Network Security on a Shoestring Budget

By Beth Cohen | Posted June 04, 2003
There's never enough time, money or resources to fix all your computer security problems, but that doesn't mean you should just give up and open your company to the world. Fortunately, there are things you can do that will prevent 90 percent of your security problems without costing you loads of money or resources. Let's first discuss the major threats to watch for and then move on to covering several things you must do to minimize your risk of attack.

Contrary to what you read in the trade press, the biggest threat to your computer security is not an evil empire of hackers ready to swoop down and steal all your corporate secrets; rather, it's your users. They are, after all, the ones who continue to insist on insanely easy passwords. No, your girlfriend's name is not a good password. They're also the ones that send virus-laden email attachments and can't figure out why everyone in the office is mad at them.

When planning a security strategy on a shoestring budget, at the very least you need to concentrate your efforts on educating your users as well as addressing the most well-known vulnerabilities. The major routes of attack include:

  • Sloppy internal computer security: Over 60 perccent of the average company's security incidents are internal. How many of your machines have the default or no screensaver password at all? I worked for an engineering company here in Boston. When I left, they carefully turned off my accounts. That was good policy, but since every person in the company has the identical easy password on their Internet-facing email server, how much security do they seriously have?
  • External hackers: Yes, they are out there, and there are more of them every day, but the majority are kids who are just playing. There are some very serious hackers who are out for money, corporate espionage, or malicious destruction, but on a small budget you will not be able to stop a determined cracker. If you are targeted by a professional hacker, you will have much bigger problems to worry about. Still, at the very least, don't make it easy for them.
  • Social engineering: The easiest way to break into a company computer network is not technical at all. More people share account information, leave company confidential information open on their desks, or share with strangers on the phone confidential computer information because the strangers say they are from "the helpdesk." Employee ignorance is the biggest security hole of them all.

If that doesn't get you thinking that you need some security policies and procedures, here are a few statistics from the FBI's "2002 Computer Crimes and Security Survey." Ninety percent of the respondents reported computer security breaches in the past 12 months. Eighty-five percent detected computer viruses, while 80 percent were willing to admit to direct financial loses. The most severe losses were theft of proprietary information and financial fraud. Seventy-four percent reported their Internet connection had been a source attack, while 38 percent reported that there had been attacks on their corporate website.

Seven Highly Effective Security Habits
Is there anything you can do in the face of these frightening statistics?

Fortunately, yes. If you avert one security break by implementing a good firewall and virus protection, the productivity savings will more than pay for the cost of the system. That is money that you can bank! Here's a handy list of things that you can do to prevent the vast majority of attacks. Most of these items don't cost a dime except for the time involved.

  • Create a solid and understandable company security policy, and enforce it. Work with your legal advisor to ensure that it is by-the-books and fits with your business culture. Don't make it too onerous to administer.
  • Educate your users on the security basics. Teach your users about strong passwords and not leaving their machines open when they are away from their desks. The Internet is not secure and neither is e-mail, so don't send company confidential materials out over the Internet without taking precautions. Some major companies make computer security rules part of their standard HR policies that each employee is required to sign. They fire anyone who violates it more than twice. While it might seem draconian to small business operators, it is one method to encure a very high compliance rate.
  • Install a good virus protection system on all computers on your network and maintain it. Modern anti-virus software is available by subscription and has built-in auto update features, so administration headaches are minimized. Install it as part of the standard company employee system with all the automated features already on. Insist that all employee-owned machines have current virus protection before they can be connected to your network.
  • Install a firewall and check the logs periodically. You have a choice of using a managed service or purchasing a firewall appliance. The appliance is cheaper, but make sure to sign up for the subscription update service or be diligent in maintaining the system.
  • Remove all unessential services and applications on your servers. After e-mail, this is probably the biggest security vulnerability. This minimizes the likelihood that, if a new security hole is discovered, a cracker would be able to exploit it because you forgot you were running that service.
  • Keep all your servers updated with all the latest security patches. Minimizing the machine's applications also makes it easier to maintain, since you can focus on ensuring current patches on just the services that you do provide and not need to keep current on all security holes.
  • Never keep any of the manufacturer's default settings. This item trips up more systems managers than care to admit. Immediately change all the default settings on your systems as you install them. The crackers know all the holes better than you do.

Conclusion
In the new hyper-security conscious world, does spending lots of money on computer security make sense? If you have the budget and are in an industry where it is critical, then the answer is an absolute yes. But if you are like the rest of us, squeezed for time, resources, and funds, then you can apply the principles of "good enough" computer security. It might not prevent a massive attack if you are targeted, but it will prevent 90 percent of your problems. In today's environment, what more can you ask for?

Adapted from CrossNodes, part of the EarthWeb.com Network.

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