What security considerations are important when accessing desktops remotely?

In today’s global economy, organizations must manage office and remote work simultaneously. Many organizations have established work-from-home policies that offer workflows and processes for employees to work effectively, but remote work extends beyond a single employee. If employee devices fail to work due to software- or hardware-related issues, it may result in downtime, which companies can’t afford. Imagine a similar situation occurring on hundreds of other devices across multiple locations.

Without remote access, a local IT admin would need to troubleshoot devices in person. Remote access allows users to connect to systems they need when they are physically far away. However, security vulnerabilities allow attackers to gain unauthorized access. In this article, we share a few ways to address remote desktop security risks.

What is a remote desktop?

Remote desktop is the ability to connect and access a desktop computer remotely. Users can access their desktops, files, and documents, open and edit files, and use applications as if sitting at their desktop computers. Employees use remote desktops to access their work computers when working from home or traveling.

A remote desktop links an employee’s computer to the host computer via the internet connection. To establish the connection, remote desktop software needs to be installed on both devices to communicate with each other. Remote desktop uses Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) to connect and transfer data between the desktop and remote device. RDP is included in most Windows operating systems and can also be installed on Apple, Linux, and Android.

Benefits of remote access

Remote troubleshooting – IT admins need to fix the technical issues faced by multiple employees. By remotely accessing the devices, admins can troubleshoot issues in a short time. A few troubleshooting problems may be complex and need to be shared to educate other team members. Recording troubleshooting sessions helps everyone handle previously unprecedented situations.

Activity logs – Remote access software can log all activity occurring in a network. From user authentications and chats to video sessions, logs provide details of who is accessing the company’s network, when, how, and what they are doing there. Activity logs promote network security and are necessary for auditing, a common practice for organizations that must comply with regulatory guidelines. 

Cost savings – Downtime is detrimental to business. Remote access gives businesses options to resolve issues faster. Businesses that aim for cost savings in hiring a managed service provider (MSP) can do so without sacrificing quality because of remote access.

Security considerations when using remote access

Although remote desktops can be a fast way to enable remote access for employees, some security challenges need to be considered before using them freely.

  • Set firewall rules – Firewall is the first line of defense in network security. Teams can configure the firewall so that no traffic can come through except the allowlist of IP addresses, such as desktops that belong to employees, to restrict access using software or hardware or both. 
  • Enforce strong password policies – The password length is a primary factor in determining the strength of a password, according to the NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology). Set unique and complex passwords at least 12 characters, containing a mix of upper- and lower-case characters, numbers, and non-alphabetic characters. Users need to take proactive steps, such as changing passwords regularly and never sharing them, to make it difficult for threat actors to figure them out.
  • Enable multi-factor authentication – Controlling access with multi-factor or two-factor authentication (2FA) adds an extra layer of security. 2FA requires two separate, distinct forms of identification to access resources and data. The first factor is the password, and the second includes a text with a code sent to the user’s smartphone.
  • Use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) will allow remote users to access their corporate network securely without exposing their desktops. The remote access VPN creates a tunnel between an organization’s network and a remote user, which makes it unintelligible to any bad actor. With remote VPN, users can access corporate data and applications without an organization having to worry about the communication being intercepted.
  • Limit access – Limiting the number of users who can log in can help maintain security. Only those individuals who require remote access should be given access, and privileges should be granted on a need-to-know basis. This reduces the risk of unauthorized access and protects sensitive data from being compromised.

Wrapping Up

For any work environment using remote access, the more remote workers, the more attack surface for bad actors. IT admins need to stay apprised of the best practices for the secure configuration of remote desktop access. They can choose from various third-party options based on the requirements and platforms (e.g., Windows-only or Mac-only devices) used in the organization.