What Is Shadow IT? Defined, Explained, and Explored

What is Shadow IT?

Shadow IT refers to IT endeavors handled outside of the typical IT infrastructure without the IT department’s knowledge. In most cases, it involves employees DIYing their IT, whether it is troubleshooting issues, setting up their own security, or using their own applications either on or off the cloud.

When people hear the term "shadow IT", they often assume it involves nothing but covert, problematic practices that undermine the integrity of an organization’s IT. In reality, the shadow IT definition is more nuanced. 

Shadow IT also comes with significant benefits, including ways to save time and money while enabling greater flexibility for the organization. To reap the rewards of incorporating shadow information technology systems into your processes, careful controls should be put in place to ensure adequate network security and the overall efficacy of the company’s IT.

Benefits

When shadow IT is embraced by a company and properly managed, there can be many benefits. Some of the primary advantages include:

  1. Faster technology
  2. Less time to train employees
  3. Lower upfront cost during onboarding
  4. Lower IT costs for the employer

Faster Technology

Businesses have to keep up with the quickly developing, ever-emerging selection of technologies that benefit the modern enterprise. One advantage of a shadow IT system is the availability of new, faster technologies an organization may have otherwise missed. When a company adopts a shadow IT approach, each team member is empowered to explore innovative ways to do their jobs better and more efficiently.

Less Time to Train Employees

In addition to discovering faster technologies, the process of introducing new technologies can be much quicker when a company embraces shadow IT. Instead of the main information technology team spending days developing and refining training materials, and then implementing training sessions, each employee teaches themselves how to use new technologies. This speeds up the adoption of new technology significantly. 

If, in the self-education process, several employees come across a similar obstacle, the IT team can help them work through it. This usually requires far less time than an across-the-board training initiative.

Lower Upfront Cost During Onboarding

With shadow IT in place, you can afford to invest fewer resources in the onboarding process because new hires are able to handle much of their own IT. Onboarding typically involves the IT team training new employees on a series of security protocols. This may even need to be done for multiple devices using several platforms. Training takes valuable time away from the IT team, locking up crucial human resources.

Lower IT Costs for the Employer

Shadow IT, when properly implemented, can help an employer make significant adjustments to their IT budget. In reality, every interaction between an IT team member and an employee takes time and, therefore, costs money. 

In a typical IT setup, each employee is provided a certain amount of help installing, managing, and troubleshooting their devices and applications. With shadow IT, they can do much of it on their own, which means the IT staff assisting them may not be necessary. This could free up funds dedicated to the salaries of IT staff, allowing them to be invested elsewhere in the business.

Risks

Even though shadow IT comes with several benefits, the risks, if not properly managed, can invalidate some of its advantages. Some of the risks include:

  1. Data loss and inconsistent data
  2. Compliance issues
  3. Downtime and fewer required security measures

Data Loss and Inconsistent Data

With shadow IT, you could relinquish some control over how your data is managed. This applies to both the use of cloud-based applications and those in physical locations. As individual users decide how to manage and protect company data, they could make significant mistakes. When all cloud security is managed by an IT team, for example, the inflow and outflow of data can be closely managed.

With shadow IT, individual employees may be responsible for reporting data around important concerns like IT security or productivity. This can lead to inconsistencies, which could make it difficult to track and properly react to data that would otherwise be readily available and consistently reported if an IT team were in control.

Compliance Issues

The compliance landscape often undergoes unexpected, even drastic, changes. Because shadow IT relinquishes control to individual employees, who are often busy or preoccupied with other important things, compliance issues may go unaddressed. New policies regarding how to conform to companywide standards, as well as guidelines handed down by government officials, can easily slip the notice of someone deeply invested in meeting other objectives.

Downtime and Fewer Required Security Measures

With shadow IT, if something goes wrong, the amount of downtime can be exacerbated by the inexperience of the user. Sometimes, when an employee has an issue, it may take several hours for them to fix it. But it would take mere minutes for a trained IT professional who has experience handling that type of problem.

Shadow IT often necessitates fewer security measures. This can help simplify the IT infrastructure of the organization and save time. However, fewer security measures also come with drawbacks. Multiple levels of security designed to accommodate a wide range of issues often result in security redundancies. While these may seem unnecessary at first, they frequently provide better overall protection, as each additional layer comes with tools that can catch threats the other layers may have missed. Reducing the redundancy, even accidentally, may result in a weaker security system.

 

Fortinet's Role in Shadow IT

When shadow IT is integrated with FortiGuard Application Control or FortiAnalyzer, FortiCASB is able to provide an overview of all sanctioned and unsanctioned cloud applications throughout your organization.

FortiGuard Application Control Service

With the FortiGuard Application Control service and the FortiGate next-generation firewall (NGFW), you can eliminate much of the risks associated with shadow IT. You can use FortiGuard to enhance security and make sure users are in compliance with acceptable use policies. FortiGuard empowers you to create policies that dictate who is allowed to access individual, or groups of, applications.

With FortiGate NGFWs, you get far more robust protection. Normal firewalls can merely identify protocols, ports, and IP addresses, but FortiGate NGFWs can do more. Because they work in conjunction with FortiOS, they give you the power to observe how employees are using applications in real time. You can also see how trends develop over time and generate reports to help the IT team and upper management improve performance.

The FortiGuard Application Control service also allows you to eliminate malicious or problematic applications that could hurt your overall network or compromise security. Control points can be put where you need them to maximize their effectiveness, including at the perimeter, within the network, or in the data center.

FortiAnalyzer

FortiAnalyzer provides detailed security fabric analytics, giving you a window into security-related activity on your network. For example, if a new employee is engaging in shadow IT, FortiAnalyzer can recognize and report the activity. The IT team can then ascertain if and how to support the activity. Also, if an instance of shadow IT presents a threat, FortiAnalyzer makes it easier to assess the extent to which the system is put at risk. This can be valuable information as the IT team endeavors to make sure all employee IT activity is within acceptable bounds.

FortiCASB

Without adequate visibility and control, open access to cloud-based systems can be a two-edged sword, resulting in security breaches and inconsistent data management. With FortiCASB, an organization can see who is doing what and set up controls to make all cloud activity safer.

Unsanctioned Application Discovery

FortiCASB makes sure only approved applications are being used within your cloud system. A well-meaning employee may use an app that puts the rest of your system at risk. Because employees are often interested in getting the job done faster and better, they may not take the time to adequately research the security risks associated with an application they decide to use. 

With FortiCASB in place, unwanted apps can be blocked by the system, leaving employees free to figure out the best ways to enhance work performance without worrying about compromising the system.

Cloud Risk Score

FortiCASB allows you to monitor and assess the safety of your cloud system with a cloud risk score. This provides the IT team with a snapshot of the risk level of the organization’s cloud resources, paving the way for any necessary adjustments due to increased shadow IT activity.

Access Control

With FortiCASB, you can control users' access rights, allowing them to only use what is necessary to do their jobs. This prevents unwanted shadow IT activity, shrinks the protection surface, and conserves security resources.

Data Correlation

In addition to managing activity, access, and security, FortiCASB keeps track of and manages data stored in the cloud. Data usage can be carefully monitored and reported to stakeholders. 

Shadow IT can present powerful opportunities for an organization—but only if it is thoughtfully managed. With FortiGuard, FortiGate NGFWs, FortiAnalyzer, and FortiCASB, you can enjoy the agility shadow IT affords your company while minimizing the risks.