security standards and enforcing policies are not only necessary, but crucial components to protect the organization against rising cyber threats and data breaches often heightened by shadow IT.

Managing data and compliance


For data protection reasons, strict control is needed over data access to ensure data is secure and accurate. Managing and monitoring access is a fundamental part of protecting data and identifying any unauthorized activity or breach incident.

Other areas including backup processes, maintaining up to date software, and addressing vulnerabilities are all critical aspects of managing data and keeping it secure.

The IT department has responsibility for all of this, but with shadow IT, the IT department can’t handle this effectively. Really, the users that install and use the resources (without the organization’s knowledge) should ensure that the software is maintained and kept secure — but a lot of the time they do not. Perhaps because they lack the knowledge or do not understand the security best practices involved and the severity of their actions by introducing new unvetted resources into the environment. But without ensuring the security is maintained through the measures the organization routinely takes, the entire organization’s security is potentially placed at risk.

Shadow IT is also complicating data management. Within organizations, users are using applications to improve productivity in many ways. Applications that include improved file sharing and collaboration, for example, can cause a lack of visibility which can result in a gap in security and can risk the security of business data (a lot of the time-sensitive data).

It’s essential that the IT department knows which applications are being used and the risks that they pose to security and data security.

It’s advantageous for users to be able to share information to achieve a productive working environment, but this must be accomplished securely.

Compliance is a particular concern with shadow IT. Regulations, like the GDPR, require organizations to protect their customers’ data. Shadow IT makes it challenging to manage data and makes auditing compliance difficult too. Without the ability to control or see provisioning and usage of IT resources, managing data can’t be accurate.

Reducing shadow IT security risks depends on how we deal with it

There is an explosion of shadow IT in our organizations. It exists because traditional IT departments cannot attend to user requirements at a quick enough pace for multiple reasons. To be fair, with how things have advanced and with all the resources at users’ fingertips at a click of a button, it is difficult for traditional IT departments to compete, as they simply cannot service users’ needs in the same way. IT departments need to perform better than shadow IT for shadow IT to disappear — and this does not seem likely.

Users are looking to fulfill their requirements with shadow IT when the IT department does not suitably support their unique business needs. Shadow IT enables them to commission the appropriate services quickly and with minimal or no underlying frustrations.

Shadow IT is not going away, so organizations need to take steps to lessen the security risks. They can deploy tools to gain visibility and implement effective monitoring procedures as managing and monitoring the unknown is impossible. Organizations need the visibility to manage and protect the data, but IT departments also need to align with other departments and users to attempt to satisfy their needs better. They need to offer guidance to users and at the same time work with users to allow them some choice and some control over what they use. Working collaboratively can mean that users won’t choose to work without approval and behind IT’s back. It’s essential that the necessary actions are taken to secure the organization and its data in the face of shadow IT. By putting policies in place, providing a catalog of pre-authorized services, blacklisting and whitelisting services, and so forth can all help to ensure security standards are met.

The time when the IT department had full control over the infrastructure and IT of the organization is no more. Organizations need to adapt with the times to contend with shadow IT and the potential security risks it creates. The reality is that shadow IT exists in all organizations, and services are being used without approval or without the knowledge of the relevant people or departments. Keeping organizations secure depends on the actions the organization and the IT department take to deal with shadow IT successfully.

Featured image: Shutterstock

Monique Magalhaes

Monique Magalhaes is a DP Executive and facilitator of data protection and information governance at Galaxkey, a company specialising in data protection and security solutions. She is a researcher, writer, and author of technology and security.

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