Cybersecurity incidents have a tendency to grab headlines and compromise business value. Recently, we posted about the impact two major cybersecurity breaches had on Yahoo! (“Yahoo”). Hackers managed to gain access to vast databases of Yahoo users’ information. When Yahoo eventually disclosed the breach, it caused Yahoo’s market capitalization to fall by almost $1.3 billion. It was a cautionary tale that simultaneously reminded business people of the reality of cybersecurity threats and the value of transparency and preparedness in dealing with them.

This cautionary tale does not apply exclusively to tech giants. In March of 2019, the Canadian Centre for Cyber Security (the “CCCS”) – an agency of the Canadian federal government – published the Baseline Cyber Security Controls for Small and Medium Organizations (the “Baseline Controls”).

The document’s introduction notes that, in fact, small- and medium-sized organizations are most likely to be affected by cybercrime, and goes on to explain how small- and medium-sized businesses can protect themselves in the face of cybersecurity threats.

The Baseline Controls were put together with two basic propositions in mind:

  1. cybersecurity is a critically important aspect of today’s business landscape; and
  2. despite its importance, small- and medium-sized businesses simply do not have unlimited financial and human resources to pour into cybersecurity.

The happy result of the CCCS’s work on the Baseline Controls is a document that offers guidance to small- and medium-sized businesses that is both relevant and attainable. With the right team in place, any forward-looking small- or medium-sized business can implement the Baseline Controls. These measures may prove invaluable for the sustainability and success of your business.

The Baseline Controls

The CCCS begins its discussion of the Baseline Controls with a sobering statement that speaks to the importance and imminence of cybersecurity in today’s business environment:

“We recommend that organizations adopt the thinking that they will suffer a data breach at some point and thus be in a position to detect, respond and recover.”

Implicit in this statement is an unmistakable sense of urgency. As soon as we accept that most business people will one day be tasked with managing their businesses and stakeholders through a cybersecurity crisis, we should also accept that “one day” may come sooner than we think.

The Baseline Controls are, in effect, a series of recommendations business people can operationalize to help mitigate cybersecurity risks.

Below are brief explanations of each recommendation made by the CCCS in the Baseline Controls document, to help business people understand how the recommendations might relate to their businesses.

  • Develop an incident response plan. This plan is the roadmap that will guide your business through a cybersecurity crisis. This plan should contain policies for detecting, monitoring and responding to cybersecurity incidents; and identify responsible persons. Businesses may also consider a cybersecurity insurance policy to cover incident response and recovery activities.
  • Automatically patch operating systems and applications. Sometimes software publishers make mistakes in developing their products that can be used by cybercriminals to put your business at risk. Publishers will frequently fix their mistakes and improve the security of their software by issuing “patches” or updates. Operating systems like Microsoft Windows and macOS can be set to automatically download and install updates. The same is true of other software applications still supported by their publishers. By setting operating systems and applications to update automatically, you significantly reduce your cybersecurity risk.
  • Enable security software. There is a wide range of software designed to protect your computer systems against known malware (i.e. viruses, worms, Trojan horses, ransomware, spyware, etc.). Enabling this software on your business’s connected devices is an easy step toward securing your business from cyberthreats.
  • Securely configure devices. The computers, phones and other technology you use in your business often have weak security settings enabled when you take them out of the box. This allows businesses to deploy technology quickly and start realizing its benefits. However, it’s important to change default passwords that can become public and represent a cybersecurity threat, and take other steps to ensure similar security gaps are covered quickly and effectively.
  • Use strong user authentication. There are a number of ways you can ensure only people you trust can access your business’s information systems. Strong password policies and two-factor authentication represent two such options that are easily implemented and can improve cybersecurity.
  • Provide employee awareness training. Cybersecurity threats such as email phishing scams are often designed to take advantage of unsuspecting employees. Your people are just as important as leading-edge technological measures for keeping your business safe. The value of cybersecurity training for employees cannot be overstated.
  • Backup and encrypt data. The digital equivalent of putting your jewelry in a safe. When you backup your data, you capture the value wrapped up in it. If the worst happens, you can swap out your compromised data for the backup and get back to business. Encrypting your data means putting that data under a digital lock-and-key to make sure it’s safe and ready when you need it.
  • Secure mobility. Like any other connected device, mobile phones pose certain cybersecurity risks that need to be audited and addressed. Policies that keep work and personal data separate on employees’ mobile phones, and training employees about the risks of apps from untrustworthy sources and about the risks of data interception through Bluetooth or Wi-Fi services are just a few of the issues to consider.
  • Establish basic perimeter defenses. Your business’s network is like a private island. It’s made of a series of computers, servers, mobile devices and other technology that all work together to help run your business. Your island connects to the outside world through the internet. It’s important to secure the boundary between your private network and the internet to keep unwanted visitors out and away from your valuable systems. Technologies like firewalls, virtual private networks, and integrated point-of-sale systems are all mechanisms you can use to secure the boundary and keep your information systems safe.
  • Secure cloud and outsourced IT services. Many small- and medium-sized businesses rely on service providers for cloud and other information technology services. Just like your business offers a unique value proposition to win business, so do cloud and IT service providers. Some may offer leading-edge security tech at a high price, while others offer basic security tech at a more affordable price. It is important to familiarize yourself with the service offerings of your business’s service providers and compare those offerings with legal requirements and industry best practices to ensure you are comfortable with the level of security you are signing off on.
  • Secure websites. If your business collects customer data through its website, it may be appropriate to consider implementing tried-and-tested security standards to a make sure customer data is secure.
  • Implement access control and authorization. It is unlikely that every employee needs access to every aspect of your business’s information system. Controlling access to your systems so employees only have the access they need to perform their work function is a risk-minimization strategy that not only decreases the likelihood of unauthorized access to your business’s information systems, but will shorten the list of people who could be responsible for such unauthorized access. This makes it easier to identify the cybersecurity threat and respond appropriately.
  • Secure portable media. Storage devices like USB flash drives are easy to lose by theft, carelessness or otherwise. This can lead to unauthorized access to sensitive business information. Policies requiring use of pre-approved storage devices and encryption technology can mitigate these risks.

Key Questions for Businesses

Reviewing the CCCS’s Baseline Controls gives rise to a number of important big-picture questions:

  • What damage could a cybersecurity attack cause to my business?
  • What level of protection is appropriate for the information controlled by my business?
  • How does my investment level in cybersecurity compare to similar businesses?
  • Where do I start?