Utilising NGFW to secure personal data in financial institutions

The vulnerabilities associated with new open APIs and 'shadow IT' practices implemented by employees and why they need to be addressed to protect a company's brand and customer data

This is a contributed article by Mike Smart, Security Strategist, EMEA at Forcepoint


Safeguarding personal data is a priority for organisations, and financial institutions are no exception. Customers share a wealth of personal information - from names and addresses to bank account details - with these organisations, but recent high-profile headlines and ongoing technical issues have highlighted weaknesses with infrastructure. As a result, customer trust has been shaken.

According to a report conducted by YouGov, 66% of adults in Britain do not have faith in banks to work in the best interest of society, resulting in lower engagement and increased customer churn.  The impact of any disruption to financial services carries potentially harmful reputational and financial consequences for organisations, especially in the era of regulations such as GDPR. Financial services are critical to a functioning society and ensuring the security of sensitive data is a key part of maintaining this functionality, alongside providing an accessible offering. However, malicious actors rarely stand still and will seek novel ways to subvert historical vulnerabilities and circumvent defences.  


What factors are impacting cybersecurity in the financial sector?

The threat of reputational and financial disaster is a powerful motivator to improve security defences, but this is not the only driver. It is a given that with today's dynamic threat landscape, it is it difficult for security professionals to keep up and stay one step ahead of attackers. This landscape of attack and breach has in some cases shifted organisations' approach to risk, as they realise that protection against 100% of threats is impossible. Alongside this, ongoing digital transformation within the organisation - driven by the need to store and access large amounts of information, as well as communicate with suppliers, partners and employees - has resulted in far deeper adoption of the cloud. This has simultaneously opened the organisation up to broader attacks, making traditional perimeter security solutions, such as firewalls, seem less appropriate.


The cloud complication

The migration and adoption of cloud confers many benefits including improved agility, scalability and accessibility, but concerns regarding security, reliability and visibility remain. Effective security starts with appropriate cloud configuration, as misconfigurations are a major contributor to breaches and other security flaws in the cloud. In many cases, professionals accustomed to local infrastructure attempt to recreate their local solutions in the cloud, uneducated and unaware of the intricacies of working with a cloud provider's particular set of features. This potentially leaves the organisation vulnerable, which has greater ramifications due to the type of data held by financial institutions.


Availability and assurance are necessities

It's crucial for financial institutions to maintain high performance and accessibility, even during times of service interruption due to incidents (such as data breaches or system failures). A system which allows for updates to be completed, rather than waiting for scheduled windows of time without disturbance confers an obvious advantage. The primary goal of network security is protecting vital assets, so high availability must be balanced with a smooth user experience.

Correct configurations must be applied from the beginning and if this set-up is skipped, systems and technologies will not be robust and will hold critical security holes. Typically, misconfiguration is the result of human error, which is the leading factor in many security failures. Financial institutions cannot afford this disruption. In addition to security issues, fixing concerns entails increased resource investment, which negatively affects economic growth and aggravates the time that the service is offline. Misconfiguration also hinders increasing network complexity and makes overall control and troubleshooting more problematic. 


The solution is an intelligent Next Generation Firewall

Adequately securing the network (especially the cloud) in a way that ensures visibility starts with a Next-Generation Firewall (NGFW) central management system. It plays a critical role in avoiding human error and optimising time and resources used in the expanding network operations.

With increased dependence on the cloud to store information and conduct financial transactions online, security networks also need to evolve. Financial institutions should consider implementing modern NGFW products which offer a tighter integration between the firewall and other security tools to add context to potential threats. Additionally, integrated networking capabilities like SD-WAN help network administrators to recuperate visibility and control of their expanding network as more and more cloud infrastructure is adopted. Implementing such an approach is highly beneficial for network administrators, as users get better direct to cloud performance, and these sites remain protected by enterprise class network security without increasing the management (visibility and control) overhead.

With financial institutions under an increasing amount of pressure to remain robust regardless of disruptions, implementing an NGFW solution that blocks malicious threats without affecting user experience is vital, even when network preservation is being carried out or during a security incident. Network security should create secure and scalable connectivity, enabling financial institutions to continue to provide a consistent service, which withstands system failures and changes to the threat landscape. As a result, being ahead of the curve will be beneficial for financial institutions by better serving customers in the digital era, while reinforcing their trustworthiness and commitment to good business practices.


Mike Smart is a Security Strategist supporting customers across EMEA at Forcepoint. An evangelist for information security evolution, Mike currently works with global system integrators and consulting firms to drive change from an exclusively threat-centric approach towards behaviour-centric programmes: something he believes is critical in order for to remain effective in today's digital age.