A Short Guide for Owners and Leaders
Inflation, supply chain issues, COVID, staff shortages, rising wages – and you want me to spend time thinking about cybersecurity?
Well, yes – you should – at least just a little. That advice applies even if it’s just you “pulling the levers” to keep your small business or nonprofit operating, and it applies even if you have outsourced all of your website, email management, and credit card processing to a third-party provider.
This is the first of a three-part blog specifically targeted to cybersecurity for very small organizations. Owner-operated businesses with no more than 5-10 employees — sometimes called “microbusinesses” as well as similarly-sized nonprofits. This part (part one) will describe what a cyberattack is, how it is carried out and ways it can cripple or destroy your organization. While almost everyone understands that large businesses and the government are at risk of cyberattacks, in recent years cybercrooks have focused on smaller organizations, in part because these crooks know that you may lack a dedicated IT staff to defend against the attack. Your organization is assumed to be “low hanging fruit” for cybercrooks, but if you understand the risk and take some reasonable steps to address it, you can greatly enhance your organization’s ability to avoid or recover from a cyberattack.
Just because your organization is small does not mean it is less vulnerable to a cyberattack. Unless you are prepared, an attack can cripple your operations and do irreputable harm to your reputation. Microbusinesses already face challenges that lead 30% of them to fail within the first year of operation and similar failure rates apply to nonprofits as well. As the leader of a small organization with limited resources time spent working to secure your business against a cyberattack and to recover from a successful attack, could be critical to the organization’s survival.
Creating a strategy to address this risk doesn’t require a substantial amount of time, and once it is in place, effective cybersecurity is much like protecting your organization’s physical assets. You have locks on the doors and windows, perhaps even a security monitoring device or service to discourage criminal activity and alert you in the event of a break-in, and worst case – you’ve insured as best you can against potential losses should those steps fail. Addressing cybersecurity is much the same, except that instead of physical assets (building and equipment) you are working to protect the information contained on your internet-connected devices and the software that keeps those devices operating.
With that in mind, keep on reading to learn more about the risks your organization faces, and how to protect it.
Part One: What is at Stake — The Risks of a Cyberattack
The purpose of cybersecurity is to prevent or limit damage to your operations from a cyberattack.
Cyberattacks can cripple your operations and put your organization’s viability at risk. A January 2023 article states that 43% of small businesses surveyed had suffered a cyberattack, and that cyberattacks are expected to cost 6 trillion dollars. This risk is not limited just to your organization. Even if you can quickly recover from a cyberattack others can suffer significant harm. Confidential information relating to third parties that is stored on your network or computers can be stolen and exploited, or your “infected” network and devices can spread harmful programs to customers, donors and suppliers. In addition to badly damaging your organization’s reputation, it may face lawsuits, fines and penalties for failing to properly secure the information on the network and connected devices.
There are many types of cyberattacks, with confusing names and acronyms, and to make matters worse they are consistently changing and evolving as cybercrooks find new ways to achieve their goals. That said, to develop effective strategies to prevent or deal with a cyberattack it is useful to understand what a cyberattack is, what the attacker wants, and some of the common strategies used by cybercrooks that pose a particular risk to small businesses and nonprofits.
What is a cyberattack?
In these blogs, the term “cyberattack” means an attempt to gain unauthorized access to a digital network and/or to the physical devices that are connected to that network in order to steal information or to disable your operations by locking, corrupting or destroying critical data and applications..
A “digital network” is the mechanism your organization uses to transmit “data” (e.g., email, files, credit and debit card information, video or audio) from one physical location to another. The “internet” is a digital network with more than 5 billion users and by some estimates 50 billion devices that connect to it. However, the switches, routers and modems your organization uses to connect computers and other devices to servers and the Internet is also a digital network. It is usually called a local area network or LAN. Unlike the internet, a LAN connects a limited number of devices with each other, and it most often acts as a gateway that some or all of these devices can use to access the internet. Typically, a cyberattack originate from a device located somewhere on the internet, and it succeeds by gaining access to your LAN or to one of its connected devices.
What physical devices need to be secured against a cyberattack?
An important point to understand here is that any device that is connected to your LAN (or to the internet directly) is at risk in a cyberattack. This of course includes desktop computers, laptops, network servers, switches and routers – but it also includes a smart phone or a tablet, smart appliances, surveillance cameras or sensors that are part of your alarm system or inventory control, perhaps even your wristwatch. All of these devices have the capacity of interacting and connecting to your LAN and the internet, and thus all of them are at risk of a cyberattack.
What are the common objectives of a cyberattack?
Most cyberattacks are intended to achieve at least one of these goals.
According to a recent Forbes article the most common cyberattack threat facing small business in 2023 is ransomware. As the name implies, in a ransomware attack, the cybercrook attempts to load some type of malicious software onto your device or your LAN to encrypt the data or otherwise block access. In other words, the attack “locks you out” of your device – or all devices on the network. Once that is accomplished, the cybercrook demands a payment (ransom) with the threat the failure to pay will result in destruction of the data, or disclosure of the personal or financial information of the organization or third parties to other criminals. A derivative of this type of attack could involve theft of sensitive data or third-party information, again with the threat that the cybercrook will disclose it to criminals if the ransom payment is not made.
Attacks of this type can take one of several forms; the first category is theft by deception. Here the cybercrook’s goal is to convince you that they are someone else and deceive you into the sending them money or valuable information (e.g., credit card or bank account numbers – or passwords to protected networks). The “great-grandfather” of these types of attack is the infamous “Nigerian prince email” (send a relatively small amount of money to aid a Nigerian prince to gain access to a far greater sum that will be shared with the victim). Surprisingly, even though this ruse has been around for decades, it still is used to steal hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. Maybe you like to use the term phishing somewhere because that was one of the most common attacks in 2022.
These types of attacks have greatly evolved over the years. More sophisticated versions used today involve using false credentials and other nefarious approaches to impersonate a known person or business. These are used to trick the unsuspecting into sending money to the cybercrook. The attack is successful because the request itself seems reasonable, such as an email request to move funds from a finance officer or for payment of an invoice from a trusted supplier. At times stolen emails are used, making it impossible to determine from the communication that it is illegitimate, unless the recipient decides to verify its authenticity by phone or some other communication. A second class of theft by deception cyberattacks seek is disclosure of valuable private information (e.g., credit card, bank account information, email passwords, etc.) in lieu of requests to transfer funds.
Sometimes the objective of a cyberattack may not be money or data, but instead use of your computer itself. Cryptojacking is the most common objective of these attacks. Here the cybercrook seeks access to your computer or networks so that it can use the hardware for “crypto mining” – solving extremely complex mathematical equations to create digital currency. While it may seem farfetched to you that your small organization might be subject to this type of attack, it should not be discounted. A 2021 report on cyber security threats prepared by Cisco found that nearly 70% of organizations studied had at least one computer that had been successfully “highjacked” for use in an illegal crypto mining operation.
This is not a victimless crime; unauthorized crypto mining can greatly reduce the efficiency and useful life of computers and related hardware and result in higher electricity bills. More troubling, since the cybercrook can only highjack your machine by placing software on it, these cyberattacks also usually involve other objectives, such as eventually triggering ransomware or steeling confidential data as well.
Monitoring — Exploitation –
This last category of cyberattack (monitoring and exploitation) typically is undertaken in advance, or in conjunction with one of the others, such as extortion or theft. However, sometimes the cybercrook’s initial goal is simply to gain access in order to eavesdrop and monitor your organization’s online activity. The individual behind the attack might just be a maladjusted “cyber-voyeur” who enjoys the thrill of breaking into and looking at things that are none of their business. On the other hand, news reports regularly surface stories of state-sponsored cyberterrorist attacks that target government websites for purposes of espionage. However, the greatest risk to your organization posed by this form of attack is likely to be that it allows the cybercrook access to confidential information that can be used and exploited at a later date.
How is a cyberattack carried out?
All digital devices use computer programs (drivers, apps, software, algorithms etc.) to operate. These programs are used let us communicate via video or audio, monitor business inventory, transfer funds and process credit card payments, create and transmit email and text, and perform many other tasks that keep our organizations running. To achieve the one or more of the purposes of the cyberattack, the attacker has to gain access and, in some cases, to add a program or modify an existing program on the LAN or on a computer or other device that is connected to the LAN. These programs or program modifications are referred to generally as “malware,” and they include “viruses, tojans, adware and ransomware.
You may think that this occurs only through highly sophisticated exploitation of a flaw in the device’s operating system, undertaken without any action on your part. However, while there have been successful attacks of this type in the past, readily available network and computer defenses make this much less likely today, particularly if existing software is regularly updated.
While the computer algorithm or “malware” used to implement a successful cyberattack may be complex, according to the 2021 Cisco report previously mentioned, 9 times out of 10 those algorithms were introduced to your computer or network by actions taken by you or someone in your organization! Further, while it is certainly possible for a cyberattack to be initiated by a disgruntled current or former employee with physical or remote access to your organization’s network, it is far more likely that access will be unwittingly granted simply by opening an attachment on an email, clicking on a link in a text or on a website, or simply replying to a seemingly legitimate request from a customer or colleague.
This method of attack is generally referred to as phishing (pronounced “fishing”) and there are many variations. However, the objective of all these attacks is to trick the recipient into taking some action that enables the malicious program to be downloaded so that the attack can proceed. The objective of the attack itself might involve any one of the three objectives described above. There are many examples and derivatives of phishing as well as sites that offer cues you can use to recognize and avoid them.
A second less common, but effective means of launching a cyberattack can occur when the attacker intercepts and accesses a wireless network connection. This wireless connection could be the wireless modem used to connect devices at your place of business, or it could be the public wireless network at the airport, coffee shop or Walmart parking lot. In each case the cybercrook uses various means to cause your device to communicate unencrypted information, so that it can be read and later exploited.
Is there any way to defend against a cyberattack?
This blog is by no means an exhaustive discussion of the types of cyberattacks. There are others. However, those discussed do comprise the most common small organizations face. The bad news is that these attacks continue, and are becoming more sophisticated. The good news is that with a little planning and thought you can greatly reduce your risk of becoming a victim.
Part 2 of this blog will describe a strategy your organization can use to develop a cybersecurity plan that will minimize your risks, and speed recovery even in the event of a successful cyberattack.