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Zscaler report highlights VPN risk to network security
Thu, 3rd Aug 2023

Zscaler has revealed the findings of its annual VPN Risk Report, produced by Cybersecurity Insiders, which shows that a resounding number of organisations are expressing deep concerns about their network security due to the risks from VPNs.

The report includes a survey of 382 IT and cybersecurity professionals in multiple industries and explores their security and user experience challenges. The report stresses the need for organisations to reevaluate their security posture and migrate to a zero trust architecture due to the increasing threat of cybercriminals exploiting VPN vulnerabilities. 

Deepen Desai, Global CISO and Head of Security Research, Zscaler, says, "The report shows 92% of survey respondents recognise the importance of adopting a zero trust architecture; however, it is concerning to see many organisations are still using a VPN for remote employee and third-party access, inadvertently providing a juicy attack surface for threat actors.

"Legacy firewall and VPN vendors are spinning virtual VPNs in the cloud and claiming that it is zero trust, and they go the extra length to hide the word "VPN". Customers need to ask the right questions to make sure that they are not getting a false sense of security with these virtualised legacy offerings in the cloud.

"In order to safeguard against evolving ransomware attacks, it is critical for organisations to eliminate the use of VPNs, prioritise user-to-app segmentation, and implement an in-line contextual data loss prevention engine with full TLS inspection."

VPN vulnerabilities underscore the need for a zero trust architecture

88% of organisations express deep concern over potential breaches due to VPN vulnerabilities. More specifically, organisations are most concerned with possible phishing attacks (49%) and ransomware attacks (40%) as a result of regular VPN usage. 

Nearly half of the organisations reported they have been targeted by cyber attackers who were able to exploit a VPN vulnerability like outdated protocols or data leaks, with one in five experiencing an attack in the past year. Ransomware, in particular, has emerged as a significant adversary for organisations, with 33% falling victim to ransomware attacks on VPNs within the past year.

Third-party users are a top concern

Despite diligent security measures, research shows that 90% of organisations are still highly concerned about third-party vendors being exploited by attackers to gain indirect backdoor access into their networks.

Outside users like contractors and vendors serve as potential risks to the organisation due to varied security standards, a lack of visibility into their network security practices, and the complexity of managing external third-party access, the report finds.

Legacy networking and security architectures manage access to internal applications by providing users direct access to the network - inherently trusting users that can confirm their credentials at the access point, which is problematic if those credentials are stolen.

With a zero trust approach, users connect directly to the apps and resources they need, never to networks, the report highlights. User-to-application and application-to-application connections eliminate the risk of lateral movement and prevent compromised devices from infecting other resources. Additionally, users and apps are invisible to the internet, so they cant be discovered or attacked.

Poor user experience can lead to security challenges

In addition to security concerns, 72% of users are dissatisfied with their current VPN experience due to slow and unreliable connections. Most notably, 25% are frustrated by sluggish application speeds, while 21% face frequent connection disruptions. 

Unreliable internet connectivity contributes to poor user experiences, leading to frustration and lower user engagement. In addition, authentication complexity and friction can lead to lost productivity, reduced revenue, and increased risk of data loss from users that find ways to bypass inefficient VPN services.

Shifting to zero trust

Organisations that recognise the role outdated VPNs play in creating these security and user experience concerns are starting to move towards zero trust architecture. In fact, a resounding 92% recognise the importance of adopting a zero trust approach to safeguard their assets and data - an increase of 12% year-over-year, and 69% are already in the planning stages of replacing their current VPN solutions with zero trust Network Access (ZTNA). 

Mitigating VPN risk with zero trust 

The report strongly recommends organisations implement a zero trust-based architecture to effectively mitigate the risks associated with VPN vulnerabilities and protect their sensitive data and applications from cyber attacks.