Cybersecurity tips for remote workers

The coronavirus (COVID-19) has changed the way businesses are operating. Companies across the country are grappling with how to keep employees and customers safe while maintaining operations. Adapting the current environment means that more employees are working from home. BlackPoint IT's cybersecurity expert, Andrew Hutchison, shared his tips for businesses thrown into the world of a virtual office. 

BlackPoint IT:  How are organizations adapting to the current environment? 

Andrew Hutchison: Business executives know they will be dealing with the impact of the pandemic for months to come. Universally, safety is the priority. The immediate first-step many organizations took was transitioning to a remote work environment. It isn't easy when you move from about 20 percent of your workforce being remote to 80 – 90 percent. Depending on the business type, some organizations have moved to a completely virtual workplace. Health centers and other essential businesses are also facing increased challenges with escalating demand for their services and the need to limit onsite staff whenever possible. 

BlackPoint IT: What do businesses need to know about the cybersecurity landscape in the current environment? 

Andrew Hutchison: Unfortunately, COVID-19 isn't the only virus businesses need to be vigilant against. Quarantines have made people more reliant on digital communication tools like Microsoft Teams, Cisco WebEx, RingCentral, Zoom, and others. These applications are great productivity boosters, but also a target for hackers. It isn't just video conferencing that has exploded. Globally, overall internet traffic has spiked with more people working from home, trying to attend school, or just entertaining themselves. Hackers are opportunists. More people online offer more targets. For those new to remote working, cybersecurity might not be top of mind. The bottom line is in this new environment, the threat level for companies has been raised. 

BlackPoint IT: What is the most important thing businesses can do to protect themselves from being breached through a remote worker?

Andrew Hutchison: Multi-factor authentication (MFA) is the first step businesses should take to protect themselves. For savvy cybercriminals, passwords have become easy to hack. MFA combines two or more independent credentials, adding another layer of protection that makes it exponentially harder for accounts to be breached.  

One of the misconceptions about MFA is that it is overly complicated for businesses to maintain and users to manage. There are now several different MFA solutions for organizations of all sizes. Most consumers are accustomed to entering their password to an online banking site and being sent a code to their mobile phone that they also enter to gain access. This approach is gaining popularity, but it isn't the only MFA method. 

  • Physical tokens: This is something the user has to generate a secure passcode. These are nearly impossible to break.
  • Mobile phone: Adding an authentication application that delivers a code to the user's mobile device is often a quick and easy addition. Businesses need to be confident that the application is secure because we know mobile phones are also able to be breached. 
  • Biometrics: Another nearly foolproof way to ensure the identity of the remote user is by requiring a fingerprint, retinal scan, or facial recognition.  

BlackPoint IT: What else should businesses consider to bolster cybersecurity with remote workers? 

Andrew Hutchison: MFA is one of the essential elements to secure remote workers, but it isn't the only thing. Establishing a virtual private network (VPN) creates an encrypted tunnel between the employee's device and the company network. The employee's IP address and online communications are then shielded from prying eyes. Without a VPN, a hacker could potentially capture the employee's login information, what applications they are using, or read confidential documents being transmitted. It is important to also remind employees to logoff the company VPN before they leave their computer. 

Another important step in cybersecurity is employee training. A 2019 report from Verizon showed that nearly 1/3 of all cyberattacks involved phishing. Tricking employees into visiting malicious sites and entering their credentials or downloading ransomware is big business for attackers. Busy, stressed employees can easily overlook an extra letter in the URL of a website or believe that their boss is asking them to download and review a file. If you add these common tactics to a time when employees are constantly being asked to operate in completely new ways, you can imagine how easy it is for criminals to execute their schemes. Taking a little extra time to make sure employees know standard operating procedures while people are remote can save you down the road. 

BlackPoint IT: So, the top three things businesses should consider for cybersecurity with remote workers are multi-factor authentication, VPNs, and employee training. Is there anything else that needs to be emphasized for those adjusting to more remote employees?

Andrew Hutchison: Let's face it, these aren't easy times. The number one priority has to be keeping employees, customers, and the broader community healthy and safe. Unfortunately, while organizations are focused on that critical initiative, they also have to keep their eyes on cybersecurity. MFA is one of the most significant safeguards, followed by creating a VPN and training employees on what to watch. In the training category, we recommend placing extra emphasis on the password policy. You'd be surprised how often "Test1234" is still used. There are other things companies can do, like creating backups and ensuring the software on all employee remote devices is updated. It comes down to making sure your organization is thinking about the risks and taking steps to mitigate those. 

The good news is that the investments businesses make now to improve the cybersecurity of its remote workers will continue to be beneficial long after COVID-19 is gone. 

Andrew Hutchison is Director of Service Delivery, responsible for BlackPoint IT's cybersecurity. Based in BlackPoint's Seattle, WA office, for nine years and with many more years of experience as a cybersecurity consultant. For more information on BlackPoint's security solutions visit: https://www.blackpoint-it.com/it-solutions/cybersecurity.