Shadow IT and the Foundational Threat to Cybersecurity

shadow IT featured

Companies can only monitor some of the pieces of software that their employees use. It’s inevitable, then, that those employees will start to kludge together their solutions through personal software or freeware from the Internet. 

This is such a problem that Splunk recently rated shadow IT as one of the top 50 threats to cybersecurity today.

This is, of course, a massive concern for security and compliance teams. Here, we’ll discuss shadow IT and its risks to your organization.


What Is Shadow IT?

Shadow IT is a term used to describe the practice where employees within an organization use IT systems, solutions, or services that the company hasn’t officially approved. This often includes various software, applications, and services not managed or monitored by the organization’s central IT department.

Shadow IT often arises from employees’ need to find efficient ways to complete their work. This can be due to the perceived limitations or inefficiencies of officially sanctioned IT resources. It can range from simple solutions like unauthorized use of a cloud storage service to complex, department-specific software applications.


What Are the Central Security Concerns of Shadow IT?

shadow IT icons for different forms of software

Since unauthorized software is, by default, unauthorized, it can be challenging to root out the security issues that arise from them. It is at its most dangerous: it flies under the radar. As such, it bypasses most normal compliance and security measures. 

Some of the common security threats that emerge from shadow IT include:

  • Lack of Oversight and Control: With Shadow IT, your security, compliance, and IT teams often need to be aware of the software’s usage, meaning it operates without their oversight. This lack of control is a significant security concern for organizations, primarily because it can introduce unknown security issues.
  • Data Breaches and Leakage: Shadow IT will open up your data to significant threats, not least related to the simple fact that you don’t know where information is moving through insecure software or how that software opens up other, secure software to attack. 
  • Non-Compliance with Regulations: Shadow IT can inadvertently result in non-compliance with stringent data protection and privacy regulations prevalent in many industries, potentially leading to legal and financial consequences.
  • Insecure Data Storage and Transmission: Shadow IT solutions might need to implement necessary security measures like data storage and transmission encryption, heightening the risk of data interception and unauthorized access.
  • Insider Threats: Using unauthorized tools can enable malicious activities by insiders, as these activities are more challenging to monitor and control.
  • Network Security Risks: Applications associated with Shadow IT can introduce vulnerabilities into the corporate network, creating potential entry points for hackers to access sensitive systems and data.
  • Difficulty in Security Audits and Assessments: It’s impossible to properly audit infrastructure if a significant portion isn’t on the books. Shadow IT makes it nearly impossible to trust audits as anything other than an incomplete process.

These risks aren’t theoretical. In February 2021, a U.S. drinking water treatment facility experienced a major hack that resulted in attackers modifying the quality of the water processed by the plant. This attack was partly attributed to the insecure use of TeamViewer software that employees installed to allow them better remote access to their workstations.

To mitigate these risks, organizations need to establish clear IT policies, invest in employee training and awareness, and provide approved tools that meet the needs of their workforce. 


How Do Different Compliance Frameworks Handle Shadow IT?

Several major compliance frameworks explicitly or implicitly discuss the concept of shadow IT and the importance of managing its security risks. These frameworks typically emphasize the need for comprehensive oversight of all IT systems and data management practices within an organization. Here are a few examples:

  • ISO/IEC 27001: The standard requires organizations to identify, assess, and manage information security risks, including risks associated with shadow IT.
  • NIST Framework: NIST and associated frameworks emphasize identifying, protecting, detecting, responding, and recovering from cybersecurity events–all of which are undermined by shadow IT.
  • General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR): GDPR includes several strict privacy and data protection requirements, all thwarted by unauthorized IT.  Organizations must know where and how personal data is stored and processed, which provides for addressing the risks associated with shadow IT.
  • Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA): HIPAA requires the protection of patient health information in the healthcare sector, and passing that information through unauthorized software is essentially a violation of this mandate. 
  • Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS): This standard requires entities that handle credit card information to maintain a secure environment. The management of shadow IT is essential to ensure that all cardholder data is processed, stored, and transmitted securely.

What Can My Company Do About Shadow IT?

Dealing with shadow IT effectively requires a balanced approach that addresses the risks and why employees turn to unauthorized IT solutions. Here are several strategies companies can adopt:

  • Understand Employee Software Needs: Most employees adopt technology because it solves problems. If they are doing so, ensure you aren’t leaving them without the necessary tools and expecting them not to look elsewhere. 
  • Improve IT Approval Processes: If employees find getting the tools they need through official channels more accessible, they’re less likely to resort to shadow IT. Additionally, create policies that clearly outline the acceptable use of technology and the consequences of using unauthorized IT solutions.
  • Enhance Communication and Training: Educate employees about the risks associated with shadow IT, including security, compliance, and data loss risks. Regular training and clear communication can raise awareness about the importance of using approved IT solutions.
  • Offer Flexible and User-Friendly Solutions: Provide tools that are as good as or better than those employees might find on their own. This includes adopting more user-friendly, flexible, and efficient solutions that meet departmental needs.
  • Implement Regular Audits and Monitoring: Audit systems and employee workflows and workstations to identify and, if necessary, remove unauthorized software. 
  • Establish a Rapid Response Team: If shadow IT introduces security issues, you must have a response plan to shut down the threat immediately and remediate, and most likely remove, the offending software. 

By combining these strategies, companies can effectively manage the risks associated with shadow IT while also harnessing the innovation and efficiency these solutions can bring when properly managed and integrated.


Monitor Your Software Adoption with Lazarus Alliance

It’s not enough to simply check items on a list… because while you are doing that, your employees may be using software and tools without your knowledge. In this case, no amount of regular compliance will help. 

That’s why you must trust a partner that can give you a complete view of your infrastructure and help you check the vulnerabilities in your systems. That partner is Lazarus Alliance. 

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