Cyber threats are growing by the moment, compromising ‘secure networks’, purging sensitive data, and extorting vulnerable parties at every step of the way. To mitigate the risks and promote a more secure cyber ecosystem organizations like CIS have released comprehensive frameworks to streamline hardening.

According to the CIS Security framework “Hardening is a process of limiting potential weaknesses that make systems vulnerable to cyber-attacks. More secure than a standard image, hardened virtual images reduce system vulnerabilities to help protect against denial of service, unauthorized data access, and other cyber threats.”

What does CIS hardening entail?

Operational System hardening is the process of securing a system by reducing its attack surface. The hardening process aims to minimize a computer or network’s exposure to threats and, as a result, mitigate possible cyber risks.

The hardening process, which should be reevaluated regularly often involves:

Why are IT teams turning to hardening?

There are a number of significant factors which can lead an IT team to decided to harden its internal systems. In practice, As the configuration of operating environments naturally evolves (due to either the application of patches,  alteration of system configurations, and the nature and quantity of applications are added or removed) standard operating environments must be updated and revised on a yearly or bi-yearly basis to ensure that a standard industry baseline is maintained and optimized.

With new technology and even more potential new threats arising on a near-daily basis, IT teams must use every tool in the box to minimize the potential for cyber attacks. Understanding the unique nexus of heightened cyber risks the diverse array of elements that could downsize potential losses the hardening process aims to eliminate any unneeded programs, accounts, or access that could lead to system compromise and data loss.

Attempting to decrease the attack surface and improve systemwide security can include any or all of the following layers:

  • Network
  • Database
  • OS
  • Application

For our purpose, we will focus on the importance and clear framework set up to optimize OS hardening processes.

Added-value of systems hardened via the CIS framework?

With new security directives, technologies, and staff being implemented constantly, system admins need consistent evaluation criteria to ensure all systems are running smoothly. The CIS benchmarks, divided into levels 1, 2 & 3, provide the core definitions and configurations essential to mitigating cyber risk.

According to

The Level 1 profile is considered the base level which, while easy to implement does not have a significant impact on performance. The level 1 benchmark decreases the admin’s attack surface without any effect on core business functionality

The Level 2 profile, also known as the defense-in-depth approach, is geared towards admins focused on creating a completely secure environment, with more room to change practices however, if this step is not applied correctly, it can add adverse effects, without due care.

The STIG profile replaces the previous Level 3. The STIG profile encompasses all recommendations that are STIG specific. As well as including all the criteria of levels 2 & 2

In effect, each of these levels enables organizations to ensure secure configuration, enhanced security posture, and implement the newest patches through one uniform and centrally guided process. With the CIS framework, organizations can methodically refine their attack surface to decrease the threat of cyber attacks.

Steps moving forward

The best way to effectively manage cyber risk and ensure your systems are resilient against even the most complex hacks, segmented flaws exploitations and system bypasses is to deploy a series of system configuration management tools that automatically enforce and redeploy configuration at regularly scheduled intervals. Through the implementation of a rigorous hardening process such as that guided by the principles of the CIS framework, admins can categorically alter their risk profile.

To do this admins are suggested to onboard and familiarize themselves with; harden automation tools, configuration management processes, and CIS-based assessment tools, to maximize their security posture and optimize their collective systems against cyber threats.