7 nightmare cyber security threats to SMEs and how to secure against them

Small businesses that see themselves as too small to be targeted by cyber criminals are putting themselves at direct risk.

In fact, small businesses are at an equal, if not greater risk of being victims of cyber crime – two thirds of small UK firms were attacked by hackers between 2014-2016, according to a report from the Federation of Small Businesses.

Cyber crime can cause massive damage to a young business’s reputation, result in loss of assets and incur expenses to fix the damage caused. These attacks could mean the difference between cutting a profit or going bust.

Legal action could also be taken if businesses are found to have failed to put proper safeguards in place. When new data protection laws are introduced in 2018 under GDPR, complacent businesses risk fines of up to £17 million or 4% of annual turnover (whichever is higher) if they suffer a data breach.

>See also: Why insider threats are the next big security challenge

So what can small businesses do to protect themselves and the sensitive data of their customers? These are 7 nightmare cyber security threats and how to secure against them.

Threat 1: internal attacks

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to readers, but internal attacks are one of the largest cyber security threats facing small businesses today. Rogue employees, especially those with access to networks, sensitive data or admin accounts, are capable of causing real damage. Some theories even suggest that the notorious 2014’s Sony Pictures hack – typically linked to North Korea – was actually an insider attack.

To reduce the risk of insider threats, businesses must identify privileged accounts – accounts with the ability to significantly affect or access internal systems. Next, terminate those that are no longer in use or are connected with employees no longer working in the business.

Businesses can also implement tools to track the activity of privileged accounts. This allows for a swift response if malicious activity from an account is detected before the damage can be dealt.

Threat 2: phishing and spear phishing

Despite constant warnings from the cyber security industry, people still fall victim to phishing every day. As cyber crime has become well-funded and increasingly sophisticated, phishing remains one of the most effective methods used by criminals to introduce malware into businesses.

Spear phishing is a targeted form of phishing in which phishing emails are designed to appear to originate from someone the recipient knows and trusts – like senior management or a valued client.

>See also: The importance of creating a cyber security culture

To target victims deemed ‘high value’ — i.e. those with access to privileged accounts — cyber criminals may even study their social media to gain valuable insights which can then be used to make their phishing emails appear highly authentic.

If an employee is tricked by a malicious link in a phishing email, they might unleash a ransomware attack on their small business. Once access is gained, ransomware quickly locks down business computers as it spreads across a network. Until a ransom is paid, businesses will be unable to access critical files and services.

To mitigate the risk posed by phishing – and ransomware – organisations must ensure staff are aware of the dangers and know how to spot a phishing email. Businesses must also ensure they have secure backups of their critical data. Because ransomware locks down files permanently (unless businesses want to cough up the ransom) backups are a crucial safeguard to recover from the hack.

But as ransomware attacks are on the rise, prevention remains better than treatment. Education is the best way of ensuring protection for small businesses.

Threat 3: a dangerous lack of cyber security knowledge

Entire cyber security strategies, policies and technologies are worthless if employees lack cyber security awareness. Without any kind of drive to ensure employees possess a basic level of cyber security knowledge, any measure or policy implemented will be undermined.

A well-targeted spear phishing email could convince an employee to yield their password and user information. An IT team can’t be looking over everyone’s shoulders at once. Because of this, education and training are essential to reduce the risk of cyber crime.

>See also: SMEs do not train staff on cyber security risk

Some employees may not know (or care enough) to protect themselves online, and this can put businesses at risk. Hold training sessions to help employees manage passwords (hint: two-factor authentication for business accounts) and identify phishing attempts. Then provide support to ensure employees have the resources they need to be secure.

Some small businesses will also consider up-skilling members of their IT teams in incident handling, often through popular GCIH training from security vendor GIAC. Incident handling professionals are able to manage security incidents as they happen, and speed the process of recovery if hacks do occur.

Ultimately, even a basic level of knowledge and awareness could mean the difference between being hacked or avoiding the risk altogether.

Threat 4: DDoS attacks

Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks have overwhelmed some of the largest websites in the world, including Reddit, Twitter, and Netflix. DDoS attacks, which ambush businesses with massive amounts of web traffic, slow websites to a crawl and, more often than not, force crucial services offline.

If a small businesses relies on a website or other online service to function, the outages caused by DDoS attacks will be catastrophic. Most DDoS attacks last between 6-24 hours and cause an estimated £30,000 per hour, according to data from Incapsula, a DDoS prevention firm.

>See also: DDoS attacks are an increasing concern for IT security pros

Whilst businesses can’t stop a website or service being targeted in a DDoS attack, they can work to absorb some of the increased traffic, giving them more time to form a response or filter out the spam data.

Ensuring there is extra bandwidth available, creating a DDoS response plan in the event of an attack or using a DDoS mitigation service are all great steps towards reducing the impact of an attack. But that’s just scratching the surface of DDoS mitigation – here are more ways to prevent a DDoS attack.

Threat 5: malware

Malware is a blanket term that encompasses any software that gets installed on a machine to perform unwanted tasks for the benefit of a third party. Ransomware is a type of malware, but others exist, including spyware, adware, bots and Trojans.

To prevent malware from taking hold, businesses should invest in solid anti-virus technology. Plus, operating systems, firewalls and firmware, and previously mentioned anti-virus software must be kept up-to-date.

If services are outdated or not updated regularly, businesses are at a serious risk. Just look at the damage caused when malware infected the UK’s National Health Service through an exploit within an outdated version of Windows XP. And that was just one of the high profile targets affected by the global WannaCry ransomware attack.

Threat 6: SQL Injection

Almost every business relies on websites to operate and many depend entirely on the service they provide online. However, poorly secured websites could be wide open to data theft by cyber criminals.

Of the many attacks that can be staged against a website, SQL injection is amongst the most dangerous and even the largest companies fall victim to it.
SQL injection refers to vulnerabilities that allow hackers to steal or tamper with the database sitting behind a web application. This is achieved by sending malicious SQL commands to the database server, typically by inputting code into forms – like login or registration pages.

> See also: Change of attitude required to face modern cyber threats

It takes a few well-calculated steps to protect against SQL injection. As a precaution, businesses should assume all user-submitted data is malicious, get rid of database functionality that isn’t needed and consider using a web application firewall. For a closer look at SQL injection, take a look at this documentation from Cisco.

Properly preventing SQL injection is primarily a responsibility for a web development or security team, but the change has to be driven from the top. Still not convinced? Take a look at this video from Computerphile to see how effective and dangerous SQL injection can be.

Threat 7: BYOD

Businesses are vulnerable to data theft, especially if employees are using unsecure mobile devices to share or access company data. As more small businesses make use of bring your own device (BYOD) technology, corporate networks could be at risk from unsecured devices carrying malicious applications which could bypass security and access the network from within the company.

The solution is nailing down a defined BYOD policy. A comprehensive BYOD policy educates employees on device expectations and allow companies to better monitor email and documents that are being downloaded to company-owned devices.

>See also: Enterprise security in the connected devices age

Ensure employee-owned devices can access the business network through a VPN which connects remote BYOD users with the organisation via an encrypted channel. A VPN is crucial if employees are using public WiFi networks to access business data. Public Wi-Fi is notoriously unsecure and provides little protection against criminals that might be watching the transfer of sensitive data.

If an attacker does capture encrypted VPN traffic they will only see incomprehensible characters going from you to a VPN server – meaning no sensitive data is leaked.


Sourced by Alex Bennett, technical writer, Firebrand Training


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Nick Ismail

Nick Ismail is a former editor for Information Age (from 2018 to 2022) before moving on to become Global Head of Brand Journalism at HCLTech. He has a particular interest in smart technologies, AI and...