Hardening your operating system: A strategic approach to cyber defense

Strategic planning is a key component of cyber hygiene and in building a holistic defense against cyber threats. Operating system hardening, within this context, is not just a set of static procedures, but a continuous process that evolves with the threat and technology landscape. In enterprise organizations, a customized, strategic approach to system hardening must be implemented to meet the needs of the business and aid in creating a future-focused cyber defense.

Basic IT procedures are often overlooked

Despite significant investments in advanced cybersecurity technologies, organizations frequently overlook a foundational aspect: the regular updating of their systems. This gap in cyber hygiene often leaves them exposed, regardless of the scale of their investment. Investing in the most advanced systems doesn’t always provide the strongest protection - attackers frequently exploit the most basic, unpatched vulnerabilities, leading to significant damage.

Instances like the continued use of outdated versions of PowerShell, for example —a default program in many systems—illustrate how attackers exploit these overlooked areas. Organizations often compromise their security by using simple, easily guessable passwords like 'admin/admin' for complex systems, further increasing their vulnerability. Disregarding updates and patching vulnerabilities, not implementing Multi-Factor Authorization (MFA), and using old protocols and policies are all examples of basic organizational processes that contribute to increased risk of cyberattack.

Why large organizations can be the most susceptible to attack

This pattern is particularly common in large enterprise organizations, where changing established behaviors and standards is a daunting task. The reluctance to update systems often stems from the fear of downtime, potential financial loss, or the risk of erasing data or materials. This resistance to change, while understandable, leaves systems more susceptible to cyberattacks, highlighting the need for a more proactive and comprehensive approach to cybersecurity. The process of system hardening involves examining organizational practices - finding places to implement more efficient, advanced security methodologies and tools in line with business priorities.

The process of system hardening involves examining organizational practices - finding places to implement more efficient, advanced security methodologies and tools in line with business priorities.

How does system hardening support a strategic approach to cyber defense?

Hardening your operational systems against cyberattacks must be built into your organization’s defense strategy.

  • Minimize the attack surface: Limiting the attack surface is a foundational component of cyber strategy today, especially with the rise of cloud-native systems. As you gain better visibility into your organization’s infrastructure and threat landscape, you can more efficiently reduce the attack surface by better managing vulnerabilities.
  • Control system access: Tightening access control and limiting access privileges are both part of a proactive approach to minimizing attacker proliferation within your network. This process includes an in-depth system analysis conducted by your IT and security teams.
  • Comply with regulations and standards: Global regulations and standards are continuously changing, and ensuring that your organization is up-to-date with legal policy is an important part of resource allocation. Not meeting these standards means that your organization may be subject to significant fines, taking away from your security budget, and can shift your team’s focus away from central security priorities.

Common oversights in IT systems that can create vulnerabilities

Oftentimes, regardless of significant investments into advanced security tools, overlooked IT practices can lead to cyberattacks. Ensure that your organization minimizes the risk of vulnerabilities by managing these network components:

  • System updates: Neglecting system updates and the use of outdated protocols can leave your organization vulnerable to known attacks that threat actors can easily exploit. Regular system and protocol updates are essential for keeping defenses strong and responsive to new threats.
  • Password management: Strong password protocols are part of the first line of defense against cyberattacks, as threat actors commonly utilize weak and repeated passwords as the initial exploitation point into an organization. Password policies that are regularly reviewed and updated can minimize vulnerabilities and risk to your organization.
  • Access controls: Many organizations do not regularly review access privileges in their networks, allowing employees at any level in the organization to have access to the most sensitive information. This means that in parallel, threat actors can utilize this employee access to reach your “crown jewels” more easily and their attacks are likely to create a more significant business impact. Limiting access controls for users internally can help minimize the risk of internal and external breaches as well as the proliferation of an attack within your network.

Our recommendations for proactive system hardening

At CyberProof, we view operating system hardening as a critical component of cybersecurity strategy. This process involves reinforcing the operating system through a series of targeted techniques based on best practices and a solution design plan, including:

  • Regular patch management: Keeping systems updated limits the potential for threat actors to exploit known vulnerabilities. Ensure that your IT and security teams diligently track system updates and apply the latest patches to close vulnerabilities based on severity and exploitability ratings that align with business priorities. Cloud-native systems can operate a more efficient and robust patch management system.
  • Penetration testing and network scans: Make sure to conduct continuous and periodic scans of and penetration tests into your environment for vulnerabilities and potential breaches of network infrastructure. By gaining visibility and mimicking threat actor behavior, your security teams can ensure that your organization’s operating system is best protected.
  • Gradual implementation of policies: To ensure a smooth transition and effective integration, it's crucial to adopt a phased approach when implementing new cybersecurity policies and hardening measures. This method involves rolling out changes in manageable stages, allowing for the monitoring of impacts and adjustments as needed. Gradual implementation helps minimize operational disruptions, facilitate staff adaptation, and ensure that each layer of security is thoroughly tested and aligned with your organization's specific needs and existing infrastructure.
  • Customized approach: Standardized, uniform policies and procedures are not effective when it comes to modern-day system hardening. Business priorities, organizational structure, and cyber defense approaches vary greatly across organizations, and as such, hardening procedures should meet specific organizational needs.
  • System monitoring: IT infrastructure monitoring is a critical component of maintaining visibility into your organization’s internal network landscape and the threats that can pose a risk to your assets. Managed Detection & Response (MDR) security teams should continuously monitor and secure all information systems in your organization.

A gradual, proactive, and customized approach to operational hardening that meets the needs of your organization’s priorities and structure is key to an effective cybersecurity strategy. In building cyber defenses, strategic choices must drive the current and future processes. CyberProof’s enterprise Managed Detection & Response (MDR) service is built upon strategic planning that implements system hardening into cyber defense.

To learn more about our enterprise MDR services, reach out to one of our experts here.