Employers are responding to COVID-19 by allowing, and even mandating remote working. Companies ranging from Amazon, Microsoft, and Google to local design shops have asked employees to work from home. While increasingly common even before the virus, remote work brings its own unique set of cybersecurity challenges. Here are the ten most common pitfalls and the recommended solutions.
The first threat is phishing. Homeland Security, the U.S. Secret Service, and the World Health Organizations have all warned of coronavirus-related phishing scams. Cybercriminals exploit the coronavirus through mass emails posing as legitimate health organizations, they warn. The recipients review the email, infecting their systems. Or they are taken to realistic websites asking for their credentials. Too many comply, compromising their logins.
The solutions are basic. Employees need to be reminded (and tested) that legitimate groups do not request personal information. Verify any hyperlink before clicking on it. Be wary of any email insisting on immediate action. Generic greetings or an unfamiliar sender are other markers. And while bad spelling and grammar often signal phishing, beautifully written communiques can be just as dangerous. The best defense is common sense. Remote workers should get into the habit of pausing before responding.
Second, remote workers should be restricted to the use of company devices. Company devices meet minimal security benchmarks. Their hardware is designed to work within a corporate network. Their software has been optimized to cater to the specific needs of the individual user within the company environment. The introduction of personal devices injects a new element of risk into the security calculus. Remote workers will be limited to company devices. If this is impossible, personal devices should be vetted by employer IT prior to being used for company work.
Third, remote workers must restrict themselves to home or other secure networks. The “free” Wifi available at cafes, libraries, or similar public places carry a steep security price tag. Traffic is not encrypted. Hackers target such environments, leaving cyber mines that activate when a user of interest uses the network. If a remote worker lacks access to secure WiFi, provide a HotSpot. It is a security investment that will pay for itself many times over.
Fourth, remote access should be limited to network sections necessary to enable workers to complete their tasks. Every employer has data with varying degrees of value and sensitivity. The most valuable data—the “crown jewels” should not be remotely accessible. If access is imperative, it should be limited to the extent and time necessary to complete the assigned task.
Fifth, make remote work easy. At first glance, this appears to contradict the prior principle. Didn’t we just recommend limiting data? Yes. But employees need to work. If access is too cumbersome, they develop workarounds. One common approach is to download material locally. Since an individual machine often has weaker defenses than a networked one, this presents attackers with an opportunity Indeed, the SEC fined a major broker for an arrangement where an analyst, hampered by excessive controls, set up a personal “shadow network” to enable him to meet his deadlines. The shadow network, far more vulnerable than the broker’s, was breached, triggering an SEC examination.
Sixth, the IT department should be patching often. While this is a good general practice, it is particularly critical at a time when attackers are aware of a unique window of opportunity presented by remote work. They will be using commandeered machines to scan traffic for opportunities. Ironically, opportunities are often identified by reverse-engineering software patches released by the major vendors. For this reason, IT departments have to be particularly vigilant while business is being conducted remotely.
Seventh, the IT Department should be monitoring traffic continually. Like vehicular traffic, electronic traffic exhibits typical patterns over time. Occasional deviations from the norm are expected. But IT staffers have the experience to appreciate which deviations may signal a security concern. For instance, a programmer who had “outsourced” his own job overseas was identified when IT noticed that his login tended to exhibit maximum activity late at night Eastern Standard Time. It is to deny observers such clues that the Pentagon reportedly generates “white noise traffic” to camouflage activity fluctuations. Unless an employer is in a particularly sensitive business, such measures are not required. But the IT Department must be vigilant to phenomena such as the exfiltration of large data files.
Eight, not all damage comes from electronic attacks. Humans are social. Employees like to talk. And jobs tend to be a favorite subject of discussion. In the office environment, this is rarely an issue. But remote employees need to adjust to their new environment. They must remember that loose lips sink ships. Work talk should be limited to private spaces.
Ninth, virtually every employer depends on vendors and contractors. Even the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency use “green badges” (contractors). Contractors and vendors have access to the same data and networks that employees do. Employers should ensure that vendors are contractually obligated to adhere to the same security standards as full-time employees. This would include everything from not using public WiFi to limiting their access to relevant silos.
Tenth and finally, security is a people business. Most breaches can be attributed to human error. From an NSA employee leaving highly classified hacking tools on an open server, to a helpful Apple employee resetting a password for an imposter, the best-intentioned people make mistakes. The opportunities for such mistakes rise exponentially when employees are working remotely. The only cures are simple. Employees must be trained, and periodically retrained, in the fundamentals. And they must rely on checklists. After all, the Commander of Air Force One uses one while landing the President of the United States. Employees should use one before shutting down for the day. The job they save could be their own.
Mike Slipsky, editor of NC Privacy Law Blog, is a partner with Poyner Spruill LLP. He advises clients on a wide range of privacy, data security, and cyber liability issues, including risk management plans, regulatory compliance, cloud computing implications, and breach obligations. Mike may be reached at 919.783.2851 or firstname.lastname@example.org.