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How to maintain cyber security when employees work remotely

Maintaining cyber security is a massive challenge to small businesses at the best of times, but when you have a large number of employees working remotely a whole new set of cyber security risks present themselves. In this article we explore the online threats that small businesses need to be aware of and how they can help protect themselves from cyber attacks, especially with employees home working.

What are the common cyber security threats small businesses need to be aware of?

Online threats are increasing all the time, with modern cyber criminals now being able to actually profit from cyber-attacks, there is a whole underground black market of people selling tools for hackers and virus writers.   Cyber criminality doesn’t just affect corporate or personal data, there was recently reported that a specific cyber-attack was being categorised as a homicide case when an attack encrypting an entire hospital’s systems caused the death of a patient.

Cyber attackers will try to:

  • Steal data and financial information via a data breach.
  • Disable computers with ransomware to extort money
  • Use infected computers to launch attacks on other systems on the internet or company networks.

Hacking into protected systems through decent firewalls is mostly impossible unless you have the right username and password, so attackers will use various means to find out what someone’s credentials are, these include:

  • Phishing emails – emails that are disguised to look like they come from a genuine source to entice a user to click on a link to a replica website where the user tries to log on with their username and password. The attacker captures those details from the spoof site and will use them for malicious purposes
  • Innocent looking emails, probably from people you know, that lure you into opening an attachment such as a .pdf file, or click on a link in the email. Both actions may install malware onto your PC such as keystroke logging software that captures usernames and passwords, or other viruses that may use your email account to send these or phishing emails to your contacts. Cyber criminals rely on human error or apathy, plus sheer volume to make these attacks work.
  • Repeatedly used passwords – Using the same passwords on lots of different services and sites is a major security risk, and one of the most common ways cyber criminals use to hack into your systems and data. Websites with weak security sometimes get a data breach where the attacker steals all the usernames and passwords.  They then use software to try these same usernames and passwords on hundreds of other common sites.  If one of those sites is your email account then the attacker can get at your email and start requesting password resets for every other service you use.
  • It is quite common for cyber criminals to email people with a copy of the password stolen from these compromised sites and try to extort money by pretending they have compromising photos or videos and using the fact they have your password as proof.
  • Relying on people using unsophisticated passwords, i.e. just normal words using dictionary attacks
  • Romance scams, or sextortion where people are duped into trusting someone they “met” on the internet, and either persuaded to hand over security details, or blackmailed into doing so.

Cyber attacks could be random or specifically targeted against your business.

What are the security challenges small businesses need to be aware of with employees working remotely?

Businesses are often geared up to protect the end points (work computers, Servers, etc.) inside the walls of their business and to keep their company networks secure, but with people working from home, and often using home computers instead of work ones, or other personal devices, there is a big challenge to ensure these new end points are protected and represent security risks.

Home workers need to be educated in remote working security to make sure whichever computer or personal device they use is:

  • Always fully patched with the latest updates.
  • Has up to date Anti-Virus software
  • Has a local firewall, if available.
  • Is connected to a broadband/Wi Fi network that is also protected by a firewall

There is still a significantly higher risk for home workers.  Their home networks or Wi Fi may not be especially secure, their children and their children’s friends may be inadvertently introducing malware on their devices that can see data your employees are sending over the internet.   If using home computers used by other family members then home workers need to be extra vigilant.   Often with home computers the user account they log in with has “local Administrator” rights, this means that they are authorised to install software.  Viruses will find it much easier to infect machines via users with local admin rights.  Usually work computers are more locked down, preventing intentional or accidental installation of software.

Businesses often deploy security software than sends alerts when malware is detected, but these alerts may not extend to personal devices or home PCs, or even work PCs that aren’t currently connected to your corporate network.

Remote workers may take the opportunity to work from coffee shops, libraries, or other public spaces using open public Wi Fi networks where sniffing software may be able to monitor everything they do.   Virtual Private Network or VPN software can help with this but can vary in quality and security.

Businesses may have invested in email services that include malware scanning, so need to ensure that employees working from home continue to use work email accounts and not their own private email.

Businesses Cyber Security policy needs to include Remote Working Security.


How do you keep secure and protect remote workers from cyber threats?

The most important security measure is user education.   Train employees to spot dodgy emails.  Other methods you should consider are:

  • Backups – the most important thing businesses can do to protect their data is regular backups, 2 or 3 times a day if necessary. Restoring from backup is the only real “Get out of jail” card when infected by ransomware.  Cloud based backups means that the backup service isn’t compromised by the virus attack
  • Use cloud-based Desktop as a Service (DaaS) or Hosted Desktop These offer added protection because:
    • No data is held on the user’s PC, so if the PC is wiped by ransomware it can simply be rebuilt/replaced without too much impact on the business
    • The service will be fully managed so hosted desktops will be patched, have Anti-Virus, and backed up
    • The service will have enterprise level systems to keep their networks secure so less reliance on remote workers keeping their home networks secure.
  • Provide home workers with laptops/desktops to use when working from home, and ensure these are configured without the user having local administrator rights, and also configured for automatic updates
  • Use cloud-based managed antivirus software so that you can monitor the status of anti-virus on devices when they may not be on your network, and get alerts if infections are detected so you can take action.
  • Everyone should use password managers so that they can have long super complex strong passwords containing upper- and lower-case letters, numbers, and special characters that are much harder for hackers to guess.
  • Always use different passwords, never the same password for more than one site or service.
  • Use Multi Factor Authentication for all your online services if possible. Also known as Two Factor Authentication, this uses something the user has, such as their smartphone or landline, as well as something they know like their password.
  • Use Virtual Private Networks (VPN) to connect to online services to protect data in transit over the internet
  • Only use online services that connect via HTTPS i.e. they use end to end encryption to hide data over the internet.
  • Did I mention, Back up your data!

Here’s a quick top 10 of top tips to ensure cyber security when employees are working from home:

  1. Use cloud-based services such as hosted desktops to reduce the risk of data being lost from users’ PCs
  2. Always use automatic updates for operating systems and other software
  3. Always install good antivirus software
  4. Ensure your email provider uses malware scanning
  5. Use strong passwords
  6. Never use the same password twice
  7. Use a password manager
  8. Use multi factor authentication
  9. Avoid unsecure public Wi Fi networks such as those in coffee shops or other public spaces
  10. Never click links in emails unless you are expecting them and know where the link goes to, and never open unexpected attachments even if they are from people you know

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