Ten Essential Activities to Protect Information, Systems and Networks in Small to Medium Enterprises

With over 2 million Small to Medium Enterprises (SMEs) operating in Australia, SMEs account for 97 per cent of all businesses in the nation (Commonwealth of Australia, 2016). SMEs play a central role in the Australian economy, making an immense contribution to the Gross National Product and supporting Australian jobs. With such vital positioning, protecting the information, systems and networks of SMEs is increasingly important. SMEs do not typically have dedicated Information Officers and lack sufficient resources to secure their information infrastructure effectively. SME owners therefore face serious challenges protecting their confidential business, customer and employee information.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) recently issued a new guide that tailors basic information on cybersecurity to the needs of SME owners. The following is a list of ten essentials activities, summarised from the NIST guide, to help SME owners in planning and managing secure information systems.

1. Protect Information, Systems, and Networks from Damage by Viruses, Spyware, and Other Malicious Code

SMEs should install antivirus and anti-spyware software on every computer used in their business operations. The antivirus and anti-spyware software, which is readily available from commercial software vendors, should be updated regularly.

2. Provide Security for Internet Connection

Business computers and networks that have broadband access to the Internet for 24 hours a day every day are exposed to continual hostile threats. SMEs should install and keep operational a hardware firewall between their internal networks and the Internet. The firewall function may be provided by a wireless access point or router installed by the small business or by a router operated by the Internet Service Provider (ISP) of the SME.

3. Install and Activate Software Firewalls on all Business Systems

A software firewall should be installed and used on every operational computer system, and should be updated regularly. Software firewalls are needed to supplement the protection provided by hardware firewalls. Some operating systems include firewalls installed as part of the system. Software firewalls are available for purchase from vendors, and sometimes can be obtained free of cost.

4. Patch all Operating Systems and Applications

The vendors of major operating systems generally provide patches and updates to their products to correct discovered security problems and to improve functionality of the software. Patches should be applied to installed business systems regularly, and installed on all new systems and software.

5. Make Backup Copies of Important Business Data and Information

Copies should be made of all data including word processing documents, electronic spreadsheets, databases, financial files, human resources files, accounts receivable and payable files, and other information used in or generated by the business. This will prevent loss of data when there are equipment failures, employee errors, or destruction of data by malicious code.

6. Control Physical Access to Business Computers and Network Components

Unauthorized persons should not be allowed to access or to use any business computers, including laptops. Computers should not be available to access by cleaning crews or by unsupervised repair personnel. Employees working at their computers should position their displays so that they cannot be seen by people walking by an office or by unknown strangers who may walk into an office.

7. Secure Wireless Access Points and Networks

SME owners who use wireless networking should set the wireless access point so that it does not broadcast its Service Set Identifier (SSID). When new devices are acquired, the administrative password that was on the device when it was purchased should be changed. Strong encryption should be used so that data being transmitted between the businesses’ computers and the wireless access point cannot be easily intercepted and read by electronic eavesdroppers.

8. Train Employees in Basic Security Principles

Employees should be trained to use the sensitive business information properly and to protect the business’ and its customer’s information. Employees should receive training on the organization’s information security policies, including the use of computers, networks and Internet connections, the limitations on personal use of telephones, printers, and other business resources, and any restrictions on processing business data at home.

9. Require Individual Accounts for Each Employee Using Business Computers and Business Applications

A separate account should be established for each individual computer user, and strong passwords should be used. Passwords should be changed at least every three months. The employees’ individual accounts should not have access to administrative accounts to avoid the installation and spread of unauthorized software or malicious code.

10. Limit Access to Data and Information by Employees, and Limit the Authority to Install Software

Access to all data and to all systems, including financial, personnel, inventory, and manufacturing, should not be provided to any one employee. Access to systems and data should be limited to the specific systems and information that employees need to do their jobs. One employee should not be allowed to both initiate and approve transactions, such as financial transactions.

Prevention is the best practice, by implementing these ten simple essentials SMEs reduce their risk of cyber attack, and and secure their enterprises in the long-term.