8 Best Practices for Working Remotely

Companies of all sizes are under attack. It is true that threat actors primarily attack large companies, but they may also target small and medium companies. Smaller companies are often more vulnerable and in a connected world, the compromise of a small company or even an individual may lead to the compromise of a larger target. Additionally, broad, untargeted attacks hit all networks, regardless of size. In this threat environment, companies use a combination of prevention, detection, and insurance solutions to mitigate the risk of breach. While good technologies and policies help, the truth is that the very employees who make the business go are a primary avenue of risk.

General policies on computer and internet use can help, and these policies can be enforced with both technical and administrative controls. When an employee is at the office, they are working behind layers of preventive security controls. While not perfect, it is harder for an employee to get in trouble at the office. However, when computers leave the perimeter and employees work remotely, new risks arise and additional policies are essential. Remote work presents a unique challenge for corporate information security because remote work environments usually don't have the same safeguards as a corporate office.

Here are some of the policy guidelines we suggest when you or your employees are outside the office:

Digital Security

1. Avoid public Wi-Fi; if necessary, use personal hotspots or some way to encrypt your web connection

Public Wi-Fi introduces significant security risk and should be avoided if possible. If you need to access the internet from a public Wi-Fi location, you have two essential problems to solve. First, other people have access to that network and, without a firewall between you and them, threat actors can pound away at your computer from across the room. Second, any interested observers on either the current network or any other public networks your data hits between you and your workplace can monitor your traffic as it goes by.It is important to find a way to protect your PC and encrypt your traffic.

One good option is to use a personal hotspot from a dedicated device or your phone. Although your web traffic will be unencrypted between the hotspot and its destination, using a hot spot does eliminate the problem of getting hacked by people on the same public Wi-Fi. With most major carriers, you can pay a nominal fee for the capability to set up a private Wi-Fi network with your cell phone. Of course, it will count against your data, but the cost is minimal relative to the potential downside of a significant hack to your company’s systems or computer. If your company provides cell service, there’s no reason not to use the hot spot to avoid public Wi-Fi especially given that, in many cities, 4G or 5G service is almost as fast as your home network access.

For many remote access applications, you should use a VPN. VPNs provide a flexible connection to connect to different services (web pages, email, a SQL server, etc.) and can protect your traffic. Keep in mind that not all VPNs are worth the money; it’s a good idea to evaluate your must-haves before you choose a VPN technology. Keep in mind that VPN services provided for privacy purposes only protect the data to and from the VPN provider, not to the destination so are not suitable for protecting remote access.

Lastly, for some use cases, you can also set up encrypted remote connections into a remote desktop or other individual server. Many of these connection types (RDP, HTTPS, SSH) include encryption as part of their service direction and do not require an additional VPN or other encryption service to secure the data in-transit.

2. Keep Work Data on Work Computers

Thinking about taking care of a few emails at home before bed? If you take precautions like using your work computer, secure Wi-Fi, a VPN, encrypted drives, antivirus, and endpoint protection, this may be totally fine. With that said, it can be tempting to use your personal computer if your work computer is in a different room or you forgot your charger at the office. This is a risk for you and for the company!There is a good chance you have not followed the same protocols with your personal computer as are mandatory at work. If you work at an organization with an efficient IT team, they may be installing regular updates, running antivirus scans, blocking malicious sites, etc., and these activities may be transparent to you. Furthermore, your company can likely afford higher end technical controls that you can personally. Without those running in the background, your personal computer is not safe for work information because it could be compromised by a third party. Essentially, by introducing a personal computer to a work network, even remotely, you’ve put the company networks at risk, and yourself at risk, accepting the potential liability of extensive corporate damages though violations of policy, practices or both.

There is one way to make using your personal computer less risky. If your employer gives you access to a portal or remote access environment such as Office 365, you could work online and avoid downloading or synching files or emails to a personal device.

3. Block the Sight Lines

If you are at a coffee shop, pay attention to your sight lines. If someone is behind you, they can see everything you are typing. Furthermore, someone with the right observational skills (like a cybercriminal) could easily watch what you are doing and identify confidential information. And keep your devices with you; in the time it takes you to use a restroom, your device could be quickly compromised by a threat actor with a USB stick that types pre-programmed sequences at 1000 words per minute. On a personal level, this is something you should do while keying in your ATM PIN as well.

4. Encrypt Sensitive Data in Emails and on Your Device

Sending emails with sensitive data is always going to be a risk. It could be intercepted or seen by a third party. If you encrypt the data attached to an email, it will prevent an unintended recipient from viewing the information. Also, be sure your device is set to have all stored data encrypted in the case of theft.

Physical Security

5. Lock Your Doors

This is Security 101: if you bring your work computer home or tend to work remotely, confidential corporate information could be at risk. When you get in the habit of always locking your doors, you have taken a key step toward improving your home office’s security. A friend once had his work computer stolen from his 3rd floor walkup when he didn’t lock the door! Don’t subject yourself to the stress of a stolen work computer or harm your company by letting its data out into the wild. In heavily regulated industries, losing specific data could result in huge fines. See #4 above regarding making sure these devices are encrypted in order to turn a disaster (data compromise) to an annoyance (loss of the device, but no compromise.) In many states, breach disclosure laws do not come into effect if the data was encrypted.

6. Never Leave Your Devices in the Car

We advise our clients and employees to never leave their work computers or devices in a vehicle. You may think putting your laptop in the trunk is a good solution when taking a heavy backpack may be inconvenient. However, criminals are experts at lurking in parking areas where valuables may be left behind, watching for their next victim. Putting valuables in the trunk may make it easier, since they watch you do it, and don’t have to search. It’s a best practice to keep work laptops and devices on your person at all times while on the road.

7. Don’t Use Random Thumb Drives

A classic hacking technique is to drop a number of large capacity thumb drives near the company you are hoping to attack. The chances that an unwitting employee will pick up the thumb drive and use it are surprisingly high. Anecdotally, one of our employees ran a test on this at a previous job and a shocking percentage of people actually opened the files on the drive. If you are a hacker, BINGO! Never use a thumb drive if you don’t know where it came from and do not continue to use one if you have plugged it into a system for whose safety you cannot honestly vouch.

8. Use a USB Data Blocker when Charging Up at a Public Phone Charging Station

If you need to charge your phone and the only option is an unknown USB port, a wise measure is to protect it with a USB data blocker to prevent data exchange and guard against malware. This type of USB protection allows the device to connect to power without exposing the data pins inside your device; it connects the power leads, but not the data ones.

These tips should help employees act safely with corporate devices and information. For CISOs and IT managers, these tips can be easily incorporated in official corporate policies. We recommend recurring security awareness training for staff and especially when companies update their security policies.

Alex Laws

Alex Laws

Analyst