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How the Cloud is Bringing Shadow IT Back from the Dead

Managed Services / SaaS / PaaS / IaaS
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"Shadow IT," the phenomenon of users installing unauthorized apps or equipment on company systems, used to be a major problem. Stricter governance made most people think it's been fading for years, but with help from COVID, cloud computing is taking the stake out of that vampire's heart.

Like many other aspects of computing, using the cloud creates its share of security problems for IT departments. Whether an enterprise is using Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), Platform as a Service (PaaS), or Software as a Service (SaaS), the fact that security becomes a shared concern between provider and customer makes for some potential confusion about where responsibility lines are truly drawn. Cloud computing by its nature puts many aspects of software and database use and security outside the direct authority of any user company's IT group, a situation that was the very definition of Shadow IT when the term was invented.

Add to that the COVID pandemic, which has encouraged users to work remotely in greater numbers than ever before while tangentially isolating them all the more from corporate governance policies. Then multiply it by the proliferation of standalone collaboration tools, file-sharing apps, and other software doodads now available commercially at prices that tempt users to out-of-pocket buys. The fact that users are now adding these utilities to the personal systems in their own homes, which are acting as corporate workstations "only part-time," encourages even less user thought about security implications to headquarters way downtown.

Enjoying Count Chocula

At least as far back as 10 years ago, there was much discussion in IT circles about the problem of users buying Excel macros and other commercial software and installing them on their corporate workstations willy-nilly. This triggered a wave of internal restrictions and procedures that, for some years, cut down on such activities, in the days when most IT departments could actually see and control them. In recent years, this has encouraged the view that Shadow IT is largely a passé concern.

With the rise of cloud computing, though, governance policies are declining in effectiveness. For one thing, cloud providers and third-party software vendors are getting better at simplifying installation and setup of outside software. When users find something useful to their job, rather than write a request or report asking for permission and waiting weeks or months while that query moves up and down the chain of command to presumed ultimate rejection, users savvy enough simply install something in 10 minutes and go on with their lives. They bank on the company not being Big Brother enough to see what's on their home PC, or on getting forgiveness for the better work whatever they've installed enables them to do.

Corporate IT departments, particularly if they are now administering some form of cloud collaboration, are today largely focused on improving worker productivity and keeping everyone connected to everything they need. While they're not neglecting security, their inability to see everything now connected to the corporate cloud creates all kinds of opportunities for cyber-snooping, data corruption and pilfering, ransomware attacks, and worse. The protective portal on the corporate vault is slowly turning into a screen door, but IT may not have the tools to even detect that.

Checking for Puncture Wounds

This situation has obvious implications for IT and the enterprises they're trying to serve and protect. An unauthorized app could inadvertently increase the attack surfaces through which an enterprise may be compromised. A security flaw in a Shadow IT app may allow hijacking of a user's account, giving hackers access to data and authorities they shouldn't have. Not every technology a user might see fit to use may meet cloud computing standards, causing incompatibilities with unpredictable effects. There may be procurement and legal implications of which users are completely unaware. Users can unthinkingly share information they shouldn't on social media. Apps like Snapchat or WhatsApp can let users inadvertently share information that enables them to be personally identified. Many workers routinely send work documents to their personal email accounts so they can work on the documents at home. Any user's USB stick might introduce a virus that could reach anywhere. The APIs that a cloud service uses for a wide variety of management and other functions could either be incompatible with an unauthorized app or create a breach opportunity. What if a user kept critical info in an outside file-sharing app and then departed the company without uploading it? These are simply a few examples of the many security holes through which corporate lifeblood might leak.

Also consider that even unauthorized apps at times issue upgrades to plug their own security holes, but do users always take the time to install them? It surely can't be that everyone faithfully does.

Then there are the unseen costs to both IT and the enterprise caused by unauthorized apps. For example, it may take an inexperienced user longer to configure and deploy an app that might be both useful and secure than it would take IT to carry out the same task. If users have problems with an unauthorized app interacting with anything in the corporate cloud, it's IT that's likely to get blindsided by a resulting emergency because the unauthorized app provider likely won't have a clue about what its app might be choking on in the corporate environment.

Perhaps, despite being unauthorized, an app may come to play a key role in a particular enterprise project but then needs to be scaled up because the project expands. That cost may be hard to justify, but blocking or substituting for the app may cause a significant setback for the project. If an app is blocked, employees might be tempted to find an even less-secure substitute to use in its place.

A 2020 survey cited by Track Resources, a software vendor that offers an app that traces SaaS transactions, claims that as much as 80 percent of workers admit to using SaaS apps without IT approval, 67 percent of teams have introduced their own collaboration tools into their organizations, 35 percent of company employees say they need to work around their company's security policies just to get their jobs done, and 21 percent of organizations surveyed have no policy at all about the introduction of new technologies. Taking into account the desire of a vendor to sell its solution, if actual statistics are even half of what Track Resources reports, Shadow IT is coming back with a vengeance.

Shadow IT: Good or Bad?

Complicating the search for remedies is a growing opinion among some experts that Shadow IT is actually a good thing in some ways. Reasons cited center on the fact that in many enterprises, IT is overstretched and can't respond fast enough to the needs of the other corporate groups it's expected to support. Therefore, users "discovering" new apps that may work better than those IT has sanctioned may actually improve such corporate functions as team collaboration, file sharing and storage, and overall productivity. Given that improving general productivity is the Holy Grail for many enterprises, in this case doesn't the end justify the means because you're encouraging "innovative thinking?"

This theory holds that employees shouldn't be punished for violating corporate policies, but instead Shadow IT should be treated as an opportunity to improve overall corporate health, create a culture of innovation and experimentation, and somehow reduce the burdens of corporate IT (even though it might actually increase those burdens in other ways). In practice, whether the benefits outweigh the risks is a choice each enterprise will need to decide based on its own situation.

Dr. Van Helsing to the ER, Please

So, what can be done?

For solutions in the procedural realm, IT's burden does appear to increase. Here are some recommendations. Explore user needs more fully by "breaking silos" to improve communication between IT and users and putting a greater emphasis on educating users about the dangers posed by unsupervised Shadow IT and social engineering. Streamline governance rules so it takes a short enough time to get new software approved that it discourages user end runs around policies. Monitor network activities and usage patterns more closely to watch for signs Shadow IT is taking place. Encrypt all data and delegate someone to keep an eye on provider reports about file creation, access, and data retention. Use a private cloud rather than a public one so the enterprise can maintain total control over all aspects of cloud use and security. If you must use multiple cloud providers, limit the number to just a few to minimize management hassles, overlap, and software incompatibilities. Set up "zero trust" networks that require users to jump through a number of hoops to access anything. Have IT assume responsibility for all vendor relationships, including those with vendors of unauthorized software, once discovered, because IT should be inherently better at doing that than users. Make collaboration tools a business priority. Conduct a network audit of all software while promising that employees who 'fess up about unauthorized apps don't face punishment. Create a system for grading risks, and rank unauthorized software according to the actual threat they present. Do the same for ranking all cloud services by how often they are used; see if any are redundant and identify which ones allow access to particularly sensitive data. Use an internal app store for all approved software so it's easy for employees to download those. Restrict on-demand provisioning features of cloud interfaces to make it impossible for users to request more services from a cloud provider without getting IT's consent. Use logs from Security Information and Event Management (SIEM) software, web proxies, and firewalls to see what cloud services are being used and assess their risk profile.

All the solutions on the software side will likely require a boost in IT's budget to deploy additional tools. This would include buying a SIEM app if you don't have one. Alternatively, a User Behavior Analytics (UBA) app can monitor your users' behavior online and pinpoint anomalies for further investigation. A Cloud Access Security Broker (CASB) acts as an intermediary and tracker between users and cloud access. A Cloud Management Platform (CMP) gives enterprises an overall vision of cloud environments, resources, and services. Space prohibits a listing of all the software products available in these four categories.

Clearly, any of the solutions mentioned here require more time, effort, and cash for IT departments to keep track of all cloud activities sufficiently to detect Shadow IT deployments. While those resources may not be available presently, planning to include at least some of them should be a priority.


John Ghrist

John Ghrist has been a journalist, programmer, and systems manager in the computer industry since 1982. He has covered the market for IBM i servers and their predecessor platforms for more than a quarter century and has attended more than 25 COMMON conferences. A former editor-in-chief with Defense Computing and a senior editor with SystemiNEWS, John has written and edited hundreds of articles and blogs for more than a dozen print and electronic publications. You can reach him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..



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