Due to the rapid increase in off-premises devices, endpoints have become more vulnerable to cyber-attacks. The evolution of endpoint devices requires similar paced evolution in the security solutions to ensure that attackers do not exploit them.
Whether due to misconfiguration or product weaknesses, endpoint security bypasses are proven through thorough pentesting and red teaming operations.
What is an endpoint?
In the world of cybersecurity, an endpoint is a computing device that communicates with other devices in the network. A list of typical endpoints can be found below:
- Mobile devices
- Smart Watches
- Internet of things (IoT) devices
Any device that is connected to the internet can be considered as an endpoint. Since endpoints are entry points into the network, it is a low hanging fruit for malicious actors to target. Attackers execute code or exploit vulnerabilities on these endpoints to further gain control of the enterprise network.
Why are endpoints part of the cyber threat landscape?
Here are a few reasons for a malicious actor to target endpoints:
- To escalate and perform lateral movement within the network.
- To enter and exit the network to exfiltrate data at his/her discretion.
- To deploy ransomware and encrypt all the data of all the endpoints within the network.
- To gain remote control, use the endpoint as part of the botnet, and perform Distributed Denial of Service (DDOS) attack.
The 2018 SANS endpoint security survey emphasised the implementation of a sophisticated endpoint protection platform. Below key findings were reported:
- 28% of endpoints were compromised.
- The threat vectors included web drive-by (52%), social engineering/phishing (58%), and/or credential theft/compromise (49%).
- Traditional antivirus solutions could only detect 39% of attacks.
- Security Information and Event Management detected another 39% of compromises (SIEM) alerts.
What is Endpoint Security?
Endpoint security is the process of ensuring that all the endpoints or end-user devices like workstations, laptops and mobile devices are protected from advanced cyber threats. Endpoint security software and endpoint solutions protect on-premises endpoint security within not only an enterprise network but also servers hosted on the cloud from malicious software.
When endpoint security started, it was limited to traditional antivirus software which had a database of malware signatures. Whenever a file was dropped on an endpoint, the anti-virus would compare its signature (hash etc.) with it, and if matched, the anti-virus would flag this file as malicious.
However, malicious cyber actors have evolved their techniques very rapidly to create advanced malware that hides their behaviour to evade traditional antivirus software. This has been a major motivating factor for endpoint security specialists to develop advanced endpoint protection systems that detect zero-day threats.
Organisations of every sector face endpoint security threats. Endpoint security is often the first line of defence for many enterprise networks as end-users may unknowingly download malicious files via clicking on links in phishing emails or click-bait advertisements while browsing the web.
Why is Endpoint Security Important?
There are numerous reasons why an enterprise must have an advanced endpoint security solution in their environment. The most important reason of all is that every company highly relies on the availability and processing of digital data. This digital provision of data comes with the risk that it may be exposed to hackers if they find a way to infiltrate an enterprise network.
The complexity of an enterprise network is increased because of the number of endpoints and the different types of endpoints. This complexity is further increased because of remote work and Bring your own device (BYOD) scenarios.
Impact of COVID-19
After COVID-19, many companies have full-time shifted certain employees to remote work. This transformation in working conditions has made the threat landscape even more complicated. Malicious actors develop new exploitation techniques every day to infiltrate an end-user system and escalate that to compromise enterprise networks.
Modern Endpoint Protection platforms (EPP) employ advanced techniques to detect polymorphic malware and zero-day threats. Not only that, EPP organisations have hundreds of malware analysts who capture new malware every day via honeypots and research them to create new malware signatures.
How does endpoint security solutions or endpoint security works?
The number of files that enter an enterprise network can be quite high. These files enter the network when some end-user plugs in a USB stick, downloads a file from the web or downloads an attachment from the email etc.
EPP monitors these file downloads for malicious artefacts by following a combination of malware detection techniques. These EPPs feature centralised management solutions that IT administrators can use to monitor any malware detection events on the end-user workstations remotely.
Centrally managed endpoint protection
The EPP centralised management console provides a single pane of all detected threats within an enterprise network to the cybersecurity professionals so that they can investigate the attempted breach and prevent the malicious file from entering the network again.
The installation of these remote endpoint agents is highly scalable. The endpoint installers can be downloaded manually via the centralised management platform on the endpoint. The endpoint agent installation can also be centrally pushed via active directory script to all the domain joined computers on the network.
Modern EPP features the power of cloud-based signature database solutions that reduce the overhead CPU and storage usage on the endpoint. EPPs just send a request to their cloud signature database and classifies the file as benign or malicious based on the result.
EPPs also provides other means of access control on the endpoint such as application and encryption controls which make sure that no unauthorised applications run on the system and enterprise data is not leaked.
EPP solutions provide both cloud and on-premise deployment options. Each option has its pros and cons. Cloud solutions prevent the bare-metal costs and are easier to integrate with the rest of the infrastructure while on-premise solutions are mandatory requirements of certain security compliance and regulatory authorities.
Difference between Network Security and Endpoint Security
Many cybersecurity enthusiasts struggle with the concept of network security and endpoint security and why both are necessary for every enterprise. Network security is the process of protecting the enterprise network on the network level via utilising solutions called Firewalls.
Modern-day firewalls not only protect against trivial layer 4 attacks but also provide advanced features like deep packet inspection and web proxy filtration that help in detecting an attack on the application layer. Firewalls also control what traffic is allowed in and out of the network. It also helps restricting traffic between different zones of the same enterprise.
Endpoint security is also the process of protecting the enterprise network via protecting the endpoint devices on the network from being infected with malware. Since endpoint agents are installed on the system, they have more visibility and control over the prevention and containment of compromises if a breach occurs.
Why are both important?
Securing an enterprise network requires that cybersecurity professionals make sure that every window and every door into the network is locked for unauthorised malicious actors. Network firewalls help to ensure that no unauthorised traffic flows in and out of the network and detect intrusions.
While endpoint protection platforms provide end-user system visibility and control to ensure no malicious files can enter the network via any means. So in order to have complete visibility and control over security, both network and endpoint security measures must be taken by every enterprise.
Endpoint Protection vs Antivirus: What Is the Difference?
Antivirus software allows enterprises to detect malware on endpoints and prevent their execution. Antivirus software is directly installed for endpoint security such as laptops, mobile devices and workstations. Antivirus detects the presence of malware by scanning files against a list of predefined signatures.
A major drawback of traditional antivirus software is that the database must be regularly updated to detect the latest threats, and even then, certain malware evades antivirus detection.
Endpoint Security protection has a very different approach as compared to traditional antivirus. Instead of protecting a single endpoint, endpoint security systems protect the entire enterprise network, including all the endpoints and servers within it.
There are significant differences between endpoint security solutions and antivirus software. These differences are given below:
Traditional antivirus software protects only one device. Endpoint Security solution on the other hand protects all the endpoints within an enterprise network.
Protection from threats
Antivirus solutions cannot protect against previously unknown threats and only cater for those threats whose signatures are present in their database. Complete endpoint security requires the detection of advanced malware that does not have a static signature.
Network security solutions not only protect against zero-day threats but also provide protection from threats such as data exfiltration and file-less malware attacks.
Using a signature database for malware detection requires continuous updating of that signature database. If signatures are not timely updated, prompt endpoint detection and response is not achievable. Endpoint security solutions are synced with cloud databases in real-time and updates are pushed automatically.
Advanced internal protection
While antivirus programs may be able to detect previously known malware, they are not able to prevent users from plugging in a USB device and stealing sensitive data. Endpoint security protects against threats like data leakage via encryption and access controls.
Endpoint security also ensures that unauthorised employees cannot get hold of data that does not belong to them. Endpoint security solutions also provide features such as behavioural analysis that allow enterprises to detect threats based on suspicious activity within their network.
Traditional antivirus solutions only detect threats in the context of a single computer. The analysis of that threat will require investigation by a security professional. Endpoint protection solutions provide a centralised management console that allows cybersecurity professionals to monitor and manage endpoint security controls from a single pane of glass.
This centralised console allows cybersecurity professionals to manage all endpoints at the same time. This is a huge relief for IT professionals in terms of time and speeds up the discovery process.
An antivirus solution is single client software that performs signature matching against files within the system. Endpoint security solutions offer the possibility of integration with other security solutions such as SIEM etc. Integration of an endpoint security solution with a network security monitoring solution can help provide insights for more comprehensive security protection.
Deploying endpoint solutions might be easy or even a little complicated in certain situations; however, it must be measured for its effectiveness from time to time. This can be measured in line with its compatibility across people, process and technology areas. Whether it’s yearly pen test, BAU task or a new change, a security review of controls would help stay on top of your organisational changes and whether those changes are delivering the intended objective.
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Shahrukh, is a passionate cyber security analyst and researcher who loves to write technical blogs on different cyber security topics. He holds a Masters degree in Information Security, an OSCP and has a strong technical skillset in offensive security.