Cyber security: 7 top tips for SMEs
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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…

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Written by

Chris Wallis

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