A Short Guide for Owners and Leaders
Part 1 of this blog described the risks posed to micro businesses and similar-sized nonprofits from a cyberattack, Part 2 outlined a three-prong plan to develop a cybersecurity plan for your organization – starting with identifying the organization’s mission-critical assets and protected third-party data, and assessing your organization’s risk level. This part concludes, by describing the core elements of an effective cybersecurity plan.
Step Three – Implement a Cybersecurity Plan
The final step of a cybersecurity strategy for your organization is to implement a cybersecurity plan. The specifics of the plan will vary, depending on the outcome of the first two steps discussed in Part 2. However, all organizations will find that their cybersecurity plan must be applied consistently over the long term to afford them maximum protection, and every plan should focus both on mitigating the consequences of a successful cyberattack in addition to preventing one. Finally, the most effective cybersecurity plans recognize that aggressive use of available software technology must be balanced and supplemented with ongoing training.
Password Protection & Data Management
One of the most obvious risks to your organization is unauthorized use of a password to gain access to your LAN, website, email or internet connected devices. As discussed Part 1, most cybercriminals need access to your network to steal or corrupt your organization’s data or software applications. While this may be is changing, network access is often achieved by providing the correct password, and of course, if the password is stolen, compromised, easily guessed, or left in an unsecure location, your organization is vulnerable.
You can address some of these risks by changing passwords regularly, using complex generated passwords, not using the same password for multiple websites, using a password vault or other policies designed to make it harder for a password to be compromised. However, a more effective solution is to require multifactor authentication for all devices that access your organization’s website or local area network (LAN).
Multifactor authentication requires both a password and a correct response to a challenge sent to another internet-connected device – usually a smart phone — that previously has been registered with the person who is seeking access. Taken together, this should mean that even if the password is hacked, as long as the cybercrook doesn’t have access to the secondary device receiving the challenge, the organization’s LAN or website cannot be accessed even if the cybercrook has discovered the password. Multifactor authentication is available for major email and network services, and it has already become a standard feature for most business and government network security. Of course, these security efforts are more easily defeated if you or others use easily guessed passwords (e.g., “password”, “password 123”, “12345” etc.) or if they fail to keep their secondary authentication device (smart phone or laptop) secure.
Multiple levels of security within the organization and data encryption
A second method to strengthen cybersecurity is to require additional levels of password protection within the organization’s LAN for sensitive PII or mission-critical data. This is likely to become more important as the organization expands and adds employees, volunteers or contractors. Examples of data that might require an additional level of security include employee social security numbers, customer bank or financial account information, and health records. Requiring a second level of password protection to this information is the “digital equivalent” of locking a filing cabinet or desk drawer to discourage intentional or inadvertent access to information that should be limited to a specific group within your organization.
An additional approach that should be taken, particularly if your organization has protected PII financial information is to encrypt sensitive data that is maintained on the organization’s local devices or in the Cloud. Common email services and many operating systems and Cloud based storage products offer the option of encrypting files, folders or even an entire hard drive or network. Of course, data encryption will protect against unauthorized use or disclosure of the encrypted data only if you have properly protected the password or “encryption key” that is used to de-crypt the data.
Screen locks and time outs
Laptops, desktops and smart phones and other devices all contain options to “lock” access to the device if it is left unattended for a few minutes. Particularly for mobile devices or for any device used by individuals working in an open office environment, enabling this feature is a simple and highly effective way to guard against unauthorize access to the device.
Minimize and reduce access points to sensitive data.
This might seem obvious, but all things being equal, the more places you store sensitive personal data the greater the likelihood that data will be accessed and compromised in a cyberattack. Having at least one off-site backup of the organization’s critical data and software should be part of an effective overall cybersecurity plan. Yet because of the popularity of automatic Cloud backups of email and computer drives such as Google Drive, Apple’s iCloud drive, Microsoft One Drive, and many others it is not at all uncommon to find that at least some of the organization’s data has been stored in multiple locations and at some point multiple storage sites can greatly complicate the organization’s cybersecurity plan and add unnecessary burdens of maintaining all of the locations where sensitive PII is stored. As part of your development of a cybersecurity plan, you should consider whether the added benefit of storage of the data — particularly sensitive PII, in multiple locations is worth the risk. While Cloud-based storage is relatively secure, most can be compromised and accessed with a password – or best case – a password and some form of multifactor authentication.
A related point that should be considered is whether your organization is only keeping the sensitive PII that it actually needs. Storing multiple backups that are not regularly monitored, particularly on multiple local devices such as desktop and laptop hard drives can greatly complicate efforts to properly handle sensitive data. For this reason, when you are assessing the need for multiple backup storage for the sensitive PII your organization keeps, you should also develop strategies and procedures for periodically reviewing that data to determine if it can be deleted when no longer needed.
Promptly Update Software and Applications
No application or software is “hack proof.” Over time, cybercriminals learn new ways to access and plant malware in even the most carefully constructed software. It literally is a “cat and mouse” game played between the software developers and cybercriminals. In recognition of this reality, reputable software companies work hard to identify vulnerabilities in their software and create updates (security patches) to eliminate them. Of course, these security patches work only if they are promptly downloaded and installed on all digitally connected devices that access your network. Therefore a critical part of all good cybersecurity plans is to download and promptly install security patches as they become available. Most software and applications that run on computers and smart phones contain an option either to automatically update the program or at least to provide you notice that a new update is available for installation. Generally, these options should be enabled.
Web-traffic Encryption – Virtual Private Networks
Information (data) is transmitted over the internet using wires (such as an ethernet or fiberoptic cable) and wirelessly over the air (through your wireless modem or smartphone hotspot). While most data transmission is secured (meaning that the information is encrypted before it is transmitted over the internet), public networks or websites that do not encrypt data allow cybercrooks to easily intercept and “listen in” on the communication. The federal government’s cybersecurity watchdog – CISA – has downplayed the risk of this type of attack. However, one study conducted in late 2016 found that 28% of the public Wi-Fi “hotspots” (at airports, coffee shops, etc.) were unsecured.
So, how do you tell if you are communicating over an encrypted network? When you navigate to a website, look at the address bar on your website browser. If it begins with the initials “https” you can be at least somewhat confident that your data is being encrypted as it is transmitted over the internet. However, if it says “http” – the data is not encrypted – and can be intercepted and easily read by anyone unless you take additional steps. Many website browsers will warn you when you are communicating over an unsecure network. As a matter of good cybersecurity practice, these sites should be avoided, particularly if you have not implemented a second level of encryption that is discussed next.
Only accessing sites with the “https” designation will greatly reduce the risk of a cyberattack using wireless networks. However, it is not foolproof. Unfortunately, even an “encrypted” Wi-Fi connection can be defeated through a process known as SSL Stripping. This involves tricking your computer into removing the encryption protocol, in effect downgrading your communication from “https” to “http,” without your knowledge.
For this reason, if your organization relies on wireless networks or if you and others often work remotely using public Wi-Fi, you may want to consider using virtual private network (VPN) software. VPN software can run on a single local computer, a LAN, or on a digitally connected device such as a tablet or smartphone. Once installed and activated, most VPN software offers two additional levels of protection for internet access.
First, it masks the originating address of the communication, making it difficult for a cybercriminal to determine what network is being accessed by the user. This is done by causing the transmitted data to go from the computer to the VPN provider’s server before it continues on through the internet to the user’s ISP and the destination website. For many, this feature of VPN is most important because it may offer a higher degree of privacy, making it more difficult for websites or government entities to track web browsing activity.
However, there is a second advantage to a VPN. VPN communications between you and the VPN provider are encrypted. In other words, even if a cybercrook is able to “strip” the “https” encryption, they will only be able to see data that has been encrypted using the VPN program. No technology is completely secure from cybercriminal hacking or “eavesdropping,” but a VPN connection provided by a reputable provider is very secure, and it’s a relatively inexpensive way to guard against this type of cyberattack.
If you decide a VPN is a worthwhile investment, VPN software is offered by a number of private companies, and it is important to pick one that best meets your needs. You will need to do some investigation and find articles that evaluate VPN providers and offer advice on how to pick a provider best suited for your organization’s needs, but keep in mind that some of these articles focus more on privacy (the first advantage of a VPN) rather than your organization’s objective — defeating a cybercrook’s attempt to intercept and read the data being transmitted. For your organization, the primary concern may be the number of servers the VPN provider has and the speed and capacity of those servers. This is important because once the VPN is activated, all of your communication over the internet must pass through your VPN provider’s server. If the provider does not have sufficient network capacity, the speed and reliability of your internet connection will be significantly reduced.
Addressing “Human” Vulnerabilities
It would be nice if you could protect your organization from cybercrooks just by buying additional software. Unfortunately, relying on software at best is just half the solution. The other half is dealing with the “human” side of cybersecurity. The reason is simple: even the most robust software technology can be defeated or rendered useless by bad actors inside the organization, by failing to properly use the cybersecurity software tools that are available, or simply a failure to recognize a cybersecurity attack. This section focuses on ideas for reducing your organization’s human vulnerabilities to a cyberattack.
Background checks for those who access the network.
Obviously, you want your organization to grow and become more successful, but as that happens it becomes more important to know who has access to your connected devices and data. A good cybersecurity plan should include a set procedure that includes conducting background checks on all prospective employees. This should include criminal record checks, credit checks, as well as verification of employment and education. Even if you are the only “employee” in the organization, the same considerations apply to others such as vendors, customers or volunteers who have access to your organization’s network. Of course your background check may not be as extensive as what you would use if you were evaluating a person for employment, but depending on the nature of the contact, the role the individual or entity will play, and the level of access to your organization’s data, you will want to know enough about the individual’s background to feel reasonably certain they will not put the organization’s data or its connected devices at risk of a cyberattack.
Implement cybersecurity policies and procedures.
Even if you are a sole proprietor or the “staff of one” in a local nonprofit, it is important to consider and implement common sense policies and procedures to minimize the risk that your organization will fall victim to a cyberattack. Items to consider include:
- Setting a schedule to regularly check all critical software for security patches and immediately installing critical security patches when notified by a software provider.
- Developing a policy to create robust passwords and to regularly change passwords.
- Avoid loading any personal software or email on a computer or other device connected to the organization’s network.
- Avoiding use of the organization’s email address for personal communications.
- Install screen password locks on all of the organization’s desktops, laptops and tablets.
Admittedly not all of these policies will be popular, and like many things in life, you may decide that the level of risk your organization faces does not justify implementing some of them. That of course is up to you as leader of the organization. However, before making any final decision, consider whether some or all of these steps may be mandated by clients, customers or suppliers with whom you are dealing.
Educate yourself and everyone who has access to the organization’s digital resources.
Hopefully one of the things you have learned from this blog is that the cyberattacks on businesses, organizations and government have continued to evolve to counter efforts to make software and networks less prone to attack. This will certainly continue. For that reason it is important that you commit to remain up to date on evolving cyber security risks. Fortunately there are a number of resources available to assist in that task. Two are listed below:
You also should consider ongoing training and reminders for employees or others who regularly access your network. Here you might want to use resources developed specifically for that purpose:
- FTC Cybersecurity Basics Fact Sheet
- Center for Internet Security – Six Tabletop Exercises to Help Prepare Your Cybersecurity Team
Develop a Cyberattack Recovery Plan
You may find this part to be discouraging. After all, if you have taken all of the previous steps to protect your organization from a cyberattack, it’s sobering to think that your still aren’t protected. Of course, that’s not true. By implementing the previous steps you will have made it much more difficult for a cybercrook to access, disable your network, or steal data. However, just as the best physical security and alarm systems don’t provide 100% protection against the risk of theft or loss, even the best cybersecurity strategies can – and are – defeated each day. Just as you take steps to deal with that reality for your physical assets, it’s important to consider how to deal with a successful cybersecurity attack as well. Here are three ideas you should consider.
Offsite Secure Backups
Earlier, in developing your cybersecurity plan you identified the “critical” data and applications that were needed to operate your organization. As part of your Plan, you need to arrange for these critical items to be regularly backed up, and securely stored in a safe location. How often you decide to back up the data will vary, but obviously data that is added after the backup likely will not recoverable, so it may make sense to back up daily or at least weekly.
Nearly all major software providers offer the ability to backup data to remote “Cloud-based” servers. Some providers offer the ability to automatically back-up data on an hourly, daily or weekly basis, together with the option of accessing earlier backup versions. This last feature can be useful if you are concerned that an “infected” file may have been downloaded onto your network or computer prior to your last backup. Of course, there is always a possibility that your automatic backup system may not initiate for some reason, and as part of your Plan, you will want to periodically check to make sure the backups are occurring as expected, and that they can be accessed.
Develop a strategy to notify third parties of a cyberattack.
This step is most relevant for organizations that maintain sensitive PII (described earlier in Part 2), that have an ethical obligation (such as an attorney) to maintain confidentiality of client data, or that have entered into a contract to maintain the confidentiality of third-party data. Organizations in these situations need to consider and include in their plan, a procedure to document and update where third-party data is stored, and a method to easily identify businesses or individuals that need to receive notice of a cyberattack.
Consider cybersecurity insurance.
It’s probably apparent at this point that a successful cyberattack might be an expensive proposition for your organization, not only from lost revenue but from third party claims for collateral damages as well. You likely insure against the risk of loss of your organization’s physical assets, so it may occur to you that insurance against losses from a cyberattack might be a good idea as well.
Many companies offer insurance policies for some losses incurred in a cyberattack, and for some organizations insurance can be part of a comprehensive cybersecurity plan, however cybersecurity insurance may not be appropriate for all organizations, and as part of preparing the plan for your organization, you need to carefully consider the pros and cons before purchasing a cybersecurity insurance policy.
Cybersecurity insurance generally will insure your organization against some losses arising from interruptions to normal operations, the cost of notifying third parties of cybersecurity attacks, and the cost of defending lawsuits from third parties for damages arising from the event. However, these policies typically will not insure against losses arising from damage occurring from criminal activities by your employees or for the loss of physical or intellectual property resulting from a cyberattack.
You can begin determining whether cybersecurity insurance is right for your organization by talking with your insurance agent. Generally organizations that store significant amounts of third-party personal information and those most at risk from business or operational interruption in the event their network is compromised, will find cybersecurity insurance to be most useful. However, cybersecurity insurance is NOT a substitute for a good cybersecurity plan. Be aware that if you decide to purchase a policy, you can expect the insurance provider to demand that you institute the policies and procedures outlined in this blog as a condition for providing coverage. In other words, cybersecurity insurance provides an additional level of financial protection, but only after you have implemented a good cybersecurity plan.
Cybersecurity – Is It Worth the Effort?
These three blogs have outlined the risks to your organization of a cyberattack and outlined the steps you should take to implement a cybersecurity plan to defend against an attack. Operating a business or nonprofit on a shoestring budget is extremely challenging and requires leaders to constantly set priorities and trade-offs. Success often depends on not letting “perfect be the enemy of good enough,” and the amount of time and effort organizations need to put into their cybersecurity plan will vary. However, it is not an exaggeration to say that every organization needs to do something. You can confirm that by simply imagining how your organization could operate if your network, records, computers and even your phone all stopped working. Unfortunately even for very small organizations the risk of an attack is significant, and the consequences of being unprepared likely will be catastrophic. While it is not possible to completely secure your digital assets, the steps outlined, can significantly reduce that risk, and mitigate the damage in the event of a successful attack. For that reason, even for the smallest business or nonprofit, it’s worth the effort to implement an appropriate cybersecurity plan.