Looking back over the past few weeks I realize I’ve fallen down on my job of terrifying you with news of the latest technology boogeyman. There’s a new ransomware in town and this one gets down to business in a hurry. Dubbed Petya by security company F-Secure, this vicious piece of malware works in a similar fashion to its brethren by encrypting data and holding it for ransom, with a twist: instead of encrypting just your documents, it will “kidnap” the entire disk by encrypting the master file table, and it can do so very quickly because the MFT is just the “index” of all the files on your drive. If you were to think of your drive as a book, this is the equivalent of putting a lock on the cover and holding the key for ransom.
What this means for you:
At minimum, any virus infection is going to result in a bad day even if you have a full backup of your important data. Before your data can be restored, you need to be certain the malware hasn’t spread to other machines and is waiting to pounce the moment you get the data restored. With previous versions of ransomware, the attack would leave affected machines more or less operational as the malware only encrypted documents and usually left applications and the operating system intact. Not so with Petya which locks out the entire disk. If this malware were to attack a server, it could paralyze an entire company within seconds. If you though recovering and cleaning up a workstation took a long time, double or triple the time needed to bring a server back online, and that’s only if you had full-disk backups and not just files. A malware attack is inevitable – no amount of money, time or paranoia can provide 100% protection. Your only hope for a recovery is proper data backups managed by an experienced professional. Are you ready to test your backup plan?
Image courtesy of Zdiviv at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Laptops and cellphones were once the sole domain of high-powered business executives, but thanks to the proliferation of high-speed internet and falling hardware prices, they are pervasive not only in professional environments, but in just about any walk of life. As you can probably guess, this also means an exponentially expanded attack surface for cyber criminals who are no longer focusing on traditional targets. Anyone who has a bank account or credit history is a potential victim, and younger targets can be exposed to potentially dangerous privacy invasions. Rather than enumerate the various ways in which your security and safety could be violated (we all have enough nightmares as it is), I’d like to focus on some positive actions you can take to make your mobile, digital life safer and more secure.
- Password protect your devices.
Even the most careful professional will misplace their mobile device on occassion. While passwords won’t stop determined hackers, it will keep most everyone else out until it can be recovered or remotely wiped. Laptops normally do not have remote wiping capabilities, so don’t stop at just a password for protecting these types of devices.
- Use built-in apps, or purchase location-tracking software.
Late-model Android and iOS devices have location tracking and recovery capabilities built-in, but they must be enabled. You can add location tracking or a “phone-home” program to your laptop, but it requires the device to be connected to the internet in order for it to report its location.
- Don’t store sensitive information on mobile devices.
With any portable device, the chance of it falling into the wrong hands is high. If you don’t have an IT department managing your device and controlling what can be stored on it, you should inventory what is stored on the device (sensitive client info, photos, personal financial data, passwords) and consider whether you need that information to be stored on that device. If you do, make sure you observe #4.
- Encrypt any storage media.
All late-model Android and iOS devices have the capability to encrypt all data stored on the phone. It’s on be default on iPhones, but must be enabled manually on most Android devices. If you have to store sensitive data on your mobile device, make sure encryption is enabled and working. While it’s not completely necessary to encrypt your entire laptop hard drive, it is possible, and many financial service firms require it on their laptops. At minimum, store your sensitive data in an encrypted partition or folder, or on an encrypted thumb-drive.
- Back up your data.
Do I even need to qualify this particular practice? Backups should be stored separately from the hardware being backed up. It should be transmitted and stored encrypted if it’s internet/cloud based. It should be as frequent as the minimum period of data loss you are willing to lose, e.g. if you can’t stand to lose an hours worth of work, your backups should run on an hourly basis. Be aware of the performance hits this may have on your hardware and network bandwidth.
- Hide devices in parked cars or take them with you.
Mobile device thefts from parked cars is consistently at the top of all loss categories. Thieves know to target cars coming and going from office parks, universities, airports, and the retail/service businesses near these locations. Before you drive away from your work location to a Happy Hour or a quick bite or some grocery shopping, stow your laptop bag in the trunk or hide it in a hard to access part of the car. Don’t do this when you reach your destination, as the thief may already be there, watching for someone to do just that. If you can’t secure it or hide it properly, take it with you.
- Add a leash.
If you are highly mobile and work from many locations, it’s easy to misplace your smaller electronics, and sometimes even laptops. Add a colorful leash to your thumb drives so you don’t forget them, and maybe even consider the same for your phone if you are prone to misplacing it. If you have to take your laptop bag with you to a place where you don’t plan to use it (because of #6), attach the strap to something you will be using at that location, whether it be to your jacket or purse, or even to your leg if you are sitting in a location with lots of noise or distraction. It’s easy to forget work-related tools when you are focused on non-work activities.
- Be less conspicuous.
In open public places with crowds, conspicuous use of expensive mobile devices will flag you as a target for bold thieves. I’ve talked with victims whose laptops were pulled right out from under typing hands in a sidewalk cafe or picnic table, and have read numerous reports of smartphones and tablets being grabbed in broad daylight. If you want to work on your device in a busy environment, keep one eye on your surroundings, and place yourself and your device in a position where it will be less easy to snatch by a fleet-footed thief.
- Educate your friends and family.
Even though you may be cautious and secure, the people around you can undo your careful preparations with carelessness or even well-meaning intent. Be mindful of everyone around you who might not be as savvy as you in technology, and choose carefully how you interact with them via email, social media, and even device sharing. Work laptops are notorious for being infected by family members who don’t have the same security concerns as you do. Quieting a young child with your smartphone may seem like a good idea at the time, but maybe there is some other way you can entertain them that doesn’t involve your work phone.
- Report thefts/losses immediately.
Eventually, it will happen. Whether the device is stolen, damaged or infected and compromised, you should work immediately with the appropriate authorities and professionals to make sure you limit the damage, both to you and your organization, as well as any customers or clients who might be affected. Don’t wait.
The big headlines have been all about Sony’s security breach, and the massive data leak that occurred. What you didn’t hear about was how large parts of their technology infrastructure were rendered unusable. Most of their workstations were severely infected and inoperable for at least several days (some for weeks) and a large portion of their network and server infrastructure was compromised. Even If the hardware was functional, everything still had to be taken offline, scrutinized and analyzed for evidence, reprogrammed then finally redeployed. Qualified or not, Sony’s IT department had a gigantic mess to clean up, and they had to do this quickly (and improve security along the way) as the company was hemorrhaging money every minute their operations were offline.
If there is one thing that is certain (besides Death & Taxes) is that hardware will fail, and probably at the worst possible time. Why it fails is not important – but how you recover from failure is critical and can mean the difference between an inconvenience and a catastrophe. Sony’s disastrous breach is more of an exception in terms of hardware failure – it’s unlikely every single machine in your company will fail at once, but there’s always the chance that a catastrophe – natural or man-made – can wipe out multiple machines at a time. Preventing this type of event from happening is largely beyond your control. What you can do is control how you recover from it, which is a mixture of preparation, training and flexibility.
- Have a current, offsite backup of all your critical data.
The words “offsite” and “current” cannot be emphasized enough. Onsite backups are better than no backups, but if they get destroyed alongside the equipment they were backing up, it’s the same as having no backups. Depending on your business, current can mean different things – old data might be better than no data, but it could still mean many hours of lost work to get back to where you were before the data loss, and then you have to make up for that lost time. Make sure you are backing up the right data as well. Backing up email that is already stored on a server (which is itself being backed up) is a waste of time and money that could be focused on backing up your work documents.
- Understand where your data resides.
Where is your data stored? Where is your email stored? What about your applications? You don’t have to understand the technical details, but you should know whether your data is stored onsite, offsite, in the cloud, or some mixture of all of the above. More importantly, you should know how to get to it – either from an alternate location and hardware, or – in the case of backups – who to contact to have data restored. If your critical business data resides at a single point of failure (e.g. your laptop hard drive), consider what would happen if you were to lose that laptop or if the drive was to fail.
- Document your infrastructure.
If your business or organization relies heavily on technology-supported processes, rebuilding your infrastructure from scratch could result in serious disruption, especially if it is built differently, and given the pace of technology advancement, this is almost a guarantee. Older equipment and software may not be replaceable, so plan for replacing them on a non-emergent timeline, and prepare your employees for the change. At minimum, you should know that even if you are able to get equipment and software quickly, there will still be a ramp-up period while everyone gets acclimated to the new environment. Making changes in a stable calm environment is a lot less disruptive than doing so in a disaster recovery situation.
- Train yourself and your employees to be flexible.
While it may not be possible for all jobs and functions (and some businesses), the crux of disaster preparedness (and recovery) is knowing how to get things done with the tools you have at hand. Most folks don’t realize that their email can be accessed via other methods than the one or two ways they use currently. The same could be said for accessing organizational data. This is not to say that everyone needs to know exactly how to get it done (technology can be complicated, especially tech that isn’t used on a regular basis), but to be open to doing their jobs differently by using alternate tools and methods.
Whether your company relies on racks of equipment or a single laptop, all of the above applies. Catastrophes come in all shapes and sizes, but hardware failure is always a disaster when you are ill-prepared.
Though it sounds crazy to hear it, I’m pretty sure I’m not the only technology professional who wishes computer security was as easy as flipping a switch. Fixing broken technology is a major part of how I make a living, and nothing breaks technology like security breaches. In fact, I don’t want anyone to get infected, hacked or for their data to get corrupted, just like doctors don’t want to see their patients get sick. In keeping with the medical metaphor, there are technology guidelines and practices that can act as preventative medicine for your technology lifestyle. Here are ten suggestions that I hope you will resolve to follow to keep your technology streamlining and not derailing your path to success.
- Put a password or pin on your smartphone. This bears repeating over and over. I know it’s inconvenient, but think of how inconvenient it will be if someone got ahold of your unsecured smartphone and used it to access your private information, or worse, your clients’ information.
- Encrypt your mobile devices and thumb drives. If your device happens to fall into unknown hands, encryption provides a layer of protection that will discourage casual data thieves. In the case of certain smart devices, it may even give you time to remotely wipe and deactivate the device. Certain types of data (especially confidential client or customer information) should always be stored with strong encryption.
- Open attachments and links from emails with extreme caution. The most common vector of infection is via email, either by opening attachments or clicking links to compromised websites. Even if the email comes from someone you know, pay close attention to every aspect of the email for hints that it may be a fake, and if you are at all uncertain, pick up the phone or delete it and ask the sender to resend the email.
- Check your anti-malware software regularly. I know plenty of people who know they have anti-virus installed, but don’t know the name of the product, whether or not it’s up to date, or even if it’s working. Check your antimalware at least once a week to make sure it’s updating and if it’s caught anything recently.
- Don’t allow unsupervised, non-professional use of your computer. Originally, this rule was about keeping work and personal use completely separate, but I realize that is near impossible these days, so I amended it to focus on a potentially dangerous aspect of computing, which is allowing less security-conscious individuals access to the devices you use for business. If you wouldn’t trust this person with your business, don’t grant them unfettered access to your business devices.
- Back up your data. Viruses, thefts and hard drive crashes happen. Like death and taxes, hard drive crashes are inevitable, and it will fail when you can least afford it to fail. Unlike the first two, countering the negative consequences are handled by a simple process.
- Ensure confidential customer/client data is stored securely. If you are in a regulated industry, you are more likely to understand why this is important. But if your business services clients who are part of a regulated industry, you might be held to the same standards of security as your clients. Know what data you are storing, know where you are storing it, and how you are storing it.
- Make sure you have a proper firewall anywhere you use the internet. For the moment, you should consider the internet a wonderful AND dangerous place. Your office probably has a firewall in place (check anyways if you are the least bit unsure), but make sure you have a proper firewall working at home, AND on your desktop or laptop (where practical/allowed by corporate policy). Yes, they can be a bother sometimes, but weigh the inconvenience against a data breach, virus infection and uncomfortable client conversations about losing their data.
- Practice constant vigilance, and encourage it in everyone around you. You may be always on your toes, but you are more likely to let down your guard when interacting with co-workers, friends and family. The more you educate them about the above practices, the safer they will be, and you will improve your odds of keeping your own technology safe.
As in just about every facet of normal life, there are no guarantees, and no magical security switches to flip on and forget, but taking the above ten practices to heart can better prepare you for rougher aspects of technology and the internet. It also helps to have a guide while you are navigating the twisting paths of technology, and you should always consider C2 Technology ready to help you find your way to success with technology.
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
In the US, Thanksgiving traditionally marks the start of the holiday season, and most of us will open our hearts and minds (and wallets) just a bit more than we do during the rest of the year, and we let down our guard to enjoy the holiday spirit. Sadly, criminals and other malicious agents are also in the holiday mood, and count on the distractions of the season to really suck the joy out of the holidays. Here are some things you can do to make sure your holidays aren’t marred by the cyber Grinches:
- Stop opening email attachments
This is how the dreaded Cryptolocker virus gets onto your computer. If you receive an email from someone with an attachment that you weren’t expecting, pick up the phone and call that person to confirm that the attachment is legitimate. Hey, it’s holidays. Shouldn’t you be reaching out and touching someone anyways?
- Stop clicking links in emails
Just because you received an email from someone you know that has a link to the world’s funniest/scariest/cutest video does not mean you should click that link. At minimum, hover over the link to read where it’s really going to take you. Or pick up the phone and call that person to verify they sent the email in the first place, especially if the email seems to be out of character for the sender. Sensing a trend here? Wouldn’t you rather be on the phone catching up with an old friend rather than explaining to a bunch of angry relatives why you sent them a virus via email?
- Beware of fake Holiday Greeting cards, donation solicitations and other holiday-related spam
Hackers will be taking advantage of the increased volume of these types of emails. Observe rules #1 and #2, and watch out for poor grammar and out-of-character emails. Just received an X-mas ecard from someone you haven’t talked to recently? You guessed it…pick up the phone!
- Be careful with your personal data
Let’s say you knuckled under the pressure and clicked a link. The website you landed on is asking you for some personal information that seems relatively harmless: Birthdate, ZIP Code, last four of your Social Security number. Unless you are at the website with which you already do business (and have verified its that company’s actual website and not a fake one!), stop what you are doing and back away from the computer. Even these bits of data can be used as a digital wedge to get at other data from your personal life, which can lead to theft of both your money and identity.
- Put a password or pin on your phone
See last week’s article on why this is important, and how to do it. Don’t ask why, just do it. Trust me.
- Be less conspicuous about using your smartphone
Thieves are targeting smartphone users, especially iPhone users, because the devices are in high demand on the blackmarket, especially overseas where the phones can be reactivated without fear of being tracked. A protective case can help disguise your phone, but if you really want to blend in better, choose one that isn’t blinged out and brightly colored. That case that really helps you stand out in a crowd also paints a big target on you for thieves. Keep it in a deep pocket or a bag/purse that zips or latches shut so it will be less likely to accidentally fall out and picked up by someone looks for a free smartphone.
- Keep an eye on your laptop and/or tablet
A lot of us will be traveling during this time of year, and it’s becoming increasingly common to drag along our work laptop so we don’t get too far behind while visiting with family. You’d be surprised at the number of laptops lost/stolen in airports and rental car terminals, primarily because the owners are distracted and overburdened. Having to call your boss to tell them you lost your work laptop and all the data on it will make for a very stressful holiday. It’ll be even worse if you have to call clients to tell them you have lost their sensitive data or may have exposed them to a security risk.
- Where possible, don’t let online vendors store your credit card information
Up until very recently, most online stores assumed you wanted to keep your credit card “on file” with them for convenience on future purchases. While this is still the case, many now offer the option to remove that information, or to not store it in the first place. Given how many websites are being hacked these days, you may be better off not keeping that number on file, especially if it’s with a store you don’t frequent. Having to enter your credit card information once or twice is a trivial inconvenience as compared to having to replace all your credit cards because a website you bought something from years ago got hacked.
- Beware deals on technology “too low to be believed”
With technology, you get what you pay for 99% of the time, which is to say that if you got it cheap, it’s likely that it is cheap. That knock-off iPhone charger might have been a steal, but if it burns up your battery due to an electrical short, your $5 charger just cost you $500.
- Give yourself a gift this year: Back up your data
All hard drives fail eventually. Phones break, get lost or stolen. Viruses happen. If your data is important enough to save to a disk, it’s important enough to back up. There are online subscriptions that can take care of your most precious digital assets for pennies a day and are so simple to use that anyone who knows how to click a link can set up an account. You might not be able to keep the cyber Grinches at bay forever, but a good backup can take most of the sting out of worst virus infections or hardware failures.
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net.