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How to Reduce the Risk of Serious Cyberattack Damage: System Hardening

Hardened systems are much more difficult to compromise and offer reduced rewards for attackers who succeed. 

Not all cyberattacks result in catastrophic damage. Some organizations detect breaches early, launch timely investigations, and block attackers before serious damage is done. 

As with many other risk management scenarios, preparation is key. A well-prepared security team in a properly hardened network environment can shrug off attacks that would cripple other organizations. 

One of the ways these organizations prepare themselves to mitigate cyberattack risks is through system hardening. This is the process of configuring tools and technologies to reduce vulnerabilities and make it more difficult for attackers to launch successful attacks. 

How System Hardening Works 

The goal of system hardening is to make the network environment inhospitable to intruders, forcing them to spend valuable time and resources gaining access to sensitive data. The longer it takes for them to compromise your systems, the more opportunities you have to detect and block them. 

In many ways, system hardening is similar to the military concept of terrain denial. Instead of letting hackers capture strategically valuable “mountain” terrain in your network, you’re forcing them to slog through a marsh and cross a river. The terrain you're modifying is the infrastructure attackers must compromise to advance through the network. 

Some of the most important tasks most system hardening initiatives share include: 

  • Disabling obsolete systems that are no longer in use. 
  • Limiting permissions to systems that contain sensitive data. 
  • Removing superfluous ports, accounts, and applications. 
  • Continuously monitoring for new vulnerabilities. 

In the modern enterprise environment, system hardening often focuses heavily on endpoint security policies. Highly distributed remote work-enabled environments often feature an enormous number of mobile endpoints, and many of them contain sensitive data. These devices can get lost, stolen, or otherwise compromised relatively easily. 

In a hardened network environment, losing an endpoint device to a cybercriminal doesn’t automatically lead to a multimillion-dollar cyberattack. 

System hardening places strict limits on what individual endpoints can do, and how much information users need to provide before gaining access to sensitive systems. 

The Principle of Least Privilege 

System hardening strips endpoint devices down to the bare minimum employees need to perform their roles. Endpoint users – especially remote ones – only enjoy limited access to sensitive network data and must pass rigorous authentication checks to gain greater access. 

This multi-layered approach to data access is best expressed as the Principle of Least Privilege. When granting access rights to users, system administrators should seek to grant the minimum necessary rights for the shortest amount of time possible and remember to relinquish those privileges when they’re no longer needed. 

Obsolete user accounts with indefinite access to sensitive data are a serious security risk. In 2021, Darkside hackers exploited this exact vulnerability to attack Colonial Pipeline, accessing an unused VPN account using a compromised password leaked to the public earlier that year. In two hours, they exfiltrated 100 gigabytes of sensitive data from the pipeline’s IT network. 

Under the Principle of Least Privilege, that account should have had its access revoked the moment it was no longer in use. At the very least, anyone using the account should have had to go through additional verification before gaining access to additional data – especially 100 gigabytes worth. 

Harden Cloud Environments Through Audit Policies and Role-based Access 

Cloud-based enterprises have a much larger and more complex attack surface than the centralized organizations of the past. However, properly hardened cloud deployments can be more secure than their traditional in-house counterparts. The key to achieving this is establishing customized audit policies and role-based access frameworks that directly address the unique risk profile of the organization itself. 

Castra is a managed detection and response vendor that specializes in creating custom rules to meet the information security needs of its clients. Our product experts use the latest SIEM technology to capture and analyze log data, detect suspicious activities, and investigate them. Part of our process includes hardening our clients’ systems against high-risk attacks and preventing data breaches from resulting in catastrophic damage.


Discover how we can help your organization harden its systems against cyberattack risks.