Building the Human Firewall

Cybersecurity was a challenge before COVID-19 sent millions of employees home to work from their own devices and networks. Now what?

Aamir Lakhani, Cybersecurity Researcher and Practitioner, FortiGuard Labs

October 20, 2020

4 Min Read

The major shift to remote work in the COVID-19 economy has underscored the reality that cybersecurity today is something almost every company must be savvy about. Still, all of the technology and solutions in the world aren't enough to completely protect organizations if their employees aren't fully trained in cyber-hygiene practices. That means all employees — not just those working in IT departments.

A Ponemon Institute report found that "accidental insiders (negligence) account for 62% of insider incidents. These are the folks that unwittingly cause harm or unauthorized access by doing things like clicking on malicious links, not following policies and procedures, or being careless. Sometimes, they simply didn't know any better. But this type of ignorance is expensive; the cost of incidents relating to accidental insiders is $4.58 million, according to the Institute.

The unprecedented shift to remote work necessitated by the pandemic has created a sea change in the assumptions of how and where we work. During this time, nearly two-thirds of companies have moved half or more of their employees to telework. Sixty-two percent of employed Americans, for example, say they have worked from home during the crisis, with the number of remote employees doubling between March 13 and April 2, 2020, according to Gallup Panel data. And this isn't just a temporary change. Almost a third of all organizations with remote workers expect that half or more will continue working from home after the pandemic.

Remote work brings with it logistical and security challenges. In the pre-COVID world, moving an entire workforce from secure IT environments to home networks that have very little cybersecurity would take long-term planning and preparation. But that wasn't an option in 2020. Consequently, 32% of respondents to Fortinet's 2020 Securing Remote Work Survey found that setting up and managing secure connectivity was the most challenging aspect of switching to telework.

As organizations have ramped up their use of VPNs to accommodate their new army of remote workers, they were quick to realize that the devices at their core network were not designed to manage the volume of VPN connections required. Many connections were not secure as a result. Or even if they were encrypted, existing firewalls were incapable of inspecting VPN tunnels to ensure they weren't being used to deliver malware — at least not without significantly slowing down connections.

On top of this, many employees' home networks were overwhelmed by the bandwidth requirements of business applications such as videoconferencing, in addition to a VPN. And end-user devices (many workers began working from home using a personal device) were often unpatched and unsecured, as were other devices connected to the home network.

Creating the Human Firewall
Employers have to take a top-down approach to cybersecurity and make it part of everyone's training. A recent remote worker survey found that 92% of organizations reported budget investments to address teleworker security, but end users themselves are still the front line of any security strategy — and never more so than now. 

Creating a culture of security is essential. Everyone has role to play, from the C-suite to the shipping and receiving department. If employees see something, they should say something — just like at the airport. This means they need the training to understand when something is suspicious. And they need to know to whom they should report incidents. Employees must understand how they can contribute to effective cybersecurity strategies, rather than just hoping IT personnel will take care of problems.

To accomplish this, cyber-hygiene training must be baked into training across the company, and it can't just be a one-and-done activity. It must be ongoing and include helping employees understand things like:

  • Multifactor authentication (MFA), which combines something a user knows, such as a password, with something that person has, such as a fingerprint or a security token.

  • How to identify attacks via suspicious emails, websites, and text messages, and to ensure that everyone at home using the network, from roommates to children, get cybersecurity training, too.

  • Making passwords harder to guess or using different passwords for different accounts.

  • Securing home networks by adding or upgrading a security application to protect the home network and devices from attacks.

Cybersecurity was a challenge before COVID-19 sent millions of American employees home to work from their own devices and networks. The added risk cements what was always true: Cybersecurity is everyone's job. Non-IT staff must step up and help reduce that risk, but they need to learn how. Ongoing training will empower employees as human firewalls with a responsibility to protect the organization and their hard work.

About the Author(s)

Aamir Lakhani

Cybersecurity Researcher and Practitioner, FortiGuard Labs

Aamir Lakhani is a cybersecurity researcher and practitioner for Fortinet’s FortiGuard Labs. He formulates security strategy with more than fifteen years of cybersecurity experience, his goal to make a positive impact towards the global war on cyber-crime and information security. Lakhani provides thought leadership to industry and has presented research and strategy worldwide at premier security conferences. As a cybersecurity expert, his work has included meetings with leading political figures and key policy stakeholders who help define the future of cybersecurity.  

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