In a recent case, dubbed "Fort Disco," cybercriminals used a 25,000-node botnet of infected Windows systems to scan the Internet for vulnerable sites and then attempt to guess the administrative password using a small set of common passwords. The tactic may have worked in only a small percentage of cases, but it was still effective, claiming more than 6,000 sites.
SMB networks and websites both are under attack. While criminals may focus on compromising a business' network to steal money using bank account fraud, attacks aimed at the website are typically focused on the misuse of the company's resources, says Matthew Prince, co-founder and CEO of CloudFlare, a Web infrastructure and security firm.
"What small businesses need to recognize is that their blog is running on a server, and even if there is no content there that is particular useful, just getting access to that server is valuable to the attacker," Prince says.
Protecting its online assets is not easy for a budget-conscious business with overworked technical professionals. For many SMBs, part of the answer may be to use a hosted Web service, not just a hosting provider. Popular website-in-the-cloud services such as WordPress, TypePad, Blogger, CopyPress, and others generally take care of many of the administrative tasks that, if left untended, can leave a company open to attack.
However, using such a one-size-fits-all service is not for everyone, says Robert Hansen, director of product management for WhiteHat Security, a Web security firm.
"The question about whether a company should use third-party providers is largely dictated by their security needs," Hansen says. "The nice things about using [such services] is they tend to take care of the obvious security stuff for you."
[Small and midsize firms are voracious users of cloud services; a few precautions can make their businesses even more secure. See Four Ways SMBs Can Improve Security Through Cloud.]
Whether a company favors a third-party service, using a hosting provider and a popular content management system, or even running its own Web service, following are four steps should make its Web security stronger:
1. Strengthen authentication
The Fort Disco campaign relied on exploiting a list of trivial passwords, including "admin," "123456," and the website's domain. Using strong passwords to protect administrative access -- or, better yet, two-factor authentication -- can minimize the risk of being compromised by attacks focused on the lowest hanging fruit, says Joseph Scott, lead of the VaultPress team at Automattic, the developer of WordPress.
"It requires a little bit more work on the part of the administrators, but there are plenty of plug-ins that allow two-factor authentication," he says.
2. Configure once, patch many times
SMBs also need to configure their on-premise or hosted Web services with an eye toward security. Many companies get their WordPress installation running and then fail to lock it down or patch it regularly, WhiteHat's Hansen says.
"On many Web servers, people just install them on default Ubuntu or default Red Hat, without thinking about removing unnecessary services or locking down the needed services," he says. "Things like SSH, for example, should not be open to the world."
Once properly configured, the website also needs to be regularly patched and updated, he says. A publicly connected Web server running a vulnerable version of a popular content management system has a short life span.
3. Don't forget DNS
The domain-name service is another weakness is a company's online presence. Not only do they need to manage and protect their own domains, but any certificates that the company relies on must be protected as well, says CloudFlare's Prince.
"A lot of smaller companies buy their domains, and then they don't think who manages it or who is running it," Prince says. "The problem is that an attacker who can compromise a registrar account can steal the identity of almost any site."
Companies should ask their registrars what extra security precautions they provide, such as two-factor authentication or extra PIN codes for security, he says.
4. Use third-party services
Finally, SMBs that can use a third-party provider should do so. Cloud providers can remove most of the administrative headaches from the customer, taking care of much of the configuration, updates, and backups, WordPress's Scott says. In addition, add-on security services -- whether Web infrastructure or vulnerability scanning -- can further help lock Web servers down.
SMBs should develop a relationship with the company, ask about security measures, and make sure that they trust the provider to do the right thing, he says.
"Find someone you trust, that you can work with, whether that is a consultant or an employee or a provider, because your online site is only going to get more important," Scott says. "Having someone you can trust is everything in building that relationship."
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