Having an agile, mobile workforce is becoming commonplace for a lot of small and medium-sized enterprises.
Remote working has been happening in corporate environment for decades, but they have whole teams dedicated to deploying infrastructures and locking them down securely. Some organizations already have solutions in place, but are they secure? How do organizations who have no remote working capability get started?
For years, you’ve heard the security community harping on about having secure passwords. It’s likely you are more than familiar with advice such as, no using the names of your children/pets, no birthdays/anniversaries, use a mixture of cases, use a mixture of numbers and letters, use odd characters (e.g. #!$*), have passwords expire every 30 – 90 days. You may have paid attention in the past and if you did, good for you because you now have one less thing to worry about. If not, it’s imperative that you implement these policies with remote workers. Why? Because instead of just having to contend with people inside the company trying to guess other people’s passwords, you now have all the hackers on the internet having a go. They have tools that can try 100,000 password combinations in less than a minute and nothing better to do. All it takes is one weak password on one user and suddenly they are in through your VPN. The person with the weak password (“bobby 21”) will not be the one who has to explain the breach, it will be the IT department.
Strong passwords help secure your remote access massively, especially in conjunction with encryption. But they are not 100% effective against a determined/lucky hacker. Keystroke loggers, packet sniffers, phishing scams and social engineering attacks can all be used to get even the most complicated password. The only way to be sure is to use two factor authentication (2FA) on your VPN. As the name suggests, 2FA uses two factors to authenticate users – something they have (key fob with a one-time, changing password) and something they know (a more traditional PIN). This means that even if your worker’s password is captured, it’s useless as soon as it has been seen.
We’ve all been shopping online for years. We all know not to put any sensitive, personal data into a website until you see the little padlock in the web browser. The same goes for remote working. Your business data is valuable. Access to your systems is valuable. That’s why hackers have sniffers listening in various networks to capture stray passwords and other goodies. Public Wi-Fi spots are goldmines for unencrypted user data – all you need is a laptop and the right software and you can grab logins to Gmail, Facebook, Hotmail, Yahoo accounts just by sitting there and waiting for people to connect. You do risk a lengthy prison sentence and a large fine for breaking the Computer Misuse Act by doing this, but hackers don’t tend to be bothered by such things. Using strong encryption makes it much more difficult to capture this data. Even if they do get your encrypted data, it will take weeks/months/years of time, plus the compute resources of the NSA to crack it. That’s too much work and your average hacker will move on to more low-hanging fruit.
Access that works on the move
Unless all your remote workers are only just working from home, you need to ensure your mobile workers can work on the move. This means a good combination of 3G data connections and wireless hotspot roaming.
Wireless hotspots are great if you’re stationary for a while and need a reliable connection at a decent speed, but can be expensive to use. Especially if you tend to use more than one in a day (e.g. coffee shop, then airport, then meeting locations, then back to the airport again). Therefore, having a wireless roaming agreement means that you can easily login to a variety of different hotspots, pay only for what you use and only get the one bill.
3G data connections are a must have if you either don’t have access to a wireless hotspot or aren’t in one place long enough to use one. Some laptops have 3G data connections built-in, but for the rest of us you need to make sure you have a 3G dongle or can use your smartphone for tethered access (when you access the internet through the phone’s 3G connection). Organizing this through your company mobile phone provider can sometimes make this easier and more cost-effective to organize than getting staff to get their own contracts.
Easy to use access software
VPN software is difficult and complicated to use if not setup correctly. This can lead to frustration for your staff and make them more likely to use an alternative and possibly less secure way of getting their work done. SSL VPNs (a form of VPN that can be used with a standard Web browser and does not require does not require the installation of specialized client software) can take some of the hassle-factor out by using the commonly used browser interface to provide access to internal resources. Not only is the interface familiar to most users, but because it uses standard web ports to send and receive VPN traffic, it tends to work from any remote location (home, Wi-Fi hot-spots, suppliers offices, etc) without needing any extra holes punched through the firewall.
End-point discrimination and tiered access
Having ease to use VPN software that can run from any browser opens up its own challenges. How do you know that the end-point that your staff member is connecting from is not virus-ridden and full of malware? Using end point assessment and discrimination, you can run checks on the remote PC to ensure it meets the requirements of your security policy. Sort of like the bouncer on the door of the nightclub, you don’t want any jeans or trainers in your network. As part of the process of logging in, some SSL VPNs can get the browser to run checks on the end-point to see whether it meets your guidelines:
• Is it a company laptop?
• Is there up-to-date anti-virus software installed?
• Have any keystroke loggers been detected?
Depending on how many of the boxes the remote PC ticks in your list, you can then decide how much access the remote user should get. The sales team gets access to both your web-based CRM system and the document store if their remote end-point passes all the tests, but if you don’t detect known and up-to-date anti-virus software then they get access to the web-based CRM, but do not get access to the document store.
Presence and shared calendaring
With everyone working from the office, you know exactly where everyone is supposed to be. You can see just by looking around the office who is available to talk, who is on the phone, who is in a meeting and who has that “if you come within 2 feet of my desk, I will bite you” look on their face. With remote and mobile workers, it’s not quite so simple. Is Jim meant to be in the office today or is he in a meeting in London? Lauren is working from home today, but is she free right now to talk about the marketing budget for next year?
Anyone who has used Microsoft Exchange or Google Calendar knows how useful it is to be able to look at someone else’s schedule before you suggest a time for meeting. But it can only tell you what people have planned to do, rather than what they are doing right now. Presence usually comes with a Unified Communications (UC) system such as Microsoft Lync, and gives you a status view of your staff at a glance. People who are available show as green, people who are away from their desks show as yellow and those on the phone or in a meeting show as red. It’s also possible for staff to add additional information such as their location and what they are doing, or mark themselves as DND (Do Not Disturb) if they need time to focus on a particular activity without interruptions.
With a more mobile and flexible workforce, there are increasing pressures on IT to provide fast, reliable, secure and easy-to-use remote access for the business. It is possible to provide this capability using off-the-shelf hardware and software, but like any powerful tool they can be expensive and need to be installed and managed by experienced and qualified engineers. An alternative option is fully managed remote access solutions, which can integrated alongside existing IT infrastructure.
Whatever the choice, businesses cannot afford to fail their changing workforce.
By Richard Morrell, Operations Director, Lumison