Hardening your networks will help reduce the vulnerabilities cybercriminals can exploit and optimize your security posture in the long term. Network hardening standards provide guidance on the baseline controls you can implement to secure your networks and make your cybersecurity infrastructure more resilient. Read on to learn more.
How to Optimize Network Security Via Network Hardening Standards
In its Special Publication 800-123 “Guide to General Server Security,” the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) stipulates a set of network hardening standards to help organizations optimize their network security. Following the NIST’s guide will help you:
- Remove unnecessary components from network environments
- Implement processes for authenticating user access to networks
- Establish access controls for network resources
The NIST’s network hardening standards are best implemented and optimized when partnering with a managed security services provider (MSSP).
What is Network Hardening?
Network hardening refers to the processes that minimize security gaps within a cybersecurity infrastructure. Network hardening standards help guide the processes used in optimizing network security across your organization’s cybersecurity infrastructure.
Within a cybersecurity program, network hardening helps mitigate security risks related to:
- Vulnerabilities in network configurations and devices
- Non-essential services running on your IT systems
Beyond networks, hardening can be applied to any component within your infrastructure. For example, the IT system components that hardening can secure include but are not limited to:
- Applications used to provide network or system access to end-users, such as:
- Web applications
- Mobile applications
- Hardware used to host networks and software, such as:
- Physical servers
- Mobile devices
- Databases, such as those used to store:
- Sensitive user data
- System files
Since networks are common access point targets for cybercriminals, network hardening will act as the first line of defense for your cybersecurity infrastructure. Following hardening standards for network devices, such as those stipulated by NIST, will help strengthen your network security and bolster your cybersecurity preparedness—especially when working with a quality MSSP.
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Breakdown of the NIST Network Hardening Standards
The NIST’s network hardening standards were developed to help organizations secure the entirety of their network infrastructure, starting from simple, traditional endpoints to more sophisticated network devices. As such, they progress from more baseline controls and considerations to more complicated ones—see the breakdown of each stage below.
By following the guidelines in the network hardening standards, you can implement robust network security controls and standardize their implementation across your IT infrastructure.
Remove or Disable Unnecessary Network Components
When hardening networks, it is absolutely critical to remove any components that are not required for the day-to-day functioning of a network. If the network components cannot be removed, they must be disabled to minimize any security risks to the network.
Examples of network components that can be disabled or completely removed include:
- Legacy protocols involved in packet transmission, such as:
- Echo protocol
- Chargen protocol
- Discharge protocol
- BootP service protocol
- File Transfer Protocols (FTP) for file transmission
- Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) for managing network devices
- Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) for managing email services
- Services connected to the web via HTTP protocols
- Discovery protocols for managing information sharing across devices
- Interfaces and routing protocols that are not currently in use
It is significantly easier to safeguard your networks when functional components are removed rather than disabled. Although cybercriminals cannot successfully modify settings for missing components, unauthorized modifications may be possible for components that are disabled.
Removing or disabling network services, applications, or protocols offers several benefits:
- Fewer access points are available for cybercriminals to exploit when attempting to breach a network.
- Networks are increasingly available with the removal of potentially defective services or protocols.
- Network performance can be optimized and streamlined when unnecessary network components are removed.
- With fewer network log events registered by various network-connected components, it is easier to track security vulnerabilities.
Following the guidance of the NIST network hardening standards begins with this process of removing unnecessary components, which will hamper later implementation if left unaddressed.
Implement User Access Authentication
Networks can also be hardened by implementing processes for user access authentication.
Network hardening via user authentication is particularly helpful for high-traffic networks where users with varying access level privileges often access the networks for varying purposes.
NIST’s network hardening standards recommend authenticating user access to networks by:
- Removing or disabling default user accounts that are not essential to the functioning of the network, such as:
- Guest accounts with or without passwords
- Redundant administrator accounts
- Disabling non-interactive user accounts and passwords that need to exist on the network
- Assigning access privilege rights to networks by user groups and not individually
- Creating only necessary accounts to authorize access to networks, ensuring:
- Account sharing is minimized except when necessary
- Ordinary user accounts are available for administrators who are also basic users
- Using authentication protocols that function via automated time synchronization protocols like Network Time Protocol (NTP)
- Implementing strong password policies, ensuring that passwords meet recommended network security standards
- Preventing password guessing via:
- Lengthening the time between unsuccessful login attempts
- Denying multiple failed user login attempts
- Logging all user access events
- Using secondary user access authentication mechanisms such as:
- Smart cards
- Client and server certificates
- One-time password systems
Additional network security protocols often used to harden networks include:
- Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) or Transport Layer Security (TLS)
- Secure Shell (SSH) protocol
- Virtual private networks (VPNs) using IPsec or SSL/TLS protocols
Authenticating user attempts to access networks will help harden them and mitigate data breaches. With the help of the NIST network hardening standards, you will implement robust network security and safeguard any sensitive data in transit across networks.
Establish Access Controls for Networks
The NIST’s network hardening standards also recommend establishing specific controls for managing network access, beyond authentication, to mitigate potential cybersecurity risks.
Common access controls that will harden and secure your networks include:
- Denying read access to files on the network will secure sensitive data from breach risks
- Preventing unauthorized data modification will safeguard data integrity
- Restricting execution privileges to administrators and not basic users will:
- Mitigate unsecured changes to network configurations
- Prevent cybercriminals from leveraging configuration changes to breach networks
- Sandboxing networks to isolate and secure them such that only authorized users can modify configurations
Network hardening also applies to firewalls, which serve as critical safeguards for mitigating potentially malicious traffic from accessing sensitive network environments. The NIST’s firewall hardening standards recommend hardening firewalls during their installation and configuration:
- Firewalls should operate based on the recommended industry security standards
- Security patches and other critical updates should be installed for both:
- Software-based firewalls
- Hardware-based firewalls
- Firewalls should be managed by designated personnel within the organization
Given the volume, variety, and complexity of network-connected devices that must be secured when hardening networks, a device hardening checklist can help streamline network hardening processes across your cybersecurity infrastructure. And it should ensure, at a minimum, that:
- Security patches and updates are deployed timely
- Network hardening processes are tested before implementation
- Configuration files used to harden networks are securely backed up
- Network security testing is routinely conducted
Network security ROI can be optimized by hardening your networks based on the guidelines of one or more network hardening standards. By hardening networks, you will make them more resilient against cyber attacks and strengthen your entire infrastructure of network-connected devices and systems. Working with a leading MSSP will help tailor network hardening processes to the specific needs of your cybersecurity infrastructure.
Optimize Your Network Security
Network hardening standards are critical to guiding optimization of network security controls and ensuring that your sensitive data is secure. Partnering with an experienced MSSP will help you bolster your existing network security controls and integrate them into your cybersecurity program. To learn more about optimizing your network security, contact RSI Security today!