With news headlines focused on security breaches in large organisations, it would be easy for small to medium enterprises (SMEs) to…
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Cyber security: 7 top tips for SMEs

Chris Wallis

With news headlines focused on security breaches in large organisations, it would be easy for small to medium enterprises (SMEs) to presume their size keeps them off a hacker’s radar as they’re not worth the time to attack. Unfortunately, when it comes to cyber security, small doesn’t mean safe.

According to the Cyber Security Breaches Survey 2017 conducted by Ipsos Mori on behalf of the UK Government, almost half (46%) of all UK businesses identified at least one cyber security breach or attack in the last 12 months. This rises to two-thirds among medium sized firms (66%).

The common misconception that small to medium enterprises are not a target can often lead to lax security practices in organisations lacking the knowledge and expertise to implement simple security steps. Securing your business doesn’t have to come with a hefty price tag though, here are 7 top tips to cyber security for SMEs.

  1. Install Anti-Virus (EVERYWHERE!)
    An obvious tip you might think because every organisation has anti-virus on their systems and devices, right? Unfortunately, too often business systems such as web servers get overlooked. It’s important for SME’s to consider all entry points to their network and have anti-virus deployed on any servers as well as on employees’ personal systems.

    Hackers are deftly skilled in finding weak entry points to install malware, and anti-virus software can serve as a good last-resort backstop, but it’s not a silver bullet. Through continuous monitoring and penetration testing organisations can identify weaknesses and vulnerabilities in advance. It’s far better to stop a burglar at your front door than after they’re in your home.
  2. Continuously monitor your perimeter
    An organisation’s perimeter is the most exposed to remote attacks because it’s available 24/7. Hackers constantly scan the internet looking for weaknesses, so companies should be scanning their own perimeter too. The longer a vulnerability goes unfixed, the more likely an attack is to occur.

    With tools like Autosploit and Shodan readily available, it’s easier than ever for attackers to discover internet facing weaknesses and exploit them. Even organisations that cannot afford a full time in-house security specialist can use online services to run vulnerability scans that uncover weaknesses that hackers could exploit.
  3. Reduce your attack surface
    An organisation’s attack surface is made up of all the systems and services it has exposed to the internet. The larger the attack surface, the bigger the risk.

    Exposed services like Microsoft Exchange for email, or content management systems like Wordpress can be vulnerable to brute-forcing or credential-stuffing, and new vulnerabilities are discovered regularly in common software systems. By removing public access to sensitive systems and interfaces which don’t need to be accessible to the public, and ensuring 2FA is enabled where they do, organisations can limit their exposure and greatly reduce the risk.

    One way to reduce your attack surface, whilst maintaining business operations is through use of a secure virtual private network (VPN). By using a VPN on its perimeter, businesses can avoid exposing sensitive systems directly to the internet whilst maintaining their availability to employees working remotely. When it comes to risk, prevention is better than cure - don’t expose anything to the internet unless it’s absolutely necessary!
  4. Keep software up to date
    New vulnerabilities are being discovered daily in all kinds of software, from web browsers through to business applications. Just one unpatched weakness could lead to full compromise of a system and a breach of customer data; as Equifax discovered to their detriment in 2017. The hacked credit agency incurred a hefty fine after millions of customer records were stolen, with the breach originating from a single unpatched server running a vulnerable version of a common web application framework.

    According to the Cyber Security Breaches Survey businesses that hold electronic personal data on customers are more likely than the average to have had breaches. Patch management is an important component of good cyber hygiene and there are tools and services to assist SMEs in checking software for any missing security patches which could leave it exposed.
  5. Backup your data
    This year there have been a wide range of attacks involving ransomware where commercial data is held to hostage until a financial settlement is paid. The ransomware is designed to encrypt any data it can access, rendering it unusable and the effects cannot be reversed without the attacker’s key to decrypt the data.

    Organisations that back up their data can thwart attackers by recovering their information without needing to pay the ransom, as systems affected by ransomware can be wiped and restored from an unaffected backup without the attacker’s key.

    Data loss is a key risk to any business either through malicious intent or a technical mishap such as a hard disk failure so backing up data is always a good idea.
  6. Improve employee security awareness
    Cyber attackers rely on human error so it’s vital that employees are trained to recognise risks and respond appropriately. The Cyber Security Breaches Survey 2017 revealed that the most common types of breaches identified were related to staff receiving fraudulent emails (72%), followed by viruses, spyware and malware (33%), people impersonating the organisation in emails or online (27%) and ransomware (17%).

    By improving employee awareness of the benefits of using complex passwords and training staff to spot common attacks such as phishing emails and malicious links, small businesses can ensure staff are its greatest strength rather than its biggest vulnerabilities.
  7. Protect yourself relative to your risk
    Cyber security measures should always be appropriate to the organisation. For example, a small business which handles banking transactions or has access to sensitive information such as healthcare data should employ a far more mature security posture than a local pet shop.

    That’s not to say that a pet shop doesn’t have a duty to protect its customer’s data but it’s naturally less likely to be a target. Hackers are motivated by money, so the bigger the prize the more time and effort will be invested to achieve their gains. By identifying threats and vulnerabilities SMEs can take steps to mitigate and prioritise which risks need to be addressed in which order.

It’s time SMEs raised their cyber security game

Attacks on large companies dominate the news which feeds the perception that SMEs are safe, unfortunately the opposite is true. Hackers favour the path of least resistance which is why SMEs are favourable targets as they don’t have the same level of resources to devote to cyber security. Sometimes this can be fuelled by a lack of awareness of where their vulnerabilities lie. Fortunately, that’s the part we’ve made easy…

Release Date
Level of Ideal
Before CVE details are published
Limited public information is available about the vulnerability.

Red teamers, security researchers, detection engineers, threat actors have to actively research type of vulnerability, location in vulnerable software and build an associated exploit.

Tenable release checks for 47.43% of the CVEs they cover in this window, and Greenbone release 32.96%.
Day of CVE publish
Vulnerability information is publicly accessible.

Red teamers, security researchers, detection engineers and threat actors now have access to some of the information they were previously having to hunt themselves, speeding up potential exploit creation.

Tenable release checks for 17.12% of the CVEs they cover in this window, and Greenbone release 17.69%.
First week since CVE publish
Vulnerability information has been publicly available for up to 1 week.

The likelihood that exploitation in the wild is going to be happening is steadily increasing.

Tenable release checks for 10.9% of the CVEs they cover in this window, and Greenbone release 20.69%.
Between 1 week and 1 month since CVE publish
Vulnerability information has been publicly available for up to 1 month, and some very clever people have had time to craft an exploit.

We’re starting to lose some of the benefit of rapid, automated vulnerability detection.

Tenable release checks for 9.58% of the CVEs they cover in this window, and Greenbone release 12.43%.
After 1 month since CVE publish
Information has been publicly available for more than 31 days.

Any detection released a month after the details are publicly available is decreasing in value for me.

Tenable release checks for 14.97% of the CVEs they cover over a month after the CVE details have been published, and Greenbone release 16.23%.

With this information in mind, I wanted to check what is the delay for both Tenable and Greenbone to release a detection for their scanners. The following section will focus on vulnerabilities which:

These are the ones where an attacker can point their exploit code at your vulnerable system and gain unauthorised access.

We’ve seen previously that Tenable have remote checks for 643 critical vulnerabilities, and OpenVAS have remote checks for 450 critical vulnerabilities. Tenable release remote checks for critical vulnerabilities within 1 month of the details being made public 58.4% of the time, but Greenbone release their checks within 1 month 76.8% of the time. So, even though OpenVAS has fewer checks for those critical vulnerabilities, you are more likely to get them within 1 month of the details being made public. Let’s break that down further.

In Figure 10 we can see the absolute number of remote checks released on a given day after a CVE for a critical vulnerability has been published. What you can immediately see is that both Tenable and OpenVAS release the majority of their checks on or before the CVE details are made public; Tenable have released checks for 247 CVEs, and OpenVAS have released checks for 144 CVEs. Then since 2010 Tenable have remote released checks for 147 critical CVEs and OpenVAS 79 critical CVEs on the same day as the vulnerability details were published. The number of vulnerabilities then drops off across the first week and drops further after 1 week, as we would hope for in an efficient time-to-release scenario.

Figure 10: Absolute numbers of critical CVEs with a remote check release date from the date a CVE is published

While raw numbers are good, Tenable have a larger number of checks available so it could be unfair to go on raw numbers alone. It’s potentially more important to understand the likelihood that OpenVAS or Tenable will release a check of a vulnerability on any given day after a CVE for a critical vulnerability is released. In Figure 11 we can see that Tenable release 61% their checks on or before the date that a CVE is published, and OpenVAS release a shade under 50% of their checks on or before the day that a CVE is published.

Figure 11: Percentage chance of delay for critical vulnerabilities

So, since 2010 Tenable has more frequently released their checks before or on the same day as the CVE details have been published for critical vulnerabilities. While Tenable is leading at this point, Greenbone’s community feed still gets a considerable percentage of their checks out on or before day 0.

I thought I’d go another step further and try and see if I could identify any trend in each organisations release delay, are they getting better year-on-year or are their releases getting later? In Figure 12 I’ve taken the mean delay for critical vulnerabilities per year and plotted them. The mean as a metric is particularly influenced by outliers in a data set, so I expected some wackiness and limited the mean to only checks released 180 days prior to a CVE being published and 31 days after a CVE being published. These seem to me like reasonable limits, as anything greater than 6 months prior to CVE details being released is potentially a quirk of the check details and anything after a 1-month delay is less important for us.

What can we take away from Figure 12?

Figure 12: Release delay year-on-year (lower is better)

With the larger number of checks, and still being able to release a greater percentage of their remote checks for critical vulnerabilities Tenable could win this category. However, the delay time from 2019 and 2020 going to OpenVAS, and the trend lines being so close, I am going to declare this one a tie. It’s a tie.

The takeaway from this is that both vendors are getting their checks out the majority of the time either before the CVE details are published or on the day the details are published. This is overwhelmingly positive for both scanning solutions. Over time both also appear to be releasing remote checks for critical vulnerabilities more quickly.

Written by

Chris Wallis

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