Pratum Blog

What's the Price of Your Organization's Data?

Have you ever put a price on your organization’s data? Some hacker out there is probably prepping right now to help you with that. They’ll gladly hold onto your data until you nail down exactly how much you’re willing to pay to get it back.

Ransomware, if you’re new to the term, works just like it sounds. A cybercriminal gains access to your system, encrypts the data so that you can no longer use it and then demands a payment (typically paid in Bitcoin) to let you back into your own data. If you’re attacked by a less sophisticated hacker, however, the encryption key may not work, leaving your data unusable.

The first big wave in 2015 went after consumer devices and small ransom payments, but attacks on businesses have surged in the last year. Some experts are reporting jumps of 70+% in ransomware attacks this year as millions of workers have begun working remotely. Some recent estimates say that hackers target 90% of financial institutions every year.

The Price of Your Data

Clear ransomware stats are hard to come by since businesses understandably get shy about telling the world that they’ve been victimized. Experts have pegged the average payment at anywhere from $5,900 to $41,000. The highest ransoms, however, surpass seven figures. In June 2020, for example, the University of California-San Francisco announced that it had paid $1.14 million (116.4 Bitcoin) to regain access to its data. (You can see the negotiations between the university and the hacker here.)

For victims, the total tab includes far more than the ransom. A 2017 attack forced shipping giant Maersk to close 17 ports, costing the company more than $200 million. Some companies refuse to negotiate and try to retrieve data through other means, which could get costly if your data wasn’t properly and securely backed up.

A business with little tolerance for downtime and no backup system will be especially likely to pay up. A medical facility that can’t access its patient records or scheduling system, for example, is effectively shut down. And damage to a brand can be a deciding factor. A law firm that loses control of its sensitive data may never regain clients’ trust.

All this shows why paying the ransom frequently feels like the least bad choice—and why industry observers call ransomware “the cybercrime of choice” and “your biggest online security nightmare.”

A Crime That’s All Grown Up

The ransomware scene has developed all the underworld trappings of a drug cartel or weapons bazaar. Bad actors can visit online marketplaces to bid on access to hacked computers. Or they can hire an RaaS (ransomware as a service) mercenary to do the dirty work for a cut of the ransom. A few ransomware providers even have well-run call centers to ensure that decryption goes smoothly after the payment. No respectable criminal, after all, can afford for victims to tell future targets that paying the ransom is pointless for retrieving data.

And like all innovators, cybercriminals keep creating new products. Some hackers pursue a “leakware” strategy, declaring that if you don’t pay the ransom, they’ll share your proprietary files with the world. So much for your data backup saving the day.

How to Lock Your Gates

Data kidnappers typically use phishing schemes to trick a user into clicking a malicious file that lets hackers into the system. Organizations with many dispersed users are especially tempting. In other words, nearly every company became a fatter target in 2020 as employees began working at home in large numbers. Other attacks skip the well-meaning end user and simply exploit known security holes.

Once the hackers enter the system, they may spend several days snooping around your files to determine exactly how to hurt you the most. They may also start monitoring communications among key employees—all in the interest of assembling a ransom offer you can’t refuse. With an airtight plan, they encrypt your data and announce the attack tailored just for you.

Obviously, hackers are bringing serious tools to this heist. So let’s consider some best practices for keeping both your data and your money where they belong:

  • Use appropriate backup strategies for necessary systems and information. Define and regularly review Recovery Point Objectives and Recovery Time Objectives and test backups regularly.
  • Enable real-time security monitoring and data loss prevention policies to identify intrusion attempts and validate that data has not been compromised.
  • Install up-to-date, next-generation antivirus/EDR (endpoint detection and response) software on every device. EDR tools prevent execution of malware that only tips its hand after entering your system and trying to execute.
  • Ensure your IT team (or an info security partner) properly configures the antivirus software—a frequently overlooked step.
  • Keep operating systems current with all available patches.
  • Educate employees to lower the risk of phishing schemes.
  • Limit users’ access to only the most necessary files, limiting how far an intruder can get with any given person’s credentials.

Pratum experts spend every day fending off the latest ransomware. If you’re ready to assess your company’s risk of attack, reach out to our cybersecurity team.

2020 is the Year of Virtual CISO

As millions of Americans dispersed to home offices this spring, a giant spotlight fell on business continuity plans across the country. Many of those plans, it turns out, were riddled with holes.

Nearly half of all working Americans are now telecommuting, according to Stanford University, revealing all the weaknesses in half-hearted business continuity plans that have been gathering dust for years. And just as the problem revealed itself, the budgets required to fix the issues were getting slashed.

While these challenges have always been present, the development of real solutions frequently fell by the wayside due to competing priorities and limited budget allocation. And now funds to fix things are scarcer than ever. In the public sector, for example, some states, such as Vermont, are anticipating budget cuts of up to 25%.

The fact is that an adequate continuity plan would’ve anticipated this. The world experienced several serious infectious outbreaks within the last 20 years with Bird Flu (H5N1), Swine Flu (H1N1) and Ebola. Fortunately, these diseases didn’t spread as quickly and easily as COVID-19, blunting their impact. But this also produced a false sense of security. Very few business continuity plans accounted for pandemics. In fact, many businesses didn’t even plan for more familiar threats such as natural disasters, malware attacks and downtime.

Where’s a CISO When You Need One?

Typically, a Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) would lead the way in preparing for these issues. A CISO focuses on balancing information security, risk, and general business challenges by asking key questions such as:

  • How can my agency (or department) ensure that business processes can be restored?
  • How can my agency access backup plans or ensure the recovery of lost data? Is this approach sustainable and controlled?
  • Are resources accessible offline even when access to company networks can’t be established?
  • How will we keep employees online?
  • How do we eliminate communication interruptions?
  • How can leadership and management effectively keep employees informed of plans for dealing with major disasters, sensitize them to the challenges and inquire about their preparation?

Right now, most budgets probably don’t include room to add a CISO to address the challenges revealed by 2020’s unique circumstances. But Pratum’s Virtual Chief Information Security Officer (vCISO) service is intended, by design, to fill that gap. This tailored service helps identify and implement viable business continuity planning/management and cybersecurity strategies and policies to maintain security effectiveness and meet regulation and compliance requirements.

How a Virtual CISO Works

A vCISO service creates actionable information security strategies and defines optimum information security direction. The vCISO will provide independent and objective input to ensure that your security posture is on track, recognizing areas of necessary improvement and continuing to support areas where you are already in compliance.

You can engage vCISO services for anywhere from a few hours to a per-project basis to a full-time basis. Your work with the vCISO will produce executive-level strategy, policy development and process creation for immediate adoption, implementation and operation of improvements.

A Pratum vCISO can assist with these areas:

  • Information security risk assessments
  • Business continuity planning/management and cybersecurity vision
  • Coordination, prioritization, and establishment of security initiatives
  • Risk reduction and mitigation through continual security improvements
  • IT audits
  • Policy review and development
  • Penetration testing
  • Disaster recovery and incident response
  • Penetration testing and vulnerability management (scanning)
  • Social engineering
  • Security awareness and training
  • Security consulting

With a vCISO in place, organizations will experience the confidence and safeguards provided by a sound business continuity management plan and a smooth process for recovering from severe disruptions.

Planning for the Next One

One clear lesson from 2020 is that the unthinkable is possible—and organizations can’t afford to stumble into the next challenge unprepared. When a new catastrophe strikes, it’s critical that we are all ready to address the situation calmly and appropriately. The price of being unprepared can be staggering. For example, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) states that 40% to 60% of public entities will spend roughly 1.5 times their annual technology budget recovering from a business disruption.

With your Pratum vCISO and business continuity plan in place, you can avoid this outcome. Pratum will help identify your risks, find solutions to existing problems, and guide you safely through the next crisis.

For a better understanding of how Pratum vCISO services may be a fit for your organization, please visit Pratum.com/virtual-CISO.

HR and IT

An employee’s first day at a company presents a flood of new information—and signals what the company values. In a few hours, a worker receives strong messages about where to park, how to use the copier, what to wear and more. During that rush of first impressions at your company, does information security appear on the list of priorities?

Remember that along with giving a new employee access to your health plan, you’re handing them credentials to access company data. Are you teaching new workers how to protect that data? Do they understand that every employee has responsibility for information security, not just the IT team?

Information security should be an onboarding priority for every Human Resource (HR) department. And a strong relationship with the IT department will help HR create a productive, consistent onboarding process that puts the importance of your business’ cybersecurity practices at the forefront of your employees’ minds from day one. Here’s how you can start fostering a secure work environment from the moment the offer letter is signed.

Start secure practices from the beginning

Create an “onboarding checklist” that includes the tasks of everyone involved in the process. This reduces the risk of missing any steps and may be vital in maintaining your company’s compliance.

Explain Documents Before Signing

After the employee clears the background check and shows up for their first day, it’s time to explain and complete a few critical documents. Audits require many of these, which means you need to follow accurate filing and tracking procedures.

Confidentiality (or Non-Disclosure) Agreements Employees gain access to various levels of sensitive and confidential company information such as company trade secrets, client information, financials, and employee lists. It is your responsibility to define what information your company classifies as confidential and make your employees aware of those things from the beginning of their employment.

Information Security Policies On the other hand, there is information that employees are free to share, but must do so in a secure manner. Again, it is important to define those things so employees understand they are accountable to the processes protecting that information. The onboarding process provides a great opportunity to introduce key information security topics to employees. It is very important for employees to read and understand any information security policies your organization has that would be pertinent to their specific job role. Employees should sign and acknowledge these policies on their first day of employment.

Bring Your Own Device Contract If you allow employees to access company data through their personal devices, a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) contract, though not required, is best practice. A BYOD contract can help protect sensitive company information if a device is lost or stolen. It enables your company to enforce security controls such as password protection and remote wiping of sensitive information. These security functions are necessary for companies to ensure data confidentiality, security, and integrity.

Perform Security Awareness and Training

The moment an employee receives access to the company network, cybersecurity becomes part of their responsibility. Security awareness and training introduces real world cyberthreats and explain why certain policies are in place, what consequences come with not following them, and whom to contact with compliance or security questions. It’s easy to rush through these processes and sign off on documents as you work through your onboarding checklist, but taking the time to stress the importance of security awareness produces vigilant employees who actively participate in keeping your organization safe.

Provision User Access

Best practices suggest using a concept called “least privileged access,” which means users receive access to only the information needed to do their specific job and no more. A process known as provisioning user access ensures proper configuration of each user’s least privileged access. The following controls help with this process:

  • HR and IT should involve management in the access request process. The employee's hiring manager can either approve incoming requests or submit them themselves to ensure that the correct access is being granted.
  • HR should work with IT to implement role-based access control (RBAC), which ensures employees can access only resources and data required to do their jobs. In contrast, many organizations use user-based access, which means that HR and IT copy an existing employee’s permission set onto a new employee. This approach is very difficult to manage as organizations scale in size, and it can result in new employees getting access beyond their immediate needs, which violates the least privileged access principal.

Provisioning user access should be accurate and consistent across all new hires – especially if your company is subject to compliance requirements such as SOC 2, HITRUST, ISO 27001, etc.

HR & IT: Collaboration Through Onboarding and Beyond

Rethinking the relationship between HR and IT during your onboarding tasks (and beyond) is an essential step in providing clear expectations regarding cybersecurity from the very beginning of employment. An effective onboarding checklist is consistent and clearly communicates expectations for each person involved in the process. This will not only help alleviate any risks in missing important onboarding processes but also ensure proper provisioning and information security.

If you’re ready to evaluate your current HR processes and implement an improved set of industry standard cyber security practices, reach out to a Pratum representative today!

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