What Is Separation of Duties in Cybersecurity?

Separation of Duties (SOD) in cybersecurity, also known as Segregation of Duties, is a form of risk management that is often used in cybersecurity to mitigate insider threats and reduce the risk of errors or accidents when it comes to mission-critical data. By having more than one person responsible for key duties, organizations can prevent conflicts of interest and better maintain data integrity and availability.

What Is SOD in Cybersecurity?

SOD is the term used to describe the practice of breaking down a task that would normally be controlled by one person so that there’s two (or more) people involved with the job. This ensures no one person is fully in control, thereby reducing the risk of malicious or accidental activity that could cause damage to an organization… Typically, SOD is used for critical tasks and information, where regulatory compliance or safety are most important.

Why Is SOD Important in Cybersecurity?

By having more than one person responsible for a task, you can be confident that that task is being performed correctly and in accordance with your organizational guidelines. SOD has several potential benefits:

1. Mitigating Insider Threats

Using the “Four eyes principle” prevents a malicious insider from exploiting their privileges for personal gain. For example, if an employee who is issuing refunds has to have those refunds approved by a second employee, this reduces the risk of the first employee fraudulently issuing refunds for personal gain.

2. Error and Accident Prevention

Another benefit of having a second pair of eyes look over actions is that it reduces the risk of errors or accidental data loss. Let’s consider the example of a systems administrator making changes to the configuration of a server. Having a second team member look over the changes reduces the risk of a mistake such as failing to change the default password on some software making it through to the production server.

3. Regulatory Compliance

In some industries, having two-person integrity or separation of duties as a safety precaution is important for regulatory compliance. Giving one person the ability to change records or control certain actions within a financial or healthcare organization could put the organization at risk of breaching regulatory guidelines.

4. Enhancing Data Integrity and Availability

Following the four eyes principle helps maintain the integrity of your organization’s data by ensuring any data entered by employees is truthful and accurate. It reduces the risk of mistakes making it into your records and helps prevent fraud.

The NIST Cybersecurity Framework sets out guidelines and best practices to help organizations maintain high-security standards, avoiding the threats discussed here and avoiding exploits, phishing, and opportunistic attacks.

Related Concepts

Separation of duties is one of several precautions organizations can take to protect their systems and data; it can be used alongside the following other best practices.

Principle of Least Privilege (PoLP)

The principle of least privilege involves giving employees access to only the tools, systems, and information they need. For example, an employee who is handling customer service may need the authority to update purchases and even issue refunds or vouchers for customers. However, they should not have administrative access to the database, and they should not be able to see employee records.

Limiting each employee’s access to only the things they need to perform their job role helps mitigate insider threats and ensures the damage an attacker can do is limited if an account is compromised.

Types of Roles

The accounts used within your systems can be divided into a few key categories.

  • User roles: Users may be limited to accessing only their own profiles and accounts and performing limited actions such as raising tickets, placing orders, or commenting on a discussion forum.
  • Administrative Roles: Administrative accounts should be secured carefully and only used when absolutely necessary due to the high level of privileges they have.
  • Privileged Roles: Moderators, database administrators and others who have access to back-end functionality are considered to have privileged roles. It’s better to use a privileged account that suits a specified job role than to have an administrative account in use for day-to-day tasks to reduce the risk of the administrative/super-user account being breached.

Implementation Strategies

If you’re considering adopting the four eyes principle in your organization, consider the following as part of your strategy.

Role-Based Access Control (RBAC)

Role-based access control is an effective way of implementing the principle of least privilege. Consider what each job role in your company does and the access they need to be able to do their job correctly. Create roles, such as “team leader,” “customer service representative,” and “webmaster,” and give permissions to each role. If someone changes their job role within the company, assigning them a different role will revoke the permissions they no longer need and give them access to the tools required for their new job.

Segregation of Environments

Another thing to take into account is working environments. It can be helpful for developers to have administrative privileges on the machines they’re working on and even to be able to make changes to testing machines. However, giving developers administrative access to production machines is a major security risk.

Keep the environments separated and have a clear, systematic pathway of testing and QA required before any changes made by developers are allowed to be used on a production environment. Have multiple people review code changes for reliability, security, and usability before pushing the changes to the live environment.

Two-Person Integrity (TPI)

Requiring dual authorization before allowing someone to change certain records, update API keys or upload a new software build helps reduce the risk of mistakes and stops a rogue employee from making malicious changes.

Document your two-person integrity requirements, including thresholds for what makes a task fall under the two-man rule. Make sure both parties involved record their involvement in the process, so it can be proven that the appropriate checks and balances were followed.

Security Information and Event Management Software (SIEM)

These precautions reduce the risk of user errors and prevent malicious actors within the organization from being able to do significant damage. However, there are other threats to be aware of. SIEM software makes it easy for IT managers to track important events and potential security breaches. This software can log privileged actions and alert you to unusual activities, giving you the opportunity to review them and take action if required.

Challenges and Considerations

Implementing separation of duties isn’t always easy. Some challenges you might encounter include:

  • Tools not being designed to require sign-off from more than one person
  • Security challenges if account sharing is required
  • Difficulty implementing sensible/easy-to-use single sign-on solutions
  • Difficulty ensuring users have access to the right parts of the system

Performing regular audits on employees to ensure they have the right access for their position and updating user roles as required can go a long way toward improving your organization’s security.

Real-World Examples

Financial Industry

Separation of duties is commonly used in the financial sector, where bank employees are required to have a manager sign off on transactions over a certain value or if they are making certain changes to a user’s account. Separation of duties can be performed in a number of different ways to give flexibility and control to different departments while still reducing the risk of fraud.

Health Care Sector

Health care organizations are increasingly using separation of duties to reduce the risk of patient data being misused and to ensure compliance with HIPAA. One challenge health care organizations face is finding the balance between maintaining strict role-based access controls and ensuring all health care professionals have access to the information they need to ensure good patient care.

E-Commerce Platforms

Fraud is a major issue for e-commerce platforms, and separation of duties can be used to ensure individual staff members have access to only the tools they need. For example, customer service teams may be given the right to see and manage orders but not to set pricing or change product listings on the platform.

SaaS Environments

Data protection can be challenging in cloud environments where there are many users with access to the same server. Using access control lists, encrypted storage and a strict backup schedule is essential for reducing the risk of data loss or breaches.

Best Practices

To maintain enterprise cybersecurity, it’s important to be proactive when it comes to security measures.

Clear Role Definitions

Document the roles of all your team members and assign them rights based on those roles. Resist the urge to simply hand out administrative privileges to those who do not need them. If a role is ambiguous, try to break it down into smaller categories with granular access rights.

Regular Auditing and Monitoring

Use monitoring tools to watch out for anomalies in your logs or people violating protocols. Use intrusion detection systems to get an early warning of data breaches.

Education and Training

Train your team members regularly in security best practices. Explain why these best practices are important and try to make your precautions non-invasive to increase compliance.

Future Trends

The world of cybersecurity and data protection is constantly evolving, as you can see in Announcing Data Protection Trends Report for 2023, which discusses issues such as AI and automation. Being aware of these trends and how the industry is evolving can help you stay ahead of the curve and better protect your organization.

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