Understanding How Information Security Policies Can Protect You from a Cyber Attack

What is Information Security?

Information Security is the practice of managing confidentiality, integrity and availability of information using policies, tools and techniques. Any business that handles private information of any kind must establish comprehensive information security practices. Security ProfessionalIf you make a sale with anything other than cash, you need to secure customer information.

Can you say for sure that your business will not be the target of an information security attack? Statistics show that it’s inevitable that someone will attempt to access your private information. In fact, given the size, scope and complexity of modern cyber attacks, it may have already happened to you and it may be continuing right now.

That’s not to say that every information system is an open book. But there are so many tools available and so many avenues of attack that eventually one might work, leaving your information vulnerable. The cost of such an attack can be in the millions of dollars in real costs and damages and millions more in lost business and reputation.

Educating yourself about the complex field of information security is a daunting task. There’s a lot to know and a lot of people who want you to pay them before they explain it to you.

While we aren’t promising a complete lesson on cyber security, there are some basics that we can cover within the scope of this blog post to give you an idea of how security vulnerabilities can manifest themselves, how they could affect your business, and the first steps you should take to discover where you stand regarding information security.

Are Cyber Threats Really That Dangerous?

When someone tries to sell you a solution to a complex problem, it can be difficult to know what you are buying without a complete understanding of the problem. Most people understand the worst-case scenario of loss of data or breach of customer privacy, but don’t have a feel for the costs incurred from ongoing smaller-scale attacks and breaches. A release from the SEC shows that 60% of small businesses that suffered a cyber attack never recovered and had to close.

Legend has it that car manufacturers initially declined to install seatbelts in their cars because they thought it would leave the impression that their cars were unsafe. This basic misunderstanding of the safety problem led to an unfortunate choice. Some businesses feel the same way about implementing complex information security tools. Either they believe that doing so will hinder their employees productivity, or they’re concerned that front-end solutions  will interrupt the customer’s experience. While there is a balancing act between security and easy access, the statistics clearly indicate that the cost of doing nothing is too great to ignore.

The easiest way for most people to understand the hazards of information security problems is to focus on risk. Without at least a basic risk assessment, you may not know where you are vulnerable and what you stand to lose. You may actually already be leaking data to outside sources without knowing it.

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Information Security Policies

Most businesses have a certain sense that they need to worry about security in general. You lock the door to your office, set up access control for the warehouse and you might set an alarm when everyone goes home for the day.

Setting and enforcing these physical security policies seems like common sense to most people. A strong information security policy is no different. In fact, these concepts of physical security are also important for information security, especially if you store paper records or other information locally. If you always lock the file cabinet in the Human Resources department, that’s one example of a good information security policy in action.

When it comes to the electronic – or cyber – side of security, almost every business already takes some of the most basic steps to secure their electronic assets. This includes basic best practices such as setting passwords or running antivirus software.

Where cyber security starts to get complicated is when the connections between systems grow and become more complex. When important information is stored electronically and transmitted from place to place, it’s much easier to use; unfortunately, it’s also much easier to intercept. Of course, your sales team needs to access your local network when they are on the road; but you need to be sure that they are doing so in the most secure way possible.

The more powerful your data systems are, the more likely they are to have certain gaps in their security. Therefore, your information security policy must also grow more complex and powerful to ensure that any gaps are eliminated or sufficiently mitigated.

This process begins with awareness of how your systems function and interact with other networks and systems. Thankfully, there is an entire sector of the IT industry that is working to close these gaps by conducting security risk analysis through a complete understanding of your IT systems.

Anatomy of the cyber attack

Criminals will attempt to access your system to steal money or information. There are many methods, but the most common goals are:

Steal valuable customer information to sell it.

Collect your trade secrets for their own use or to sell.

Gain access to your money and send it offshore.

Hold your systems or your information hostage and extort you into paying to get it back.

Methods of illegal access vary considerably, from phone calls looking for private information to exploiting unpatched software to access your system over the internet.

There are two basic types of attacks, although many advanced cybercriminals may use a combination of all methods:

Type 1: Technological

These types of attacks go after vulnerabilities in your systems. Cybercriminals will access your systems through the internet or your WiFi network. Once inside, they may be able to access sensitive data or put themselves in control of your network.

A second method is to infect your computers with malware that allows access to other linked secure systems.

Another approach is to hit your systems with a massive volume of simultaneous connections and disable your website and other systems that way. Losing the ability to conduct business online because your website is down can be a death knell for many types of businesses. When this happens, you may be willing to pay anything to quickly get your business up and running.

Accessing your private data can be the most insidious attack because it could involve opening a hole in your system and keeping it open to capture your ongoing transactional data stream. These attacks allow criminals to collect and sell credit card numbers and other sensitive data which helps them steal identities.

Type 2: Social engineering

Sometimes the easiest way into a system is just to ask the right person.

Social engineering is the practice of tricking people into giving up sensitive information or providing access to sensitive places. This could be as simple as an email posing as a vendor or could actually involve a person approaching your employees wearing a uniform from the local phone company and requesting access to your network closet.

Social engineering takes advantage of a person’s basic goodwill, a lack of technical knowledge and gaps in security training and policies. Often, the easiest way to access a secure network is to simply earn the trust of an authorized user under false pretenses. From there, a cybercriminal can set themselves up with the right hardware, software or access to control every aspect of your IT systems.

Why would someone attack me?

You may be thinking that out of the millions of businesses out there, the risk of yours coming under attack is negligible. After all, these hackers must have much bigger fish to fry, right?

You may remember a slew of well-known breaches that affected companies like Target, Home Depot and Equifax. In addition to the direct effects of the attack, these brands suffered severe reputation damage extending long after the initial incident. This has  compelled similar companies to be more proactive in tightening up their systems and protecting themselves. That leaves the small-to-midsize companies as more tempting targets.

It takes advanced hackers very little effort to break into an unsecured system. With just a few hours’ work, they can extract valuable data and move on to the next vulnerable company. This target-rich environment – pun intended — makes everyone a potential victim.

With the information security bar set so low, taking action to secure your systems puts you at least a step ahead of the next guy. Even if you just make it harder to hack you by securing all the most well-known vulnerabilities — meaning it now takes days instead of hours to break in – that may be enough in the current environment to make an attacker look elsewhere for an easier target.

Tangible and intangible costs

The costs of securing your systems pale in comparison to the cost when you are a victim of a data breach. A study by IBM showed that in 2017, data breaches cost companies an average of $225 per compromised record – with the cost in regulated industries like healthcare ($380 per record) and financial services ($336 per record) averaging much higher. That put the total cost of an average breach (of approximately 16,000 records) at $3.62 million.

“I was about to take out my credit card, and then I thought, aahh, I’m not comfortable.” — A Target shopper, after the store’s 2013 data breach.

The study also showed the benefit of a quick reaction and a comprehensive incident response plan. Acting within 30 days saved an average of $1 million, while having a plan in place to stop the breach showed an average reduction in total costs of about 10% per record.

In addition to the tangible costs of a data breach, the loss of reputation and consumer trust can leave a lasting impact, with more than 30 % of people in a recent study reporting that they ended their business relationship with the company that lost their personal information.

Rebuilding trust in a company can take years; proactively initiating and maintaining a comprehensive information security policy is your bulwark against this ever happening to yours.

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Managing risk for information security

The good news is that there is a good chance your company is doing a lot of things right:

Your IT department makes every effort to keep your systems up-to-date.

Your software and hardware vendors are doing their part to keep you safe.

Your employees know not to share passwords or provide access to outsiders.

Probably… But are you sure?

The biggest level of risk comes from uncertainty. Not knowing for sure exactly how protected or vulnerable you are leaves you unsure of how you would or could react if something happens. You may know your IT professionals have a good handle on these issues, but if information security is not their primary job, they may not have the time to keep aware of all potential ongoing and new vulnerabilities.

You may also have strong password policies and a good technological training program, but how sure are you that your employees are actually following those policies?

The first layer of protection, beyond the basics mentioned above, is a security assessment. A risk assessment conducted by outside professionals can provide an unbiased snapshot of the current state of your information security efforts.

These professionals will analyze your systems from a basic risk-related perspective to find vulnerabilities. They will conduct penetration testing, in which they do everything they can to poke and prod your network into giving access to the wrong person.

The result is a complete awareness of where you stand. This is a good beginning and a way to take the uncertainty out of your current situation.

Keeping Up with the Cyber Arms Race

Information Security continues to be an ongoing arms race between cyber security professionals and cybercriminals.  For every patch that stops a known exploit, another unknown security flaw is being mined to steal data, money or proprietary information.

For this reason, information security policies are should be constantly evolving. Employing experts to analyze your system’s current stance is a good start, but monitoring and maintaining that security stance is another vital step.

Whether through internal or external efforts, an ongoing information security policy that can evolve to face new threats is a vital second layer of protection for your vital data systems.

The first step

Generally speaking, the first thing you need is an understanding of your current state of risk in your information security program. A complete security assessment provides this information along with actionable data that will show the path to securing your network.

Once the professionals have analyzed your current state, the next steps include remediation/mitigation, ongoing monitoring, proactive intrusion detection, user training, maintenance and policy enforcement. These form the backbone of a complete information security policy that shields you and your data from the dangerous reality of cybercrime.

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