The dramatic shift in our society as a result of COVID-19 resulted in sweeping changes in the way our economy does business. The spread of the virus triggered an immediate transition for nonessential businesses moving towards a remote working environment, and this is a change that many experts think is here to stay.
While this new environment helped mitigate risk of workers getting sick, it also created an entirely new set of risks for both employees and employers. Chief among them is the increased security risks of remote data that hackers can target. Reportedly there were more cyberattacks in the first half of 2020 than in all of 2019 (41,000 from 1/20-6/20 compared to 35,000 in all of 2019). The reason for this spike is that remote employees have varying levels of security in their new work environment, creating more links in the data chain that can be targeted and exploited.
The Shifting Labor Force
As our economy and culture began to shift to a digital frontier, experts suggested that eventually many white collar jobs (tech, finance, logistics, etc.) would transition to a remote setting over the next 5-10 years. Because of the pandemic, however, the entire world was thrust into a labor experiment last March, and a huge share of the labor force made the move to work from home almost overnight.
According to Pew Research, 71 percent of employed adults who say their work can be done from home, currently do work from home, nearly a 51 percent jump from pre-pandemic. Additionally, 54 percent of those who were surveyed contended that they’d like to continue working from home after the pandemic ends.
These numbers vary by industry, but for white collar jobs, the share of workers who feel they can perform their duties from home actually increases: 84 percent in the technology sector, 84 percent for finance and real estate, and even 59 percent for education. However, there are challenges for a remote work environment, such as having an adequate work space, work motivation at home, and data security risks.
Security Risks of Work From Home
As noted previously, the biggest risk factor in having a remote workforce is the increased surface area of attack that hackers can target. In a traditional office work environment, your IT department can establish a safe data perimeter with firewall security in addition to having security checks in place for office equipment and technology, including (and especially) your office internet connection.
“Our distributed workforce means the end of the network perimeter as we know it and the rise of the endpoint.” said Tanium security firm in a recent report. “But managing and securing endpoints requires visibility and control. You can’t secure what you can’t see.”
When Tianum refers to endpoints, they simply mean the devices that have access to secure information and communicate to a network. An endpoint device could be a desktop, laptop, phone, tablet, or Internet-of-things device.
That encapsulates the primary risk factors that both small businesses and enterprise corporations face in a remote labor force. In that same report, Tanium surveyed 500 enterprise companies, and noted that 73 percent of respondents admitted they face new IT security challenges and 52 percent acknowledged their challenges have become more complex.
The immediate shift in working from home has forced some employees to conduct business on their personal devices, because companies cannot afford to empower their workers with all the necessary equipment. In what’s being dubbed a ‘Bring Your Own Device’ (BYOD) policy, companies are trusting their proprietary, sensitive data in the hands of employees that, on occasion, are operating on their personal devices and personal internet connection and often with limited or even no data security protocols in place.
The Evolution of Security Attacks
As our culture has evolved to a new way to work, malicious agents have also evolved in the way they poke and prod at users and companies for unauthorized access to data. According to Verizon Wireless 2020 data breach investigation report, 45 percent of data breaches involved hacking of a network, compared to 17 percent which involved malware, and 22 percent involved phishing.
While stakeholders should prioritize their cyber defense to prevent hackers from accessing their server at large, we know that there should be a tangible shift for businesses to focus on endpoint protection, which is why 39 percent of breaches being malware or phishing-related is important. Malware and phishing attacks typically come in the form of links or attachments included in disguised emails. Once someone opens these documents, the phishing attack is successful and malware is typically introduced to the device. Forty-eight percent of malicious email attachments are office files, and 37 percent of them are .doc or .dot documents.
Another booming tactic malicious agents are taking advantage of is called ‘ransomware’. Ransomware has affected several Fortune 500 companies and government offices in the last few years, most notably at the state and local government level where hackers seize governmental data and demand ransom to return it back to the offices. The average ransomware payment in 2020 rose 33 percent over the previous year to more than $100,000. Additionally, in 2020 the United States was the top target of ransomware attacks, accounting for 18.2 percent of the global attacks.
First and foremost, if your business can sustain the upfront cost, it should provide employees with dedicated work devices that your IT department can secure and monitor for suspicious activity. This provides something of a closed-loop of devices that doesn’t recreate the security perimeter, but is the next best thing.
Once easy access points have been eliminated, it’s time to invest in improved security protocols. There are a handful of easy steps to take, such as encouraging multi-factor authentication, avoiding password sharing, and incorporating a password manager (the only cost here is access to a password manager such as LastPass). Beyond that, if your business is large enough, you might consider a VPN or Virtual Private Network, which is like a private, secure network that can house sensitive and proprietary data, in addition to serving like a virtual WiFi network. This allows your IT department to both monitor external threats that might try to penetrate your VPN, and keep an eye on your employees to ensure they don’t compromise data either accidentally or with malice.
Lastly, because endpoints are becoming the target of so many attacks in 2020 and 2021, you might consider a next generation firewall solution or endpoint detection security software. These modern evolutions of traditional firewall/antivirus software allow your devices in the network to communicate with one another to build a network of defenses against suspicious activity. Next generation firewalls integrate endpoint detection and provide cloud protection on or off a VPN. The software also works with your IT department to identify weaknesses, isolate an infected system to prevent it from spreading across the entire network, and protects all devices from hidden threats from phishing or suspicious websites.