What is Allowlisting?

By Anirudh Menon - Last Updated on June 8, 2021
Article is about Allowlisiting

Allowlisting is a security measure deployed on an application for reducing any kind of harmful security attacks. It ensures that only trusted files, applications and processes are executed.

Let us look at this in a little more depth.  Organizations use application allowlisting to restrict any kind of unauthorized activities that has the potential to harm applications used by organizations. It is a kind of a perimeter barricade that secures these enterprise applications.

What allowlisting does is that it identifies files, applications or any processes that are known and executes those only. On the other hand, any such files or activities are blocked or restricted, and does not allow to spread in the system of the organization, thereby causing any kind of attack.

Once the files are blocked, some organizations get on to reviewing these files manually to find out, which files can be approved or delete / fix the ones that are corrupted. However, there are endpoint security solutions that automatically execute the allow listing process through well-defined software controls and security policies.

These measures can completely block such unauthorized activities and secure all corporate assets, trade secrets, intellectual property data and many such confidential data. Such solutions bring about a significant reduction in the downtime by eliminating any sort of allowlist management by automating the approval processes.

Effectiveness of Allowlisting

Organizations are considering allowlisting as an essential for security of data, documents and processes. If you do a comparative study, it is only one of the tools available that provide a comprehensive and end-to-end end-point security.

The methodology and the technology create a huge impact, when it is combined with other security protocols and advanced techniques such as machine learning and behavioral analysis. This way allowlisting contributes significantly to block and prevent any sort of malicious attacks.

However, one must understand a critical element around effectiveness of allowlisting. The measure is effective as much as the policies that are created. If the policies defined are at a broad level, then it will allow a considerable number of applications to run; thereby having very low or minimal control. Hence, the need to combine allowlisting with other methodologies. Reason being, an attacker can bypass even the strictest of conditions by hiding their malware or malicious code in other trusted applications that are allowlisted.

If the applications are vulnerable and unpatched, then there is a possibility of allowlisting not being effective.

( Also Read: What is Network Security? )

How to Measure Success of Allowlisting?

Any application allowlisting control has a very clearly defined success criteria that can be measured. However, the difference is in the policies formulated and the operational processes that are followed subsequently.

Here are few methods to be followed to measure success of allowlisting in your organization:

  • Enforcing a preventive file execution policy across all clients and servers that are linked to the network.
  • Selective permission to execute files that are known because the users need those files as part of their job.
  • Enforce clearly defined access controls so that the right policies are applied to the right set of users.
  • Deploy a principle of least privilege, which restricts end-users to bypass these policies.
  • Keep a track of all known bypass techniques and ensure that this is incorporated in the vulnerability management process of the organization.
  • Store all logs and records of such attempts in a central location.

What are the Key Takeaways?

Here are some important takeaways for you when it comes to allowlisting:

  • It takes a considerable amount of time to implement this security protocol and it requires organizations to be prepared for the change. Companies must also have resources in the form of time, people, and money. Users might be already using some applications that they actually should not, however, with effective communication, the organization should give them comfort and bring them on board. Even before you work on the entire network, it is advisable to test the implementation and rollout strategy.
  • There might be technical people who have their own preferred way of selecting applications to be used. It is advisable to enforce an allowlisting policy that will stop this method and have consistency. Give a proper explanation of what allowlisting is and how it will help the organization.
  • Use features of application allowlisting that come as a default feature of the operating system that you have. It will be easy to configure and control these policies from a centralized location. This can reduce the cost significantly as you might not be required to procure external software for allowlisting.
  • Even if you are planning to buy external software, please ensure that you are properly researching the available options. Select that software, which is in line with the policies that you plan to implement.
  • It will be difficult to enforce a policy that is either file-based or folder-based. This is because users usually access to write and execute on a folder. This can therefore be used to modify any unauthorized file.

To summarize, allowlisting, which is also known as whitelisting(1) has been considered to be a sensible approach to security of data in any organization; in fact, preferred way over blacklisting. The difference is that blacklisting usually happens on elements that are known, such as malware, trojan, etc.

Administrators need to keep a check on the user activity and user privileges that are defined as an outcome of deploying allowlisting in your organization. In the end, allowlisting is one of the proven methodologies for detecting any kind of threat and ensure robust endpoint security.

Drive-by downloads or downloading files from websites and opening untrusted email attachments are some of the most common reasons for having malware incidents.

However, when you implement a well-defined and well-developed allowlisting policy, you are reducing the risks associated with such malware attacks, which can seep in knowingly or unknowingly. It is important to maintain the integrity of these systems. It is important to know what applications are deployed on the system, particularly the embedded ones. Though we all know that there is no absolute immunity in endpoint security.

Anirudh Menon | I have adorned multiple hats during my professional journey. My experience of 14 years comes in areas like Sales, Customer Service and Marketing. My journey as a professional writer started 5 years back, when I started writing for an in-house magazine for my employer. Having successfully delivered many in-house projects, it encouraged me to take my skill to the world. As on day, I have written articles, blogs website content for vario...

Anirudh Menon | I have adorned multiple hats during my professional journey. My experience of 14 years comes in areas like Sales, Customer Service and Marketing. ...

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