Bottom line: Today’s largely distributed enterprises need to make sure they are putting endpoint security first in 2021– which includes closely managing every stage of the device lifecycle, from deployment to decommission, and ensuring all sensitive data remains protected.
There’s a looming paradox facing nearly every organisation today of how they’ll secure thousands of remote endpoints without having physical access to devices, and without disrupting worker productivity. Whether there’s the need to retire hardware as part of down-sizing or cost-cutting measures, or the need to equip virtual teams with newer equipment more suitable for long term work-from-home scenarios, this is one of the most pressing issues facing CISOs and CIOs today.
Wanting to learn more about how their customers are tackling their endpoint security challenges and how their companies are helping to solve it, I sat down (virtually) with Absolute Software’s President and CEO Christy Wyatt and Matthew Zielinski, President of North America Intelligent Devices Group at Lenovo. The following is my interview with both of them:
Louis Columbus: Christy and Matt, thanks so much for your time today. To get started, I would like each of you to share what you’re hearing from your customers regarding their plans to refresh laptops and other endpoint devices in 2021.
Christy Wyatt (left): We’re seeing a strong desire from organisations to ensure that every individual is digitally enabled, and has access to a screen. In some cases, that means refreshing the hardware they already have in the field, and in other cases, that means buying or adding devices. From the endpoint security standpoint, there’s been a shift in focus around which tools matter the most. When laptops were primarily being used on campus, there was a certain set of solutions to monitor those devices and ensure they remained secure. Now that 90% of devices are out of the building, an entirely different set of capabilities is required – and delivering those has been our focus.
Matt Zielinski: We are seeing historic levels of demand from consumers, as many are transitioning from having maybe one or two devices per household to at least one device per person. We’re also seeing the same levels of demand on both the education and enterprise side. The new dynamic of work-from-anywhere, learn-from-anywhere, collaborate-from-anywhere underscores that the device hardware and software need to be current in order to support both the productivity and security needs of hugely distributed workforces. That’s our highest priority.
LC: Where are CISOs in their understanding, evaluation, and adoption of endpoint security technologies?
CW: The journey has been different for the education market than for the enterprise market. Most enterprise organisations were already on the digital path, with some percentage of their population already working remotely. And because of this, they typically have a more complex security stack to manage; our data shows that the total number of unique applications and versions installed on enterprise devices is nearly 1.5 million. What they’ve seen is a trifecta of vulnerabilities: employees taking data home with them, accessing it on unsecured connections, and not being aware of how their devices are protected beyond the WiFi connection and the network traffic.
In the education space, the challenges – and the amount of complexity – are completely different; they’re managing just a small fraction of that total number of apps and versions. That said, as the pandemic unfolded, education was hit harder because they were not yet at a point where every individual was digitally connected. There was a lot of reliance on being on campus, or being in a classroom. So, schools had to tackle digital and mobile transformation at the same time – and to their credit, they made multiple years of progress in a matter of weeks or months. This rapid rate of change will have a profound effect on how schools approach technology deployments going forward.
MZ: Whether in enterprise or education, our customers are looking to protect three things: their assets, their data, and their users’ productivity. It’s a daunting mission. But, the simplest way to accomplish it is to recognise the main control point has changed. It’s no longer the server sitting behind the firewall of your company’s or school’s IT environment. The vulnerability of the endpoint is that the network is now in the user’s hands; the edge is now the primary attack surface. I think CISOs realise this, and they are asking the right questions… I just don’t know if everyone understands the magnitude or the scale of the challenge. Because the problem is so critical, though, people are taking the time to make the right decisions and identify all the various components needed to be successful.
LC: It seems like completing a laptop refresh during the conditions of a pandemic could be especially challenging, given how entire IT teams are remote. What do you anticipate will be the most challenging aspects of completing a hardware refresh this year (2021)?
MZ (left): The PC has always been a critical device for productivity. But now, without access to that technology, you are completely paralysed; you can’t collaborate, you can’t engage, you can’t connect. Lenovo has always been focused on pushing intelligent transformation as far as possible to get the best devices into the hands of our customers. Beyond designing and building the device, we have the ability to distribute asset tags and to provide a 24/7 help desk for our customers whether you’re a consumer, a school, or a large institution. We can also decommission those devices at the end, so we’re able to support the entire journey or lifecycle.
The question has really become, how do you deliver secure devices to the masses? And, we’re fully equipped to do that. For example, every Lenovo X1 Carbon laptop comes out of the box with Lenovo Security Assurance, which is actually powered by Absolute; it is in our hardware. Our customers can open a Lenovo PC, and know that it is completely secure, right out of the box. Every one of our laptops is fortified with Absolute’s Persistence technology and self-healing capabilities that live in the BIOS. It’s that unbreakable, secure connection that makes it possible for us to serve our customers throughout the entire lifecycle of device ownership.
LC: Why are the legacy approaches to decommissioning assets falling short / failing today? How would you redesign IT asset-decommissioning approaches to make them more automated, less dependent on centralised IT teams?
CW: There have been a few very visible cases over the past year of highly regulated organisations, experiencing vulnerabilities because of how they decommissioned – or did not properly decommission – their assets. But, I don’t want anyone to believe that that this is a problem that is unique to regulated industries, like financial services. The move to the cloud has given many organisations a false sense of security, and it seems that the more data running in the cloud, the more pronounced this false sense of security becomes. It’s a mistaken assumption to think that when hardware goes missing, the security problem is solved by shutting down password access and that all the data is protected because it is stored in the cloud. That’s just not true. When devices aren’t calling in anymore, it’s a major vulnerability – and the longer the device sits without being properly wiped or decommissioned, the greater the opportunity for bad actors to take advantage of those assets.
The other piece that should be top of mind is that once a device is decommissioned, it’s often sold. We want to ensure that nothing on that device gets passed on to the next owner, especially if it’s going to a service or leasing program. So, we’ve concentrated on making asset decommissioning as precise as possible and something that can be done at scale, anytime and anywhere.
MZ: Historically, reclaiming and decommissioning devices has required physical interaction. The pandemic has limited face-to-face encounters, so , we’re leveraging many different software solutions to give our customers the ability to wipe the device clean if they aren’t able to get the asset back in their possession, so that at least they know it is secure. Since we’re all now distributed, we’re looking at several different solutions that will help with decommissioning, several of which are promising and scale well given today’s constraints. Our goal is to provide our enterprise customers with decommissioning flexibility, from ten units to several thousand.
LC: Paradoxically, having everyone remote has made the business case for improving endpoint security more compelling too. What do you hear from enterprises about accelerating digital transformation initiatives that include the latest-generation endpoint devices?
CW: The same acceleration that I spoke about on the education side, we absolutely see on the enterprise side as well, and with rapid transformation comes increased complexity. There has been a lot of conversation about moving to Zero Trust, moving more services to the cloud and putting more controls on the endpoint – and not having these sort of layers in between. Our data tells us that the average enterprise device today has 96 unique applications, and at least 10 of them are security applications. That is a massive amount of complexity to manage. So, we don’t believe that adding more controls to the endpoint is the answer; we believe that what’s most important is knowing the security controls you have are actually working. And we need to help devices and applications become more intelligent, self-aware, and capable of fixing themselves. This concept of resiliency is the cornerstone of effective endpoint security, and a critical part of the shift to a more modern security architecture.
MZ: I think there are two major forcing functions: connection and security. Because we are all now remote, there’s a huge desire to feel connected to one another even though we aren’t sitting in the same room together. We’re modifying our products in real-time with the goal of removing shared pain points and optimising for the new reality in which we’re all living and working. Things like microphone noise suppression and multiple far field microphones, so that if the dog barks or kids run into a room, the system will mute before you’ve even pressed the mute button. We’re improving camera technology from a processing standpoint to make things look better. Ultimately, our goal is to provide an immersive and connected experience.
Security, however, transcends specific features that deliver customer experiences – security is the experience. The features that make hardware more secure are those that lie beneath the operating system, in the firmware. That is why we have such a deep network of partners, including Absolute. Because you need to have a full ecosystem, and a program that takes advantage of all the best capabilities, in order to deliver the best security solution possible.
LC: How is Absolute helping enterprise customers ensure greater endpoint security and resiliency in 2021 and beyond?
CW: We spend a lot of time sitting with customers to understand their needs and how and where we can extend our endpoint security solutions to fit. We believe in taking a layered approach – which is the framework for defense in-depth, and an effective endpoint security strategy. The foundational piece, which we are able to deliver, is a permanent digital tether to every device; this is the lifeline. Not having an undeletable connection to every endpoint means you have a very large security gap, which must be closed fast. A layered, persistence-driven approach ensures our customers know their security controls are actually working and delivering business value. It enables our customers to pinpoint where a vulnerability is and take quick action to mitigate it.
Lenovo’s unique, high value-add approach to integrated security has both helped drive innovation at Absolute, while also providing Lenovo customers the strongest endpoint security possible. Their multilayer approach to their endpoint strategy capitalises on Absolute’s many BIOS-level strengths to help their customers secure every endpoint they have. As our companies work together, we are both benefitting from a collaboration that seeks to strengthen and enrich all layers of endpoint security. Best of all, our shared customers are the benefactors of this collaboration and the results we are driving at the forefront of endpoint security.
LC: How has the heightened focus on enterprise cybersecurity in general, and endpoint security specifically, influenced Lenovo’s product strategy in 2021 and beyond?
MZ: We have always been focused on our unique cybersecurity strengths from the device side and making sure we have all of the control points in manufacturing to ensure we build a secure platform. So, we’ve had to be open-minded about endpoint security, and diligent in envisioning how potential vulnerabilities and attack strategies can be thwarted before they impact our customers. Because of this mindset, we’re fortunate to have a very active partner community. We’re always scouring the earth for the next hot cybersecurity technology and potential partner with unique capabilities and the ability to scale with our model. This is a key reason we’ve standardised on Absolute for endpoint security, as it can accommodate a wide breadth of deployment scenarios. It’s a constant and very iterative process with a team of very smart people constantly looking at how we can excel at cybersecurity. It is this strategy that is driving us to fortify our Lenovo Security Assurance architecture over the long-term, while also seeking new ways of providing insights from existing and potentially new security applications.
LC: What advice are you giving CISOs to strengthen endpoint security in 2021 and beyond?
CW: One of our advisors is the former Global Head of Information Security at Citi Group, and former CISO of JP Morgan and Deutsche Bank. He talks a lot about his shared experiences of enabling business operations, while defending organisations from ever-evolving threats, and the question that more IT and security leaders need to be asking – which is, “Is it working?” Included in his expert opinion is that cybersecurity needs to be integral to business strategy – and endpoint security is essential for creating a broader secure ecosystem that can adapt as a company’s needs change.
I believe there needs to be more boardroom-level conversations around how compliance frameworks can be best used to achieve a balance between cybersecurity and business operations. A big part of that is identifying resiliency as a critical KPI for measuring the strength of endpoint controls.
Editor’s note: This has been published with the written permission of the author.
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