Improve third-party vendor security and reduce vendor risk

Third-party vendors have been causing quite the stir when it comes to their involvement in data breaches. This involvement means that a hacker can infiltrate a larger network (like a large enterprise) through the access that’s given to an external vendor who connects remotely. And numbers show that things haven’t improved: according to a recent report, over half of organizations experienced a data breach caused by a third party. Holes in third-party vendor security continue to lead to major data breaches, ransomware continues to surge with emphasis on supply chains and critical infrastructure, and companies continue to use insecure methods like RDP or VPN for third-party remote access connectivity on their network.  If a hacker targets one of your third-party vendors, it could impact the security of your entire IT infrastructure and put all the sensitive data on your network at risk. Hackers tend to attack smaller, third-party vendors because they generally have fewer security controls than their bigger business partners. You might not even know that you’re as vulnerable as you are if you don’t have the right tools in place. But, you’re not alone. 64% of organizations don’t have confirmation that their third parties have specific security practices in place like firewalls, employee security training, pen testing, etc.

Risks associated with third-party vendors

Risks associated with third-party vendor security are never going away. As long as there’s a connection between an external party and an internal network, there’s going to be risk.

  • Third parties introduce outside threats to internal networks and systems. Internal access is cozy and safe (for the most part); the permissions and privileges granted are usually done via role-based access and are easier to manage for network/system administrators. External access is dangerous and unpredictable unless managed properly. Granting vendors access creates an intentional hole in your security framework. When too many holes are poked, that attack surface widens which increases your chance of a cyber attack.
  • Hackers that use third-party connections can move, and they can move quickly and undetected. Take a look at the Okta breach. The cyber criminals used Okta (a third-party IAM provider) as a bridge to their thousands of customers to breach each one. If you have a vendor, you’re at the risk of them getting breached — and the hackers are coming for you, not just them.
  • Hackers know third-party access is a weak link because third parties are often granted the same access as employees. That’s why they’re targeting them so pervasively. This is too much access and the security around employee access doesn’t work for all remote access. When a hacker that attacks a third-party connection gets employee-level access, they have free rein in a network to cause as much damage as they want.
  • A hack could mean real-life consequences for your organization, your customers, and your third parties. Just take a look at Colonial Pipeline, which was hacked via an old and decommissioned VPN account; the breach resulted in fuel shortages, increase in gas prices, and a state of emergency. If a third party was using a VPN to connect to your network and their access wasn’t revoked/the password was shared/the connection got in the wrong hands, your organization could be dealing with sizable consequences, like production downtime, loss of revenue, loss of customers/brand loyalty, and reputational damage.

Any way you look at third-party vendor security, there are going to be gaps; the simple act of granting external access is a risk. But, there are third-party vendor management best practices to keep your company and your data as secure as possible.

Third-party vendor management security best practices

Step 1: Evaluate the security of your third-party vendors

All it takes is one vendor to cause a third-party data breach. If your third parties are using an insecure access method (like VPNs, desktop sharing tools), it doesn’t matter how amazing and secure a vendor is, no matter their reputation  — their access isn’t going to protect you from a data breach. The first step in managing third-party vendor security is being selective about which vendors you choose, and then tightening those endpoints to reduce your security risks with strong access control measures. Start by creating an inventory of all vendors and identify what data they have access to. Make sure they’re using a secure and controlled remote access tool; if they’re using an insecure remote access method like VPN or RDP, chances are they have too much access to your network. Next, make sure your third-party vendors’ internal controls are in line with your organization; the more aligned in security, the better. Lastly, ensure your vendors have third-party vendor management policies and procedures in place to ensure your company is in compliance with the latest regulatory requirements.

Step 2: Enforce strong access reporting, auditing, and third-party vendor monitoring

Once you’ve inventoried your third parties and their security posture, it’s also important to have regular security audits, reports, and monitoring for your own internal use, as well as for external auditors. Regular auditing and reporting will allow you to gain visibility into all actions taken by vendors. Monitoring the what, when, and how of third-party access will enable you to identify and address any vulnerabilities immediately. This might sound complex, but flexible automation of these processes will help save you time and money and improve your workflow while keeping your organization secure. The easiest way to accomplish this is to have an access management platform that automates it all and allows for secure remote access and support.

Step 3: Ensure powerful access controls

Identifying your third-party vendors and their access points, aligning security measures, and deploying access monitoring are all great steps, but they’re nothing if effective security controls aren’t in place. You’ll want to take full control over the varying degrees of access you offer to third parties and what data each individual can see on your network. Lack of oversight into what suppliers and outside parties can see on your network increases your third-party vendor risk. But, taking control of your vendor access to critical assets will help improve third-party vendor security. This is where zero trust network access (ZTNA) comes into play. Though vendors might seem trustworthy, there’s a reason ZTNA exists. Make sure your access controls align with the framework’s “never trust, always verify” methodology. It’s a concept that removes any implicit trust, regardless of who is accessing and what is being accessed. Since no one is trusted in this model, insider and outsider access need to be verified and authenticated each time a user logs into a system. This minimizes exposure to any other part of your network and prevents lateral movement so hackers who make their way in are contained and can’t contaminate any other part of your network. This step also includes vetting, authenticating, and verifying the identity of each vendor who’s granted access to critical systems and data. Adding controls like multi-factor authentication ensures that the person logging into your vendor’s remote access connection is the same person who owns that account. Fine-grained access controls give an additional layer of security by putting time limits on when third-party reps are allowed to access your network. As a general rule of thumb, the more controls, the better, especially with a streamlined platform specifically built for third parties.

Efficiently manage third-party vendor security

Just one weak link in your network could lead to a potential security disaster. A third-party data breach could cause your organization financial loss, regulatory issues, and damage to your reputation. But secure connectivity can protect your organization and reduce third-party vendor risk. Make sure you have the right controls and rules in place with this Secure Connection checklist