The latest publication by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), entitled “Small Business Information Security: The Fundamentals,” aims to promote and assist small businesses in their efforts to manage information security risks. Written by Celia Paulsen and Patricia Toth, the report speaks directly to the needs of growing businesses and suggests that the security of information, systems, and networks should be a top priority. Overall, the report explains some of the security issues unique to small businesses and offers a guideline for safeguarding information to help those businesses thrive. Below are several key takeaways from the report.

Small Businesses are Particularly Vulnerable

In many ways, small businesses have even more to lose than large ones simply because an event—whether a hacking, natural disaster, or business resource loss—can be incredibly costly. The report beings by noting that while cybersecurity improvements by some businesses have rendered them more difficult attack targets, this has led hackers and cyber criminals to focus more of their attention on less secure businesses. One reason for this is that small businesses, including startups, often lack the resources to invest in information security as larger businesses can. Many fall victim to cyber-crime. In a later comment on the report, author Pat Toth stated, "[s]mall businesses may even be seen as easy targets to get into bigger businesses through the supply chain or payment portals." She continued, "[small businesses] may have more to lose than a larger organization because cybersecurity events can be costly and threaten their survival."[i] National Cyber Security Alliance research adds further credibility to this assertion. It found that 60 percent of small businesses will close down within six months following a cybrattack.[ii]

Information Security is Good for Business

Another of the report’s goals is to refute the notion that information security is too cumbersome a task for a young business to undertake. In fact, investing in proper security is potentially excellent for business. Protecting customers’ information as well as personal employee information is a critical component of good customer service. Furthermore, a robust information security program can help small businesses grow and retain customers as well as employees and business partners. Nowadays, customers not only appreciate but have also come to expect that their sensitive information will be protected from theft, disclosure, or misuse. Therefore, it is necessary that your business protect customers’ information to establish their trust as well as increase your business. Additionally, business partners and vendors want to know that their information, systems, and networks are safe when doing business with you; therefore, it is important to be able to demonstrate that you have a method to protect their information.

Get to Know Your Unique Risks

First, identify the information your business stores and uses. This may involve listing all the types of information your business stores or uses, including customer names and email addresses, receipts for raw material, banking information, and other proprietary information. Next, determine the value of your information – if not by dollar amount, by rank in comparison to other risks. Then, develop an inventory of technology, both hardware and software. Last, understand your threats and vulnerabilities in the areas of confidentiality (e.g. theft or accidental disclosure), integrity (e.g. accidental alteration, intentional alteration), and availability (e.g. accidental destruction, intentional destruction).

Safeguard Your Information

The report recommends a five-step process.

  1. Identify. Start by controlling who can access your business information. Consider physically locking laptops and mobile devices when not in use, conducting background checks, requiring individual user accounts for employees, and creating policies and procedures for information security.
  2. Protect. This can include limiting employee access to data and information, installing uninterruptible power supplies (UPS) and surge protectors in case of an electricity interruption, updating and patching your software, installing firewalls, securing wireless access points and networks, setting up web and email filters, encrypting sensitive business information, properly and quickly disposing of old devices, and training employees regarding security policies and procedures.
  3. Detect. In a security emergency, time is of the essence. Swift discovery of breaches is essential. To assist, consider installing updates to anti-virus and allowing for automatic updates as well as maintaining logs of firewall and anti-virus activity.
  4. Respond. In a security event, the impact and ultimate cost of a breach may be contained or even reduced by implementing a disaster plan. Employees should be trained according to a developed plan that set out employee roles and responsibilities, protocol for shutting down or locking computers, whom to contact, and triggering events for when the plan should go into effect.
  5. Recover. In the wake of a security event, the goal of your business will likely be to resume normal operations as soon as possible. As such, consider making full backups of important information, such as on an external hard drive or cloud, and doing so often. Additionally, it may be worthwhile to invest in cyber insurance as well as ongoing technology improvements.

Everyday Tips for Working Safely and Securely

The report emphasizes the importance of employee training, and states that although cyber-criminals are becoming more sophisticated, many still use well-known and easily avoidable methods in their attacks. Therefore, employee awareness and training in the following areas may provide significant protection.

  • Pay attention to the people you work with, the people you contract with, even the people who share your building. If a security event affects your neighbors, it is likely you are at risk as well.
  • Be extremely careful opening email attachments and web links. Do not click on a link or open an attachment that you were not expecting to receive. Perhaps the most common way malware is distributed is via email attachments or links embedded in email.
  • As much as you can, try to use separate personal and business computers, devices and accounts, because personal devices are often less secure and could expose you to increased risk. In addition, do not connect personal or untrusted storage devices to your business computer.
  • Only download software from reputable sources.
  • Be aware of social engineering, which is an attempt by wrongdoers to obtain physical or electronic access to your business information by prying information from you via manipulation.
  • Never give out a username or password. Speaking of passwords, try incorporating random sequences of letters and special characters into them. Try also to use multiple forms of authentication (e.g. dual-factor authentication by text).
  • Use a secure browser connection whenever possible.

Do Not Throw In the Towel

While it is impossible for any business to be completely secure, the report assures that it is both “possible—and reasonable—to implement a program that balances security with the needs and capabilities of your business.” You need not be a cybersecurity expert to develop an effective plan. In fact, you may find it best to outsource some or all of your security needs. Consider it an opportunity to network by asking around for recommendations. Additionally, in some cases, large organizations may help their small business suppliers analyze their risks and develop an information security program. For a deeper dive into the details of implementing an information security protocol that will work for your growing business’s unique needs, read the full report here (https://doi.org/10.6028/NIST.IR.7621r1).