I was recently looking for a place to board our cat this summer, and one business had on its home page, underneath the name of the company, the words “Viagra discounts” in small but legible type. Assuming the company isn’t branching out from felines to pharmaceuticals, why would this appear on its website? The answer, of course, is that the company didn’t put it there, and was probably unaware of it altogether.
When small business owners think about website security at all, their attitude is usually something along the lines of, “Why would anyone attack us? We’re not a bank and we don’t store credit card data.” Once the company sets up its website, it “sets it and forgets it.” It may check its search ranking once in a while to be sure it hasn’t been blacklisted by Google, but that’s as far as it is likely to go. However, hackers are attacking small business websites with increasing frequency and sophistication: In the cyber-attack ecosystem small business websites are both an attack platform and an attack target.
Unfortunately, the current upward trend of small businesses managing their own websites will only amplify this problem. The National Small Business Association 2013 Technology Survey found that nearly two-thirds of small businesses maintain their own websites, up 15% from the 2010 report. Meanwhile the report indicates that 64% of companies consider the time required to simply maintain the site “a major challenge.”
If you work in, or provide security services to, a small business, below are five points that you need to understand in order to effectively defend your website from attack.
5. New vulnerabilities threaten your business every day: Small business owners need to understand that vulnerability discovery and disclosure is dynamic. Just because a website hasn’t been updated lately doesn’t mean that new vulnerabilities aren’t a threat. In fact vulnerabilities in existing code are more likely to appear on websites that haven’t been updated. According to anonymized aggregated customer data we analyzed at 6Scan, for companies using Web content management systems this issue is even more critical. At any given time between 70% and 80% of WordPress users are running an outdated version which can contain critical, and well documented, vulnerabilities.
4. Your site is under attack 24/7: Many small business owners check their traffic figures daily, pleased to see any increase. They might not be so happy to learn, as we did from our analysis, that, on average, 7% of the traffic to their site is actively attacking it, attempting to detect and exploit vulnerabilities. A site that gets 100 unique visitors per day (placing it approximately at Alexa’s 100,000th most trafficked site) is a target of two breach attempts every hour of every day -- almost 20,000 attacks per year. With these numbers it’s not a matter of if a vulnerability will be exploited but when.
3. Hackers are more efficient than ever: Cisco’s 2014 Annual Security Report referred to hacking legitimate websites as a “high-efficiency infection strategy.” Once a site is compromised, it turns into an attack platform, giving hackers the freedom to choose what devices to attack, what viruses to distribute, even what date and time to launch the attacks for maximum effect.
Back in my days at Zone Labs (one of the early desktop firewall vendors) malware email attachments were all the rage. Now bad guys don’t need to go through all the effort to push malicious attacks with a single payload -- they just hack legitimate websites and the victims to come to them. If they want to beta test a new iOS exploit, they can run that for a few days. If they want to build a botnet with proven malicious code, they just pop that up. The victims will just keep showing up, not knowing the site has been compromised. This ruthless strategy puts the “viral” back in viral marketing.
2. Your site -- no matter how small -- is valuable to hackers: There is no such thing as “too small to hack.” If a business has a website, hackers can exploit it. Stealing personally identifiable information from users and visitors is one way they derive value. But even without credit card data, user/password credentials can be valuable when used as part of a bigger scam.
Hackers also breach legitimate websites to post phishing pages -- this is essential to get around anti-spam software that will flag a link to a blacklisted IP. According to the Websense 2014 Threat Report, 85% of all malicious Web links are hosted on hacked legitimate sites. A third way attackers can use a hacked site is to host malicious content used in phishing scams.
1. Your reputation gets hacked as well: Being blacklisted by Google damages a small business’s brand, but it pales in comparison to being used as a platform to attack its business partners -- and this is not a spy-movie, spear-phishing scenario. Last year the networks of Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, and Apple were compromised in “watering hole” attacks. In these attacks, cyber criminals hacked into small business Web sites that are known to be frequented by employees of the targeted companies. These specific attacks focused on small mobile application developers, but the model works for any industry.
The days of small businesses putting up a few web pages and relying on “security through obscurity” to protect them are gone forever. Hackers have great incentive to unleash sophisticated -- and often highly automated -- attacks on even the smallest sites. Small business stakeholders must begin to regard website security as a necessary part of operating in an online world, or their customers and partners will pay the price.