A robust cybersecurity architecture is nothing without its outermost layer — the firewall. For businesses and individuals alike, having a firewall is a bare minimum necessity for essential cybersecurity. To maximize your cyberdefenses’ strength, you need to optimize your system with the best firewall settings, practices, and configurations.
Read on to learn more about what these are and how to implement them to keep your sensitive assets safe.
Configurations for the Best Firewall Security
Regardless of your business’s size and the complexity of risks facing it, optimizing your firewall is an absolute necessity. Below, we’ll walk through five best practices or configurations to consider for your system:
- Frequently updating your firewall system and why you should automate the process
- Regularly assessing or auditing your firewall system to ensure effectiveness
- Optimizing your firewall system to meet (and exceed) compliance requirements
- Tailoring your firewall system to the business’s exact needs, accounting for third-parties
- Adding on web filtering to improve the protection of your firewall system
By the end of this blog, you’ll be ready to maximize your firewall protection and cybersecurity architecture’s efficacy.
What is a Firewall, and How Does it Work?
A firewall is perimeter protection that establishes a barrier between your internal networks and external third-party networks. Furthermore, it monitors all traffic seeking to permeate that boundary and either permits it or excludes it from entry.
Throughout the history of firewalls, they have worked relatively the same way. Based on the criteria you set, the firewall works as a first line of defense to slow down or stop most incoming threats.
The first generation of firewalls was known as “packet filters,” as they would inspect packets of information traveling between computers and decide what to do with them. Then, “circuit level” firewalls built in another layer of complexity, retaining detailed information from prior exchanges between endpoints. Later developments, such as “application layer” firewalls, have given way to new or “next-generation” firewalls and firewall functionalities, such as web filtering (detailed below).
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Configuration #1: Update Your Firewall Frequently
Firewall technology has gone through several essential updates over the years. These changes are necessary to keep up with the rapidly evolving technology and practices of cybercriminals. Updates are what keep firewall technology effective. To that end, you need to be vigilant about updating your firewalls.
For optimal security, the following thresholds are considered baseline best practices:
- Firewalls must be replaced entirely when no longer supported by vendors.
- Firewalls should be replaced after significant changes or security events (such as a cyber breach).
- Firewalls should be replaced every three to five years, irrespective of security events.
- Firewalls should be scanned for updates and patches every week (if not every day).
While having a firewall is an essential practice, keeping it up to date is equally critical to its efficacy. An outdated firewall cannot be considered secure. Therein lies the critical nature of automation.
How (and Why) to Automate Your Firewall Updates
Implementing an automated system for firewall updates works differently depending on the kind of firewall you use and how integrated it is into your overall security infrastructure. Your firewall may have a built-in configuration to automate updates, or you may need to use other software or design a program that scans for and installs updates automatically.
Do you need to take these steps? The answer depends on the nature of your firewall system.
Manually updating your firewall can be relatively straightforward. Suppose the firewall’s configurations are simple and its overall coverage isn’t complex. In that case, it might be feasible for one person or a small IT team to manually check for and implement updates at the end of each day.
However, for most companies, this isn’t the case. An effective firewall is likely too robust and complex for a small team to monitor daily. They would need to manually check each of the interaction points between the firewall and your various hardware and software.
Configuration #2: Assess Your Firewall Regularly
Just like keeping your firewall up to date is essential to its overall functioning, so too is ensuring it’s operating as it should be by regularly assessing or auditing it. Ideally, your daily checks for available updates should not solely scan for patches and new software available to all users of a given firewall. You also need to check for flaws in your particular setup to fix them immediately.
Just as with updates, you should also automate assessments and audits for your firewall. One or more programs should periodically check the firewall’s overall fabric, especially all of its points of contact with sensitive internal assets and dangerous external-facing ports.
For most firewalls, a daily audit is not enough. You’ll also need to run deeper, comprehensive tests on special occasions (like after an attack) and longer intervals (monthly, quarterly, etc.).
What to Look For in a Comprehensive Firewall Audit
A comprehensive firewall assessment needs to identify gaps, holes, or flaws in the firewall that an attacker could use to compromise your systems. One of the best overall methods to test for these is a revolutionary form of “ethical hacking” called penetration testing. There are two primary types of penetration tests, each of which focuses on a different element of cyberattacks:
- Black Hat – Also known as “black box,” the attacker begins with no inside information and tries to break through your firewall as quickly as possible. This generates a report on all exploitable gaps, which then need to be corrected.
- White Hat – Also known as “white box,” the attacker has some insider knowledge and begins within the firewall(s) or in a privileged position from which to compromise them. The focus is on how exactly this is done and what the hacker does once already inside.
The best assessment for your company depends on the nature of your firewall. A hybrid “grey hat” solution that mixes elements of both might be ideal, especially for complex firewalls.
Configuration #3: Optimize Firewalls for Compliance
Another critical consideration for optimizing your firewall filtering capabilities is to ensure that you meet (and exceed) any compliance requirements for your industry. Depending on the nature of your business, you may need to follow one or more regulatory frameworks. And most of these have their own built-in requirements for how your firewall system needs to operate.
One of the most widely applicable regulatory frameworks is the Payment Card Industry (PCI) Data Security Standard (DSS). It applies to any company that processes card payments. And PCI DSS Firewall Basics include relatively straightforward settings such as “deny all” (whitelist) approaches to traffic and immediate installation of updates (see above).
Benefits of Patch Monitoring and Advisory Services
For companies operating across sectors, the controls you need to implement only increase in number and complexity. Hence the utility of patch management services, which can help to identify where controls map onto each other and where additional configurations are needed.
Consider the following regulatory frameworks that apply to a wide variety of companies:
- The Health Insurance Portability and Accessibility Act (HIPAA) applies to all covered entities adjacent to the healthcare industry. It requires robust firewall practices as part of its Privacy and Security rules to fully secure “protected health information” (PHI).
- Companies seeking contracts with the Department of Defense (DoD) must implement firewall controls detailed in the Defense Federal Acquisition Regulation Supplement (DFARS), NIST SP 800-171, and Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification (CMMC).
For help with understanding what’s required to keep your firewalls up to par and installing all the necessary controls, most companies can benefit from compliance advisory services.
Configuration #4: Tailor Firewalls to Your Needs
Compliance isn’t the only area in which your company is likely to have a robust and diverse set of security needs. Besides legally required compliance frameworks, there are other needs dictated by your industry and clientele. For example, if individuals with lower IT literacy are over-represented within your pool of users, you may be particularly susceptible to social engineering scams. In this case, a firewall optimized to identify “phishing” might be most helpful.
Other significant factors to consider when configuring your firewall systems include your personnel, internal staff, and your network of strategic partners. Every one of your vendors, suppliers, and other essential contacts brings with them cybersecurity risks your firewalls need to account for.
How to Leverage Third-Party Risk Management (TPRM)
One way to fully optimize your firewall(s) into all relationships with third-parties is through a fully integrated third-party risk management program. Hallmarks of this risk management strategy include:
- Vendor assessment before, during, and after your relationship with every vendor
- Seamless onboarding of all third-parties, including onto active or new firewall systems
- Optimal visibility across all third-parties via one central, interactive, analytical dashboard
- Risk management, powered by analytical insights, accessible via a central dashboard
- API integration for seamless automation across all apps and software interfaces
- Endless firewall configurability per individual vendor or category
TPRM should be fully integrated into your broader risk and vulnerability management systems, and it should facilitate compliance with all regulatory requirements. Concerning your firewall systems, TPRM simplifies what would otherwise be an impossibly complex set of tasks.
Configuration #5: Go Beyond the Firewall with Filtering
The final configuration you need to get the most out of your firewalls takes filtering to the next level by installing an additional layer on top of the firewall itself. RSI Security offers a suite of proactive web filtering services, namely Cisco “Umbrella,” to act as a failsafe against anything that your firewall might miss, regardless of how seemingly perfect its settings are configured.
No matter how powerful your firewall is, there is no way to guarantee that it will detect — and stop — 100% of malicious content. Hackers are increasingly apt at disguising themselves and their programs to get through even the finest of filters. That’s why it’s imperative never to let your guard down and inspect even the content that passes through the wall. Enter the Umbrella.
How the Cisco Umbrella Optimizes Your Firewall
Formerly known as “OpenDNS,” the Cisco Umbrella is a revolutionary new form of firewall that operates alongside your other existing protections. Rather than compromising them, it picks up where they left off, filling in gaps and cracks in the firewall.
The Umbrella is adept at scanning for malicious content that has already passed through your firewall, identifying it, and dealing with it internally. It’s powered by:
- Sixty content filters for extreme versatility and customization across type, source, and any other inputs specific to your company
- Analysis powered by over 80 billion daily network requests and immediate indexing against threat intelligence from similar companies and against international standards
The Umbrella can also “talk to” your other firewall systems and help them operate more efficiently, simplifying their future work. See our Umbrella data sheet for more information.
Comprehensive Cyberdefense, Professionalized
Here at RSI Security, we know how essential it is for all organizations to have robust firewalls in place. We’ve helped companies of all shapes and sizes install, maintain, and optimize firewalls and broader cybersecurity architecture for over a decade. We also know that firewall protections are far from the end of cybersecurity; they’re only the beginning of a robust cyberdefense.
To protect your stakeholders, it will take more than merely maintaining the best firewall settings available. You also need to implement threat and vulnerability management, as well as incident management, to account for any risks (and resulting events) that your firewall couldn’t catch. Plus, services like in-depth penetration testing and regular cybersecurity awareness training amplify the efficacy of these measures. For all that and more, contact RSI Security today!
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