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How to Maintain Data Security in Edge Computing

By: Kaylie Gyarmathy on July 17, 2018

For many years, network security was a relatively simple matter of shutting the door. Companies managed their secure networks within the physical confines of a building, with firewalls protecting the small number of access points where data could flow in and out.

Today’s network infrastructures, however, have little in common with those of the past. From colocation data centers to cloud applications to edge computing architecture, modern enterprise organizations are situated in the heart of a sprawling web of interconnected systems that afford them unparalleled flexibility. By pushing data processing to devices on the edge of these networks, innovative companies are finding ways to provide services faster and more effectively than ever before.

As recent high profile data breaches have demonstrated, however, that same flexibility has made them more vulnerable than ever. As new technologies continue to provide new opportunities, it’s worth slowing down for a moment to consider the range of security risks posed by the latest developments and practices.

More Devices…

One of the greatest advantages of edge computing is its ability to realize the full potential of Internet of Things (IoT) devices. With the total number of internet connected devices expected to exceed 20 billion by 2020, the opportunity to put all that processing power to use is too enticing to ignore. From self-driving cars and manufacturing equipment to household appliances and personal accessories, IoT devices are becoming faster, smarter, and more versatile every year.

Of those 20 billion devices, over 7 billion of them are expected to perform some enterprise business function, making the modern workplace a critical epicenter of device usage. Many companies have already embraced edge and cloud computing as a means of enhancing productivity and driving workplace engagement. Over 40% of employees work remotely at least part of the time, connecting to company networks with a wide array of devices. Even people who work in a traditional office environment often connect their personal devices (like cell phones or smart watches) to company networks in order to access data and applications more readily.

…More Problems

Unfortunately, this explosion of devices doesn’t come without risk. Every device added to a network increases its surface area and creates additional points of attack for hackers, viruses, and malignant software. Simply allowing employees to bring their own (and potentially unsecured) devices into the workplace presents a massive security risk, since any one of them could be used to access or compromise the network.

Despite this seemingly obvious risk, many companies don’t even know how many devices their employees are bringing into the workplace, much less which ones are secured. The problem has only grown worse as more and more personal items have become IoT devices. For example, a recent Aruba study found an incident where an e-cigarette loaded with malicious code was transmitting company information to a foreign country after being plugged into a USB port.

Since edge computing locates more processing and decision making in IoT devices, any security compromise could create a cascade effect that cripples the rest of the network. Even if an attack only slows a device down, other devices connected to it might not function properly when deprived of data or instructions. With more devices connected to networks than ever before, and billions more potentially on the way, managing security risks is a challenge that many companies have only begun to consider fully.

Securing the Edge

One of the very first steps any organization should take to improve edge security is to assume that every device is already compromised. This sets up a different set of rules around network connectivity. Rather than automatically trusting the information coming from a device, all data should be considered malicious unless proven otherwise. By implementing a network architecture that can cordon off compromised devices and access points, enterprises can ensure that their infrastructure stays up and running in the event of an attack.

The same encryption protocols that have gone a long way toward providing better cloud security can be implemented here, ensuring that only authenticated IoT devices can connect and transmit data through the network. Incorporating security measures at the hardware level, such as utilizing devices like hardware security modules (HSMs) to store cryptographic keys, can provide an additional layer of protection. Since edge data centers are often not staffed as thoroughly as a traditional enterprise data center, effective remote monitoring of these facilities is crucial.

Organizations also need to step up their efforts to catalog, manage, and track devices in the workplace. Simply knowing what devices are connected to the network is a good start, but to be truly effective, IT security protocols must manage what devices can access the network and under what conditions. These guidelines need to be accompanied by extensive education efforts to inform employees what they can and cannot do with their devices as well as help them identify security risks.

Simply knowing what devices are connected to the network is only part of the solution, however. Without a comprehensive profile of each device, it will be difficult to know how they interact with one another and what security threats they may present. This is especially crucial in the manufacturing sector, where older, outdated devices may be situated alongside more sophisticated ones, creating vulnerability points within the network.

As edge computing becomes more commonplace and IoT devices continue to proliferate, organizations in all industries need to rethink how they secure their data and IT assets. Older practices developed in an earlier era of network infrastructure are simply not up to the challenge presented by the more diffuse nature of modern computing architecture. Only by adopting new approaches that take the latest technological developments into account can they hope to provide security for themselves and their customers in the future.

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