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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 and how can Heimdal help you with this, then keep on reading. To get more useful tips on safeguarding your company’s data also read this PAM best practices checklist.

What Is Application Control?

Application control is 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.

What Is an Application?

An application is a program that is downloaded onto your computer, tablet, or phone. There are many different types of applications whether it is for business, personal use, or entertainment. Applications are important for many different businesses because they help with the company’s efficiency. They make people’s jobs easier and more efficient, which in turn saves time.

Application Whitelisting vs. Application Blacklisting

Application whitelisting will allow some programs to run but block all others without explicit permission from the user. This can be seen as an alternative to blacklisting and allows users more control over their computer than just blocking everything and allowing certain programs to run without question.

Application blacklisting will block specific applications while allowing all others. This is done to prevent the application from performing certain actions. Blacklisting can be done by adding the applications to a list where they are blocked from running.

How Application Control Works

Application control technology functions after a relatively simple concept, namely by comparing different types of network traffic flow 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 enable 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.

Application Types

Thus, when it comes to application control, applications can be classified after three distinct principles in relation to the network traffic:

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

Security Risk Level

The most appropriate way to classify enterprise applications 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 guarantee 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 History Background

1960 was the year when the process of application development started, followed by an increased focus of companies on this process at the beginning of 1970. The greater productivity level and maintenance simplicity brought along by application development has made enterprises understand the vital role of application control in the safety of a corporate network especially since apps became more numerous, therefore an obvious need of controlling them started to prevail.

It’s also worth mentioning that Application Control is listed among the most important strategies to fight against cybercrime in the report called “Essential Eight” of The Australian Cyber Security Centre (ACSC).

Application Control Benefits

Application control is designed to identify the traffic flows of various applications that operate on a network. This aids companies to define and applying 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.

#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.

The zero-trust model is a security strategy that provides protection to all network resources without having to know or trust the user or the device. The zero-trust model assumes that at any given time, any device can be compromised so it focuses on preventing data leakage. It does this by limiting access to sensitive data to only those users who have been authenticated.

#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 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.

Application Control Best Practices

Blacklisting should be done in a wisely manner

Blocking what programs are allowed to run should be done based on the time of the day. An authorization operating schedule will be a support for employees in efficiently completing their tasks along with the prevention of misuse of business-critical files.

Besides, based on the principle that only certain users require access to certain software to perform their tasks, application control policies can be also developed for a certain department or user group, mitigating thus security risks.

Whitelisting is as important as blacklisting

Besides the creation of the blocked applications list, there is also important to decide which applications will be automatically approved. This dynamic approach combining blacklisting and whitelisting is what makes the strategy more powerful against known and unknown threats, whitelisting playing an essential role in making sure that apps are permitted to run in accordance with policies and admin-specified rules.

The deployment should be carried out efficiently

As the  National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) recommends, the implementation of an application control strategy should focus on planning and analysis, requiring a step-by-step plan. A phased approach will help mitigate potential threats. Besides, in the matter of deployment, the environment should be taken into account too, considering that whitelisting works better for centrally-managed hosts characterized by a larger workload, for instance.

Software maintenance must become a routine

You’ve established which software is allowed or not to run, but now comes the software maintenance phase into play. Software vulnerabilities are constantly discovered by security researchers who issue regular patches for them. You must ensure that all your business software is patched on a regular basis to not leave a door open for malicious outsiders. This will only be efficiently taken care of with a proper automated Patch and Asset Management tool that makes your patching flow consistent and reliable.

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Heimdal® Application Control

Revolutionary Application Control Software. Application Whitelisting and Blacklisting Made Simple.
  • Default approval for system applications;
  • Handle access by File Path, MD5, Publisher, Certificate or Software Name;
  • Ability to easily manage spawns of any files executed;
  • And much more than we can fit in here...
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How to Implement Application Control with Heimdal®

Until this point of this article, you’ve gained proper knowledge surrounding this cybersecurity strategy called “application control”. Now, moving on to a more practical part, I want to highlight what Heimdal has to offer and how easily you can gain control over your applications with the Heimdal Application Control software.

Our product works on two aspects: the what and the how, being designed to control what processes will be executed on the client machine and how this is going to happen. You can utilize Application Control to speed up the approval or denial process for files with default rulings, as well as establish or alter flows for specific users or AD groups.

This product stands for a module under the Heimdal Agent, being managed by the Heimdal`s ProcessLock service. This service has the role to make sure every started process is captured and verify if it can or cannot be allowed to run. In the context of Application Control, we are talking about two types of processes: blocked processed and allowed processes. The first category involves the creation of a block rule in the Dashboard in order to stop a process from running. This rule can be created on the basis of software name, paths, publisher, MD5, signature, or wildcard path. In the second case, an “allow rule” should be created in the Dashboard to allow a process to run. The same ruling as mentioned above considering name path etc. can be followed.

What’s interesting to mention here is that App Control blocks a process, as it is intercepted by our product and stopped in a matter of 5-seconds. On the other hand, the allowance of a process execution happens as App control intercepts it and checks the process status through the blocking repository.

On the Heimdal Agent, the App control module will display data about the configured rule’s priority along with the name of the application, its rule type, and also the elevation status.

Application Control Settings

Among our general Application Control Settings, some important ones could be mentioned:

  • The Full Logging Mode by means of which the Heimdal Agent is able to intercept any process executing on those endpoints that apply that group policy;
  • The Zero – Trust Execution process protects against zero-hour threats by checking the unsigned executable files and stopping them to run if they are found untrusted;
  • The reporting mode – all processes are scanned and logged with Zero-Trust Execution Protection.

Application Control Rules

You can set App Control Rules by taking into account various conditions like

  • Rule value and rule type that allow you to set rules by their type: Software name, Path, Publisher, Signature or Wildcard path;
  • Priority: the priority value and the priority level being interlinked;
  • Action–defined processes can be allowed or blocked.

This is a basic presentation of our product to give you a general picture of its characteristics and its operability. However, if you want to learn more you can find here all the technical aspects of the Heimdal Application control module.

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.

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This article was initially drafted by Alina-Georgiana Petcu and updated by Mihaela Marian.

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Mihaela Popa


Mihaela is a digital content creator for Heimdal® and the proud owner of an old soul and a curious mind. Passionate to learn and discover more about cybersecurity, she will gladly share her latest finds with you.

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