MACsec and the Hidden Challenges


MACsec is a powerful network security standard, but it’s crucial to understand its limitations. Discover the hidden challenges and learn how Sepio’s solution fills the device visibility gap, offering Zero Trust Hardware Access beyond MACsec.

While implementing cybersecurity measures is essential, it’s equally important to be aware of their limitations. MACsec, a widely deployed network security standard, offers Layer 2 security and data protection. However, misconceptions surrounding MACsec’s capabilities can leave organizations vulnerable to undetected attacks. In this article, we explore the limitations of MACsec and introduce Sepio’s HAC-1 solution, designed to provide complete device visibility and enhance security beyond MACsec.

Any form of cybersecurity is better than none at all. And the more cybersecurity measures in place, the better (be that software solutions, protocols, or practices). However, it is imperative to actually know the functions of such measures and how they protect you – or don’t. One of the greatest challenges we see in the cybersecurity world is knowing where the blind spots are. Often, cybersecurity efforts get implemented under the perception that they solve problems A, B, and C, when, in actuality, they only solve problems A and B. MACsec is one such example. While an undeniably valuable protocol, misconceptions surround the extent of protection that MACsec offers. As a result, organizations still face problem C, they just don’t know it – and that’s more dangerous than being knowingly exposed to it.

Understanding MACsec’s Role

MACsec is a network security standard (802.1AE), widely deployed in physical layer, switches, firewalls, gateways and NICs, that provides Layer 2 security. The security protocol protects both network-to-network and device-to-network connections. MACsec provides point-to-point security through Layer 2 encryption between Ethernet-connected devices on a virtual or physical local area network (Network Devices). Further, network administrators can inspect data in transit. In doing so, MACsec ensures the confidentiality, integrity, and authenticity of user data. Additionally, MACsec identifies unauthorized LAN connections and excludes them from connecting with the network. Authentication is enabled by Extensible Authentication Protocol (EAP) methods. By ensuring that a frame comes from the supplicant (i.e. device) that claims to have sent it, MACsec can mitigate attacks on Layer 2 protocols.

It sounds like MACsec is the solution to many of your network security woes. In addition to ensuring data protection, MACsec essentially acts as a bodyguard for your network, vetting connections to prevent any unwanted guests from getting inside. But, just as one might use a fake ID to bypass a bodyguard, attackers do the same to work around the MACsec protocol.

The Limitations of MACsec: Problem C

MACsec relies on authenticating supplicants through EAP methods. Yet, several EAP implementations are weak, allowing attackers to exploit the authentication process through a gateway attack and, subsequently, gain unauthorized network access. In a gateway attack, the perpetrator deploys a rogue device that initially acts as a passive tap. Passive taps lack a MAC  and IP address, allowing them to operate covertly (as the name suggests), simply sniffing network traffic. This, in itself, is a major cybersecurity threat, but attackers don’t always stop there. They want more; they want network access.

A simple switchboard application enables the passive tap to carry out more complex man in the middle attacks. Instead of clandestine traffic sniffing, network traffic is rerouted directly to the rogue device. The supplicant, unknowingly, is forced to authenticate with the rogue device rather than directly to the switch (the authenticator). Now, the malicious actor can crack hashes and use stolen credentials to authenticate with the network directly. When connected to the switch, the rogue device spoofs the supplicant’s IP address, MAC address and cracked EAP credentials. Naturally, the connection is authenticated, and the attacker has direct access to the network.

Revealing the Gap in Device Visibility

Recognize the underlying issue in MACsec’s visibility limitations, specifically at Layer 1. Understand how rogue devices operating at this layer evade detection, leaving organizations unaware of their presence. Discover the importance of addressing this visibility gap to enhance network security.

The underlying issue here is a gap in visibility. Organizations deem MACsec as a full proof network security protocol as it protects against unauthorized network devices. But this fails to take into consideration the devices that evade detection. MACsec operates on Layer 2, leaving Layer 1 exposed, a blind spot which the rogue device exploits by operating on this layer. Without Layer 1 data, MACsec cannot detect the rogue device, and, as a result, the switch thinks it is connecting to a legitimate, authorized supplicant.

Introducing Sepio: Complete Device Visibility Solution

Discover Sepio’s solution, designed to bridge the device visibility gap. Through Physical Layer Visibility (Layer 1) fingerprinting, Sepio identifies and manages all peripherals, providing comprehensive visibility into connected devices. Sepio goes beyond MACsec, offering policy enforcement mechanisms and protection against attacks via Ethernet and USB interfaces.

Achieving Zero Trust Hardware Access

Explore the concept of Zero Trust Hardware Access and how HAC-1 aligns with this security framework. Sepio’s HAC-1 Hardware Access Control, detects and blocks attacks from passive taps, spoofing devices, unmanaged switches, HID emulators, and NIC manipulators. Sepio’s HAC-1 Hardware Access Control, strengthens network security by ensuring every device is effectively managed and monitored.

MACsec is a valuable network security protocol, but it’s crucial to understand its limitations and the hidden challenges it may not fully address. By implementing Sepio’s HAC-1 Hardware Access Control, organizations can achieve complete device visibility and enhance security beyond MACsec. Embrace the power of Zero Trust Hardware Access and protect your network infrastructure from undetected threats.

Sepio has developed the HAC-1 solution to provide a panacea to the gap in device visibility. As the leader in Rogue Device Mitigation (RDM), Sepio’s solution, through Physical Layer (Layer 1 Visibility) fingerprinting, identifies, detects, and handles all peripherals; no device goes unmanaged. In addition to gathering Layer 1 data, a comprehensive policy enforcement mechanism recommends on best practice policy and allows the administrator to define a strict, or more granular, set of rules for the system to enforce. More importantly, our solution detects and blocks attacks occurring through the Ethernet interface (passive taps, spoofing devices, unmanaged switches) and the USB interface (HID emulators, NIC manipulators). In doing so, Sepio goes deeper and lower than any other solution has gone before to provide Zero Trust Hardware Access, filling the gap where MACsec fails.

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August 22nd, 2021