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Application control is part and parcel of the larger cybersecurity landscape of access control, as outlined by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). But what does the term mean? And, more importantly, why should companies be interested in the concept?

In this article, I will discuss the definition of application control, as well as how it works and what its features and benefits are. So, if you want to know more about these topics, and especially how they tie into the larger topic of privileged access management, then keep on reading.

What is Application Control?

The term application control refers to an information security practice that consists of restricting the execution of unauthorized applications by adopting whitelisting and blacklisting strategies. The technology behind it helps recognize and allow only non-malicious files to enter an enterprise network and its endpoints. Its purpose is to secure the data that is utilized by or transmitted between applications in a system.

Application control is designed to identify the traffic flows of various applications that operate on a network. This aids companies to define and apply network routing and granular security policies depending on conditions established by the aforementioned traffic flows. It is thus particularly useful for protecting establishments with an active BYOD policy.

How Application Control Works

Application control technology functions after a relatively simple concept, namely by comparing different types of network traffic flows to predefined condition models. Consequently, these queries need to respect certain requirements for the machines in the network to communicate with one another. Said requirements are what enables application control to ascertain which traffic flow comes from where in the system.

Taking this into account, you can prioritize what programs you whitelist and blacklist, as well as which ones need closer monitoring than others. Thus, when it comes to application control, network traffic can be classified after three distinct principles:

  • security risk level,
  • resource usage,
  • type and purpose.

Security Risk Level

The most appropriate way to catalog enterprise applications, at least in my opinion, is depending on the security risk level that they pose for the organization. For example, file transfer protocols, communication protocols, and other types of protocols that carry data are classified as high risk in a company due to the sensitive nature of the information they transmit.

High-risk applications that transmit information are in constant danger of data exfiltration, which means that the process of securing them is essential and should be given precedence. Therefore, performing a vulnerability risk assessment and establishing application control requirements accordingly is the best place to start.

Resource Usage

Another criterion to consider in terms of application control in a corporate environment is resource usage. Some programs that are used in the daily workflow consume more network bandwidth than others. A pertinent example in this category is represented by videoconferencing applications with integrated chat features, such as Skype, Slack, or Microsoft Teams.

Videoconferencing applications require system resources to stream both video and audio during calls, as well as to support the text chat feature at the same time. This can be quite taxing on your corporate network, which is why you should identify traffic coming from them accordingly and organize it with the help of application control procedures.

Type and Purpose

The most straightforward way to classify applications is by their type and the purpose that they serve. Within an enterprise, there are a few essential categories that come to mind. Telecommunication systems, financial software, and human resources programs are just the top three examples of applications whose traffic flow should be managed and prioritized securely.

Application Control Features

When it comes to application control, there are seven main features to consider, three of which pertain to user accounts, while the remaining four deal with data handling. These are identification, authentication, authorization, completeness checks, validity checks, input controls, and forensic controls. You can find a brief explanation for each feature below:

  • Identification, which ensures the accuracy and distinctiveness of user account credentials.
  • Authentication, which consists of verification system controls for all applications.
  • Authorization, which certifies that approved users only have access to the company network of applications.
  • Completeness checks, which confirm that traffic flow records are processed from start to finish.
  • Validity checks, which warrant that only valid data inputs are processed by the application control technology.
  • Input controls, which guarantees the integrity of the data feeds that are fed into the system.
  • Forensic controls, which check that the data is mathematically and scientifically correct.

Application Control Benefits

#1 Application-Specific Policies

The main appeal of application control is that it allows you to enforce security policies for your organization that are application-specific. These are what enable you to permit, block, or restrict certain types of application traffic. What is more, the strong identification that goes hand in hand with this technology creates a higher degree of confidence in the implementation of automated application controls. Go beyond simple white and blacklists and manage your network’s input and output based on app certificate, name, publisher, MD5 hash, or file path.

#2 Verification and Access Control

Going beyond application-specific policies, application control is a cybersecurity practice that facilitates the enforcement of identity-based policies. What this entails is you have the option to define access requirements for certain users or user groups that work with various resources within your company. By doing so, you will also enable the application of the zero trust model.

As my colleague Bianca very aptly explained in her article on the topic, the zero trust model is

a concept based on the notion that organizations should not trust anyone or any device by default and thus, they must verify every single connection before allowing access to their network. This model came as a response to former security approaches founded on the assumption that insider threat was nonexistent and that they were only focused on defending organizations from external threats.

#3 Increased Network Visibility

Application control gives your organization an increased degree of visibility into the traffic that goes in and out of your network. Your security team will therefore be able to monitor incoming and outgoing queries, either within the online perimeter as a whole or between specific endpoints. This will also allow the appointed staff members to identify anomalies and promptly point out infiltration attempts. Such a procedure is particularly useful in the case of employees who have temporarily or permanently elevated access rights.

#4 Optimized Resource Usage

The capacity to differentiate between policies for certain applications also assists you to optimize resource usage in the corporate network. Prioritizing traffic flows from latency-sensitive applications over those from less crucial applications such as social media will ensure that critical infrastructure programs enjoy the highest system performance possible.

#5 PAM Solution Integration

Another notable benefit of application control is that it works in tandem with privileged access management (PAM), a type of cybersecurity technology that guarantees the proper use of admin rights within a network. PAM follows the principle of least privilege (PoLP), which entails that user accounts should have the minimum access level required for the completion of daily tasks.

When combined with PAM, application control further fortifies elevated sessions with an additional layer of protection. Your organization can benefit from this with the help of the Heimdal Security suite of cybersecurity solutions. Our very own Application Control is fully integrated with the Heimdal™ Privileged Access Management solution for complete access governance and data safety.

#6 Advanced Reporting Function

Application control technology has a full audit trail function that allows for advanced reports to be created in the eventuality of an incident requiring investigation. Forensic input from the suite helps you reconstruct any user’s activity via accurate logs. Therefore, if any suspicious or unlawful activity goes down within your enterprise network, you can examine it accordingly together with the relevant authorities.

#7 Full Standards Compliance

Finally, by using an application control solution in tandem with privileged access management, you will ensure that your organization fulfills the requirements set by NIST AC-1.6, as well as other international industry standards. Corporate cybersecurity compliance is essential to the modern workplace, as it certifies that a company is actively detecting and preventing rule violations in this respect.

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In Conclusion…

Application control is a cybersecurity practice that has multiple benefits for a corporate network. Not only does it optimize the company’s traffic and workflows, but it also maintains a safe digital environment overall by restricting or blocking questionable access attempts. When used together with PAM, it becomes the ideal solution for access control and identity management at an enterprise level.

What are your thoughts on application control? Do you apply it in your company? Let me know in the comments below!

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