Practically every organization now has an “invisible network,” in addition to its official computer network, consisting of ties to cloud services that IT and security teams know little or nothing about.

This invisible network, better known as shadow IT, is created on an informal and ad hoc basis by employees accessing cloud services without prior approval. These services may range from basic cloud data storage to online applications, social media and other websites of every description.

Many of these informally accessed services are useful, contributing to the nearly 20 percent gain in productivity seen by organizations that migrate their operations to the cloud, as Infosec Island reported. But the outlook isn’t all rosy.

Out of the Shadows

Shadow IT also poses a security challenge. Not only does it create new vulnerabilities, but it also completely changes the structure of the connections that security teams must monitor to safeguard the organization’s data and operations.

Traditional network security has, like guardians through the ages, primarily examined incoming traffic. It guarded against intruders, whether they were attempting to physically climb through an open window or virtually slip past a malware detector. Although security teams also had to be concerned with malicious or simply careless employees, these concerns tended to be somewhat specialized and limited in scope — taking confidential work home and forgetting it on the train, for example.

In the new era of shadow IT, however, the potential hazards of outgoing traffic have increased as more data leaves local networks for external storage. Business unit work groups with little knowledge of cloud security or vulnerabilities may open accounts with services such as Dropbox to store all sorts of organizational data without ever thinking to notify IT.

Shining the Spotlight of Governance on Shadow IT

Effectively monitoring both outgoing and incoming traffic is a technology challenge because of the sheer volume of information that must be evaluated. Many familiar security tools, such as signature analysis to identify malware, are not suited to the task.

Automated tools are clearly necessary to give the security tool an actionable view into outgoing traffic, but developing a policy to govern the proliferating cloud and web connections that comprise shadow IT is essential. A sobering reality is that while approximately 60 percent of organizations have reported implementing cloud policies, hardly any of them had effective means of enforcement.

As the Infosec Island article noted, “Roughly two-thirds of services that employees attempt to access are allowed based on policy settings, but most enterprises are still struggling to enforce blocking policies for the one-third in the remaining category that were deemed inappropriate for corporate use due to their high risk.”

The vital first step is for organizations to define their acceptable-use policies for cloud-based services. Then they can train employees on the details of these policies and potential risks of noncompliance to ensure they understand how their actions in the cloud can put the organization at serious risk.

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