COVID-19: Evaluating Security Implications of the Decisions Made to Enable a Remote Workforce

June 23rd, 2020

I was recently a guest on the CU 2.0 podcast, where I talked with host, Robert McGarvey about enabling a remote workforce while staying secure during the COVID-19 pandemic and how the pandemic has actually inspired digital transformation in some organizations.

I wanted to share some highlights in a blog post, but you can also listen to the full interview here.

Security Implications of Decisions Made to Enable a Remote Workforce

In spring 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic first started, a lot of organizations weren’t quite ready to enable their employees to work from home. It became a race to get people to be functional while working remote, and security was an afterthought – if that. During this process, a lot of companies started to realize they had limitations in terms of how much VPN licensing they had or that they had a lot of employees who were required to work in the office so didn’t have laptops they could take home.

For many companies, when they started working remote in early spring, they thought it would be for a relatively short time. As such, many are just now starting to realize they haven’t truly assessed the risk they’re exposing themselves to. Only now, two to three months later, are many starting to focus their efforts on understanding the security implications of the decisions they made this past spring to enable a remote workforce.

For example, companies have limited licenses for virtual desktops, virtual images or even operating systems and versions of operating systems that they’re using. To quickly get employees access to their work systems and assets from home, a lot of companies ended up re-enabling operating systems that they had previously disabled, including bringing back Windows XP, Windows 7, and Windows 8 machines that they had stopped using. There are challenges to this, including not having proper patches and updates for issues that are discovered. If you have operating systems that are outdated, they have certain known vulnerabilities that could be exploited. Many companies made certain decisions from a business perspective, but are now asking what type of security risk they’ve exposed ourselves to.

It’s important to understand the basic principles of security, and make sure you’re thinking through those as you enable your workforce to be more effective while working from home. Organizations have to strike the balance between their business objectives, the function they’re trying to accomplish, and the security risks they’re exposing themselves to.

There’s also a lack of education around remote access technologies. For example, when you’re working from home, you need to ensure you’re always connected to your organization’s VPN when you’re browsing the internet or doing work-related activities, because that traffic then can’t be intercepted and viewed by anyone else on the internet.

It’s critical to use the right technologies correctly and enable things like multi-factor authentication. With multi-factor authentication, if a hacker has your password, at least they don’t have that second factor that comes to you via email, text message, phone call, or an authenticator application.

I strongly believe that today we must have multi-factor authentication enabled on everything. It’s almost negligent of an organization to not enable multi-factor authentication, especially given how much prevalence we’ve seen with passwords being breached or organizations with database breaches where their employees’ or their clients’ username and passwords have been exposed.

The Weakest Link in Today’s Technology Ecosystem: People

The weakest link in today’s technology ecosystem is the human element.

As soon as the COVID-19 pandemic started, we noticed there was a significant increase in phishing emails and scams that attackers started deploying and that they were very specifically geared towards the COVID-19 pandemic itself. Some examples include:

  • Emails pretending to be from your doctor’s office with attachments that have certain steps that you need to take to prevent yourself from getting the virus or supporting your immune system.
  • Emails supposedly from your business partners with FAQ attachments containing details around what they were doing to protect their business from a business continuity perspective during the pandemic.
  • Emails from fake employees claiming they had contracted the virus and the attachment contained lists of people they had come in contact with.
  • Emails pretending to be from HR, letting people know that their employment had been terminated, and they needed to click on a link to claim their severance check.

Spam filters are only upgraded once they see the new techniques attackers are using. Much of the language in these phishing emails was around COVID-19 language that they hadn’t seen before, so they weren’t being caught in spam filters – and many people fell victim to a lot of these attacks. Once this happens, you’re exposed to potential ransomware. Once one employee downloads a file onto their machine containing malware, that can eventually propagate across your whole network to other machines that are connected. And, like the real virus, this can propagate very fast and hide its symptoms until a certain time or a particular event that triggers a payload.

There are a lot of similarities between a medical virus and a computer virus, but the biggest difference in the digital world is that the spreading of the virus can happen exponentially faster, because everything moves faster on the internet.

COVID-19: Inspiring Digital Transformation

I believe there needs to be an increased focus on education around the importance of cyber security going beyond the typical targeted groups. Everyone within an organization is responsible for cyber security – and getting that broad understanding and education to all employees is key.

We’re seeing a lot of transformation today in terms of how we work and how the norm is going to change given this situation. As such, there needs to be increased awareness around security across the board, given the pandemic. People have to be the first step to making sure that they’re making good and sensible decisions before they take any specific action online. There are a lot of very simple hygiene related things that are missing today that needs to be done better – and people just need better education around these items.

Additionally, I believe organizations are going to take steps to make sure that they’re doing things like enabling multi-factor authentication for their employees to connect remotely and making sure that VPN access is required for you to work on your machine if you’re remote.

Cloud-based software is also going to be key and in fact, I can’t imagine organizations being very successful at sending people to work from home if they weren’t leveraging the cloud to quickly scale their ability to serve their employees and their customers in a different format.

In many ways, COVID-19 has inspired a lot of transformation and innovation in how we approach the work culture. People are also becoming more aware of what actions they’re taking online and thinking about security implications of the actions that they’re taking.

Nabil Hannan

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