NSA to release VPN security advisory amid telework boom

Organizations that spent the past decade hardening their corporate networks must now contend with their workforce signing in from insecure, unmanaged personal devices at home.

The National Security Agency will release a public advisory on virtual private network security practices as organizations continue to adapt to a boom in telework since the coronavirus pandemic began.

According to a senior intelligence official who spoke to reporters on background, the advisory will come in two parts: a summary for executives that provides "timely and easily understandable" guidelines for hardening security for VPNs to conduct secure telework and a more detailed technical document that provides signatures for network administrators to track vulnerabilities in their VPN infrastructure.

"Over the last 5-10 years, network owners, companies, and agencies had made a lot of progress in hardening network security, and then when COVID hit we all essentially left that environment and moved to a telework environment that in some cases existed before but was used one off, not at the scale, scope and constancy it's used now," the official said.

The advisory is the latest effort by the agency to better communicate with federal and private sector stakeholders.

A previous NSA advisory issued in May on an existing vulnerability in Exim Mail Transfer Agent software resulted in a measurable uptick in patch rates for the flaw and led to valuable follow-up analysis on Russian cyber capabilities from private threat intelligence firms.

VPNs have become a focus point for cybersecurity concerns at agencies since the pandemic began, with many feds using the device to log into their work systems remotely. However, those devices can also be vulnerable to attack or compromise, particularly when employees log on from insecure home networks.

In May, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency released its own guidelines advising organizations to keep their VPN patching up to date, implement multifactor authentication, boost log reviews, attack detection, incident response and recovery and prepare their employees for a surge in phishing attacks. The Government Accountability Office is also investigating how federal agencies have implemented telework technologies, with officials indicating that VPN security will be among their top concerns.

The need for secure connections is even greater at agencies like NSA that regularly handle classified information. The agency is "certainly seeing both criminals and nation states targeting that telework infrastructure" since the pandemic began, but whether and how much that activity has increased across different threat groups can be difficult to quantify.

Another program, called Commercial Solutions for Classified Programs, configures commercially available software to allow employees to conduct classified work in a remote environment on their laptops and phones up to the Secret level. The program predates the virus and was typically used for "late night calls" that touch on classified information, but NSA and the Defense Information Systems Agency have worked to scale it up to thousands of employees and devices across Department of Defense components in the past few months.

Like other organizations, sending its workforce home during the crisis has also taught NSA leadership that many of its employees can do their jobs remotely without sacrificing effectiveness or security. The agency has conducted a number of telework use cases led by the cybersecurity directorate, and the experience has opened eyes about the benefits of offering more flexibility to employees beyond the pandemic.

"I think all of us have learned…that when missions can be done remotely, [even unclassified], you can really achieve a better work life balance for our folks," the official said.

This article first appeared on FCW, a Defense Systems partner site.