Glossary Glossary

Shadow IT Assets

Shadow IT assets refer to technological resources employed within an organization without the IT department’s knowledge, approval, or oversight. These assets can encompass various tools, digital services, and website infrastructure.

In the context of external attack surface management (EASM), shadow IT assets often include unauthorized cloud-based applications and unknown domains and subdomains. However, the concept of shadow IT assets goes beyond the scope of EASM and can also refer to off-the-shelf software downloaded onto company devices and personal email accounts or devices used for work purposes.

Numerous types of digital services have become increasingly accessible to business units and employees, thus multiplying the potential ways shadow IT assets are added in the process. This trend ultimately contributes to the expansion of external attack surfaces as shadow IT assets can be exposed to anyone on the Internet, including threat actors.

Table of Contents

Shadow IT Assets: A Deep Dive

What Security Risks Do Shadow IT Assets Pose?

Various shadow IT assets are public-facing, making them a major contributor to external attack surfaces. Since shadow IT assets are likely not to conform to organizations’ security policies and procedures, they may contain severe security vulnerabilities that could pave the way for successful cyber attacks if not detected and addressed soon.

Here are some examples of security vulnerabilities that are commonly seen in shadow IT assets.

  • Misconfigurations: Shadow IT assets are often overlooked during system-wide security updates since the IT team does not know about them. These assets could be highly vulnerable to known threat exploits if they remain misconfigured.
  • Insecure data storage and transmission: Unsanctioned assets could be used to store or transfer company data without strong encryption or secure communication protocols. For example, an employee may use a domain or subdomain without setting HTTP Strict Transport Security (HSTS), a web security policy that forces browsers to interact using HTTPS connections only. Failing to set this allows data transmission over less secure connections (e.g., HTTP), which could allow attackers to sniff sensitive information.
  • Weak authentication and access controls: Shadow IT applications often lack the robust authentication mechanisms required by company security policies. For example, employees may not implement multifactor authentication (MFA) on shadow IT resources even when they are required to do so on company-sanctioned applications. They may also use weak passwords or fail to change a system’s default password. These  practices make shadow IT assets particularly vulnerable to brute-force attacks and hacking.

What Are Examples of Shadow IT Assets?

Shadow IT assets can basically include any IT resource, whether software or hardware. Some examples of such assets are unapproved laptops and mobile devices used to access work emails and documents and personal storage devices like USB and external hard drives used to transfer sensitive files.

Shadow IT assets that contribute to the expansion of an organization’s external attack surface include:

  • Cloud-based applications: Many software-as-a-service (SaaS) platforms like productivity tools and communication applications require only an email address to sign up. The ease of creating an account and using cloud-based applications is a significant contributor to the prevalence of shadow IT, exposing organizations to threats since 82% of breaches target data is stored in the cloud.
  • Personal servers or cloud instances: Developers, software testers, and other employees may operate unsanctioned cloud servers and virtual machines (VMs) to build, debug, and test applications. That may introduce the organization to several security risks related to virtualization, such as hacking and ransomware.  
  • Personal email accounts: While all employees have personal emails, these become shadow IT assets when used for sending or receiving work-related emails. While they can be a handy means of communication, using personal emails for work can potentially expose sensitive information through unsecured mail servers.

These are just a few common examples of shadow IT assets that inevitably expand organizations’ external attack surfaces. Some of them may have become the norm over the years because of their ease of use and accessibility and can be particularly difficult to track down.

Why Do People Use Shadow IT?

While shadow IT carries significant cybersecurity risks, employees are usually drawn to them out of convenience. They may want to immediately find and use tools that meet their needs without having to go through their company’s IT approval process.

In many cases, shadow IT users do not know or prefer to ignore the security risks involved in accessing, downloading, or using resources that are unvetted and beyond the oversight of the IT team.

Employees may also find that shadow IT often fills gaps in IT service provisioning, primarily because access to certain tools or resources are expected by individuals and departments to perform their jobs. 

How Do You Manage Shadow IT Assets?

Managing shadow IT assets effectively requires a multifaceted cybersecurity strategy, involving some of the practices discussed below.

Maximum Asset Visibility

The first critical step is to obtain and maintain maximum visibility over unknown assets. That means having the capability to detect all digital assets associated with a company, including those previously unknown. Employees may have been using shadow IT assets for a long time, and it is important to thoroughly catalog them so issues can be remediated or mitigated before vulnerabilities get exploited.

Organizations may employ solutions, such as EASM platforms, that can continuously discover cloud and other Internet-facing shadow IT assets and scan them for security issues and vulnerabilities.

Depending on company policies, shadow IT assets could also need to be decommissioned, or the IT team may find it necessary to secure and add them to the list of sanctioned applications and systems.

Employee Cybersecurity Training and Education

A crucial part of shadow IT mitigation is educating employees on potential security vulnerabilities, compliance issues, and data breaches associated with assets unknown to the organization.

The IT department can incorporate the subject into their regular cybersecurity awareness training programs by providing a clear definition of shadow IT and highlighting the specific risks associated with it.

Open Communication and Transparency

Creating a culture that encourages employees to openly share their technology needs is important. That may entail developing a streamlined approval process for software and hardware requests, with clear timelines and simplified procedures to reduce waiting and limit the temptation of bypassing existing security protocols.

Transparency allows the IT team to offer guidance and support and enables them to sometimes offer secure and user-friendly alternatives that address common needs, thus reducing the appeal of shadow IT.

Key Takeaways

  • Shadow IT assets are digital resources added or created without the IT team’s knowledge, approval, or oversight.
  • Unauthorized cloud applications and storage systems are examples of shadow IT assets.
  • People use shadow IT due to convenience, lack of knowledge about its risks, and to fill gaps in IT service provisioning.
  • Because they are usually public-facing and likely present severe vulnerabilities, shadow IT assets significantly contribute to a company’s external attack surface.
  • Common security vulnerabilities associated with shadow IT assets include misconfigurations, insecure data transmission, and weak authentication.
  • Effective shadow IT management requires maximum asset visibility, employee education, and open communication between IT teams and employees.

Curious to see if you have shadow IT assets? Attaxion can help detect them for you. Schedule a free demo tailored to your organization now.

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