When I work with clients, I mention a good many things they can do to improve their security. Sometimes I’ll advise on an area I think they need to understand about their company. Sometimes I’ll suggest implementing specific security controls. Some things I propose are very important; others are “nice to haves.”And while my recommendations may change based on the attributes of the client company and the skill level of those involved in fighting the good fight, there are always six things I tell every client.
#1: Clean up accounts
Clean up the accounts in your Windows domain by eliminating every account that doesn’t have a valid business purpose — and that includes both human identity and service (aka machine identity) accounts. Software on your servers uses service accounts to perform a specific function, often with a high level of privilege.
“Stale” accounts create unneeded risk and only up the chances of attackers succeeding in their mission. If you don’t understand why an account exists, either justify its existence or carefully remove it.
#2: Ditch unnecessary data
Understand what sensitive data is for your company and locate every instance of what you deem sensitive across both your corporate and cloud environments. Most companies think they know where sensitive data is because they’ve asked the subject matter experts (SMEs). Nothing against SMEs, but the best practice is to examine and verify the file stores and network.
Rarely have I seen assumed inventory be accurate. What we think we have is usually orders of magnitude less than what is ultimately discovered.
As with stale accounts, stale data and unneeded or unknown copies of data create big risk. When a breach happens, the accumulation of stale data across file servers, public drives, and email clients will only make a bad day that much worse. So, if you don’t need it, get rid of it.
#3: Use multifactor authentication
Passwords are no longer enough to guarantee protection and should be considered table stakes. Why? Because billions of passwords have been lost in breaches of high-profile companies, and people are prone to re-using passwords. A lost password in one place usually exposes multiple accounts and locations.
What’s more, supercomputing and artificial intelligence (AI) can eventually crack nearly every password. For this reason, multifactor authentication (MFA) is one of the best ways to protect your identity, your data, and your reputation. It’s well worth the time, effort, and expense to use MFA.
#4. Make cybersecurity everyone’s responsibility
Step one in building an information security training program: Set expectations. Companies need to be clear with regards to employee responsibility around use of company systems and data. Though words cannot protect us directly, policies, standards, and guidelines are useful in setting a standard of due care that employees can clearly understand.
While there are many good security-awareness programs and resources available that teach social-engineering resistance and good security practices, they may not be worth the time or investment without a clear mandate from the company stating expectations of behavior and technical conditions.
Set a simple, but powerful policy: “Every employee is responsible for protecting the data entrusted to our company.”
#5. Write an incident response plan
It’s an oft repeated phrase because it’s true: Breaches are not a matter of if, but when. So, don’t wait until it’s too late. Write an incident response plan now and don’t be caught flat-footed at a most critical moment.
And remember, security is not solely a technology problem, it’s also a business problem. IT plays a big role and may drive most of the actions during a breach, but they cannot effectively handle response alone. Everyone in the company is a stakeholder and every department should have a representative on the incident response (IR) team. Thus, make sure your plan assigns specific people to respond, including IT, management, and business representatives.
Inter-departmental communication is key to a swift response and should be part of what you practice. For example, who will talk to the news crews out front? Be sure to media-train personnel or have a crisis communication firm on speed dial. In fact, be sure to have all key contacts listed in your IR plan, including those for all related services or vendors. And regardless of how many venders you use, be sure to have clarity on the internal team as to who will coordinate the response and look after your company’s best interests.
Once you write your plan, practice it — again and again. You’ll improve every time, building muscle memory for fast detection and fast reaction to events that help ensure your success, not the bad guy’s. At a minimum, a good response will greatly minimize an event’s impact and, even if not wholly prevented, still add up to thousands of dollars saved.
#6. Have a solid backup plan
Make sure you have a solid back up plan that includes offline copies.
Ransomware is a modern plague that’s costing the United States trillions of dollars per year. That money is going to fund organized crime, human trafficking, and terrorism. The bad actors will not stop what they are doing, and they will get around to you eventually.
As technology advanced, the use of backup tapes fell off, replaced by backups made to storage systems, the cloud, or both. If those online copies are protected by a Windows domain password, you will probably lose them. The first thing the threat actors will do is crack all the admin passwords and log into wherever you store those backups and encrypt them. Next, they’ll encrypt your endpoints, laptops and servers, and send a ransom note.
Expect to be attacked and prepare for it, not only by backing up your data, but also by having at least one offline copy of every critical system. An offline copy that cannot be accessed from any network will ensure that even if you are faced with a massive cleanup of encrypted systems, you’ll avoid having to pay a ransom.
Ransoms often cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and may even run into the millions, so the cost of a solid disaster recovery plan, including offline copies, is peanuts by comparison.
Don’t make it easy on the bad guy
Like water, cybercriminals often take the path of least resistance. So, move, morph, and make your company a harder target to hit.
Want to see an immediate impact? Implement MFA. Want to harden your security over time? Find out and continue to track where your crown jewels reside.
These six steps are all within reach of every company. Start today, and get it done.