Application Control: Types, Capabilities, and Best Practices
November 11, 2021

What Is Application Control?

Application control is a safelisting technique that helps control which files are allowed or denied passage through endpoints on the network.

You can, for example, use bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policies to prevent unknown or malicious applications from causing damage to the network. In this scenario, the application control process blocks various applications, including DLLs, device drivers, executables, control panels, Windows App store apps and various Portable Executable (PE) files.

Application control can help protect against attacks targeting single-purpose systems like PoS and PLCs (ICS/SCADA). Because these systems require very limited and specific functionality, attackers can relatively easily specify which files are allowed to pass through a safelisting filter.

Application control solutions offer granular control, which administrators can use to limit usage to a certain list of applications per user or endpoint. With this feature, you can also use technologies to help protect against malicious insiders , who deliberately attempt to download threats into the network.

This is part of our series of articles about access control.

In this article:

Types of Application Controls

Here are several key types of application controls:

  1. Input controls—help limit data inputs within an application. The goal of input control is to prevent the introduction of unauthorized inputs into the system. 
  2. Output controls—defines how data is distributed from one application to another. Output controls monitor the transmitted data and validate its accuracy. This control also tracks the flow of data to ensure it arrives at the right recipient.
  3. Access controls—restrict the actions users are allowed to execute for certain pieces of data. Access controls limit what users can do with data according to the access role assigned to the user. For example, one user may be allowed to only view data, while another is granted permissions that allow data modification or adding new inputs and lines into the data. Learn more in our article about access control security (coming soon)
  4. Integrity controls—designed to ensure that data follows a consistent format, which enables easy verification of data as authentic and correct.

Features and Benefits of Application Control

Application control technology provides blacklisting and whitelisting capabilities, which help organizations control who and what they deem trustworthy or not. Here are several benefits of application control technology:

  • Control—the technology enables organizations to control which applications should be allowed within the IT environment.
  • Automation—application control tools can automatically identify which software is authorized to run.
  • Prevention—application controls prevent all unauthorized applications, which may be untrusted, unwanted or malicious, from executing.
  • Elimination—application control solutions can eliminate unknown or unwanted applications from the network. This helps reduce application risk and IT complexity.
  • Savings—organizations can leverage application control to reduce the costs and risks associated with malicious software (malware), including costs associated with ransomware.
  • Stability—application control can help improve the overall stability of the network, as it prevents unnecessary traffic from unauthorized applications.
  • Identification—application control tools can identify the applications running within an endpoint environment.
  • Protection—application control solutions can protect the organization against exploitation of unpatched operating systems and against third-party application vulnerabilities.

How Application Control Works

Application control processes match different types of network traffic with predefined models. Computing components can communicate only if the traffic conforms to certain standards. Application control tools use these predefined standards to differentiate the various types of activity and separate the wanted from unwanted activity. 

Once the application control tool identifies a certain traffic flow as belonging to a specific application, it classifies it. Here are several types of application control classification: 

  • Type—applications are classified according to their unique purpose. For example, teleconferencing systems. Type classification can help define the priority of a certain traffic flow.
  • Security risk level—each application is assigned different levels of information security risk. Protocols carrying data, for example, such as FTP and email, are often targets of data exfiltration. This is why they often get assigned a high risk classification. 
  • Resource usage—applications have different resource usage patterns. Videoconferencing applications, for example, that livestream audio and video, use a large amount of high-speed network bandwidth. This classification can help optimize network performance.
  • Productivity implications—different applications have either a positive or negative impact on the productivity of employees. Social media applications, for example, negatively impact employee productivity. 

Once a certain network traffic flow is assigned to a certain application and a set of categories, the application control tool can use these assignments to apply the relevant policies. This provides organizations with a high level of visibility and control over the network infrastructure.

Application Control Best Practices

Here are several high-level steps that can help organizations successfully implement application control:

  • Identify—the organization needs to determine which applications should be approved by the application control tool.
  • Develop—application control rules help ensure that only applications approved by the organization are allowed to execute. These rules should be developed according to the unique business needs and DNA of the organization.
  • Maintain—choose a change management program, which is tasked with maintaining the application control rules defined in the previous step.
  • Validate—business needs and IT environments are subject to constant changes. To ensure all application control rules and processes are still working to the benefit of the organization, validate these rules on an annual or (preferably) more frequent basis.

There are several methods organizations can use to implement application control, including:

  • Cryptographic hash rules.
  • Publisher certificate rules, which combine publisher names with product names.
  • Path rules, which help ensure file system permissions are properly configured to prevent unauthorized modification of file and folder permissions, as well as individual files and folder contents.

Here are several best practices to consider when implementing application control:

  • Do not use easily changed application attributes, such as file names and package names, as a method of application control.
  • Test application controls on a regular basis, and check for any misconfiguration of file system permissions, as well as other ways that may allow threats to bypass application control rules or execute applications that were not whitelisted.
  • Configure application controls to generate event logs for allowed and blocked executions. These logs should include information about the name of the file, the date or timestamp, and the username attempting to execute the file. This can help identify malicious attempts made by threat actors.
  • Do not use application control instead of an antivirus and any other existing security system. A comprehensive security program should utilize several tools and techniques that allow organizations to protect against a wide range of security threats.

Application Control with Pathlock

Pathlock provides a robust, cross-application solution to application control and potential insider threats.  Security, audit, and application teams can rest assured that Pathlock is providing complete protection across their enterprise application landscape. 

With Pathlock, customers can enjoy a complete solution to application control, that can monitor application access as well as activity to prevent risk before it happens:

  • Integration to 140+ applications, with a “rosetta stone” that can map access and violations across systems
  • Intelligent access-based conflict reporting, showing users’ overlapping conflicts across all of their business systems
  • Transactional control monitoring, to focus time and attention on control violations specifically, applying effort towards the largest concentrations of risk
  • Automated, compliant provisioning into business applications, to monitor for access conflicts when adding or changing user access
  • Streamlined, intelligent User Access Reviews that highlight unnecessary or unused privileges for removal or inspection
  • Compliant workflows to drive risk mitigation and contain suspicious users before they inflict harm

Interested to find out more about how Pathlock is changing the future of Application Control?  Request a demo to explore the leading solution for gaining control while reducing risk.