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How to Facilitate Secure Remote Work Arrangements
The Government of Canada, in an effort to contain and prevent further spread of the new coronavirus disease (COVID-19), has urged all Canadians to stay home and practice social distancing. In the work environment, this means that Canadian businesses are urged to facilitate “remote work arrangements”.
The World Health Organization (WHO) on March 11, 2020 assessed COVID-19 as a pandemic. As of March 21, 2020, the Government of Canada reported 1,231 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Canada, with 13 deaths. Worldwide, as of March 22, 2020, WHO reported 267,013 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 11,201 deaths in 185 countries or territories.
“During this extraordinary time, the Government of Canada is taking strong action to help Canadian businesses as COVID-19 is affecting them, their employees and their families,” the Government of Canada said. The Government has urged all Canadians to stay home unless it is absolutely essential to go out, and to practice social distancing and good hygiene. “For businesses, this means facilitating flexible and remote work arrangements,” the Government said.
What Is Remote Work Arrangement?
Remote work arrangement allows workers to work from home whenever and wherever possible. This arrangement limits the number of workers on-site, thereby contributing to the efforts to contain the COVID-19 outbreak and prevent further spread.
Remote work, also known as telework, is nothing new. While remote work has been adopted by some sectors, this hasn’t achieved wide adoption.
Based on the 2016 data from Canada’s General Social Survey (GSS), 2.3 million paid workers or 12.7% of the total workforce of Canada telework at least an hour a week. Out of the 2.3 million Canadians that telework, more than 500,000 workers work for more than 15 hours per week.
According to the 2016 GSS data, remote work in Canada is associated with occupations that are most connected to the knowledge economy, with 36% of workers in the management sector, 24.3% in the education sector and 21.7% in nature and applied science sector telework.
The sudden shift from office work to remote work arrangement as a way to contain and prevent further spread of COVID-19 has caught many employers and employees off guard.
Remote Work Challenges
In a remote work arrangement, there are 2 things that need protection: the devices (those used by the remote workers and those used by remote employers) and the communication link.
One of the challenges of remote work in light of the COVID-19 outbreak is the fact that many organizations are forced to allow their staff to use their personal desktops, laptops or mobile devices as organizations have been unprepared to issue official or organization-owned devices.
Allowing staff to use their personal computers is, in itself, a security issue. Some of the security issues arising from the use of personal computers include:
Organizations offering remote work arrangements are similarly faced with the same device security challenge. Organizations’ devices are at risk of unauthorized access from malicious insiders to malicious outsiders. Outdated computers, such as outdated server operating system, also pose a security threat not just to the organization concerned but also to remote workers allowed to remotely access the organizations’ devices.
Best Practices in Facilitating Secure Remote Work Arrangement
Here are some of the best practices in facilitating secure remote work arrangement:
1. Practice Network Segmentation
Network segmentation refers to the practice of dividing your organization’s network into sub-networks. This practice ensures that in case one sub-network is compromised, the other sub-networks won’t be affected.
For the security of your organization’s network, it’s important to prevent non-IT remote workers from accessing your organization’s network.
For IT remote workers, network segmentation is specifically important. The negligence or malicious actions, for instance, of one remote worker who has access to a certain sub-network, won’t affect the other sub-networks especially those sub-networks that are critical to the operation of your organization.
2. Use VPN
VPN, short for virtual private network, acts as a secure tunnel between two endpoints: the remote worker’s device and your organization’s server. For example, a remote worker can use this VPN to send encrypted data to your organization’s server.
It’s important to use multi-factor authentication for all VPN connections. Multi-factor authentication for all VPN connections is particularly important as login credentials (VPN usernames and passwords) are sought after by cyber criminals. VPN login credentials are often stolen via phishing campaigns – campaigns that trick remote workers to click on malicious links or attachments contained in malicious emails that masquerade as coming from legitimate sources.
Clicking on these malicious links or attachments could lead to the downloading on the remote worker’s device of a malware that steals VPN login details. The use of multi-factor authentication in all VPN connections renders the theft of login details useless.
3. Keep All Devices Up to Date
Always keep your organization’s devices up to date by using devices that receive regular security updates, and by applying security updates in a timely manner. Applying security updates on server operating systems and VPNs should be the top priority.
Vulnerabilities in server operating systems and VPNs have in the past been exploited by malicious actors as these two are seen as gateways to victims’ networks.
On behalf of all staff we wish you and your families well. During these challenging times, we are ready to help those who needs assistance with minimizing IT and cybersecurity risks.
Need a few working remotely tips? Here are a few work from home productivity tips from our management team:
1. Dress for success
Even though you are working from home, always dress as if you were going to work. We found that it helps to set a proper mood and help motivation and demeanor.
2. Find a quite spot
Kids and pets are fun, and you need to be 100% focused on the task at hand to be productive. Every minute of distraction may set you back an hour.
3. Plan your day
Plan as if you were in the office. Keep your calendar up to date and let your co-workers know when you are available and when you are not to avoid scheduling conflicts.
4. Take breaks
Coffee breaks, and lunch are a must to stay rested and sharp. Even when you are working from home, your brain and your eyes still need rest.
5. Don’t check email
Well, most of us must check email, and we recommend checking your email twice a day to get more done. After all, if you are getting back to people the same day, it’s more than acceptable. If something is truly urgent, people will call you.
6. No social media
At least during business hours. Unless browsing social media is a part of your job, keep your mind focused and get more done.
Find the right apps and tools for your particular industry and spend the time automating as many menial tasks as possible. Many tools are free to use or cost very little yet save you a lot of time. If you don’t value your own time, no one else will.
Looking for cybersecurity and IT risk advice? Contact us today to speak with a cybersecurity expert. We offer complimentary advisory services to Canadian businesses of all sizes during the COVID-19 pandemic so that you and your organization remain safe.
Risks & Dangers of Remote Access
Avast and NordVPN, on the same day last October 21st, disclosed a separate and unrelated unauthorized intrusion into their respective networks. While these network intrusions were unrelated, these intrusions were a result of a common cyber security weakness: remote access.
What Is Remote Access?
Remote access allows a user to access a computer or a network, despite the fact that the user has no physical access to said computer or private network. Remote access to a private network can be achieved through virtual private network (VPN) or a remote access feature of an operating system.
An example of a remote access feature of an operating system is the remote desktop protocol (RDP). In Windows operating systems, RDP allows network administrators to manage or troubleshoot computers over the internet.
VPN service providers, meanwhile, promise to offer secure and encrypted connections to its customers. In both VPN and RDP, access to private network is conducted from a remote location using a laptop, desktop computer or mobile device connected to the internet.
Unauthorized Remote Access on Avast Network
Last October 21st, Avast, in a statement, said that on September 23 of this year, it identified suspicious activity on its network. After further analysis, Avast said it found that its internal network was successfully accessed with compromised credentials through a temporary VPN profile that had erroneously been kept enabled and didn’t require 2-factor authentication (2FA).
Avast said that the malicious actor had been attempting to gain access to the company’s network through its VPN as early as May 14 of this year. The company said it closed the temporary VPN profile that was accessed by a malicious actor.
As a precaution, the company suspended the upcoming releases of its product CCleaner and started checking prior CCleaner releases and verified whether malicious alterations had been made. As an added precaution, the company also re-signed a clean update of the product and provided it to users through an automatic update last October 15th.
Avast admitted in September 2017 that its product CCleaner, which it acquired from Piriform on July 18, 2017, had been compromised by malicious actors, resulting in the downloads of 2.27 million of the corrupt CCleaner version by unknowing customers.
Unauthorized Remote Access on NordVPN Network
Last October 21st, virtual private network service provider NordVPN admitted that in March 2018, one of its servers, which the company rented with a third party data center in Finland, was accessed without authority.
NordVPN said that the attacker gained access to the server by exploiting an “insecure” remote management system left by the data center provider. The virtual private network service provider said it had no knowledge the data center provider was using the remote management system.
NordVPN said it immediately terminated the contract with the third party data center and destroyed all servers that the company had been renting from the data center. The virtual private network service provider said that TLS key was taken at the same time the data center was exploited.
The company said that no user credentials have been intercepted. It also said that the TLS key “couldn’t possibly have been used to decrypt the VPN traffic of any other server.” NordVPN said that “the only possible way to abuse website traffic was by performing a personalized and complicated MiTM [man-in-the-middle] attack to intercept a single connection that tried to access nordvpn.com”.
In a man-in-the-middle attack, the attacker intercepts user traffic to steal credentials and other important information. The attacker then uses this stolen information to access the actual destination network. Preventing man-in-the-middle attacks is the reason why people use VPN in the first place.
"Intercepting TLS traffic isn't as hard as they make it seem," security researcher who uses the name “hexdefined”, one of those who analyzed the data exposed in the NordVPN breach, told Ars Technica. "There are tools to do it, and I was able to set up a Web server using their TLS key with two lines of configuration. The attacker would need to be able to intercept the victim's traffic (e.g. on public Wi-Fi)."
Preventive and Mitigating Measures
While remote management systems such as RDP and VPN have a number of benefits, their inherent weakness shouldn’t be ignored, that is, these systems provide a door to your organization’s network to the public internet. These remote management systems or these doors should be closed and opened only to authorized personnel.
One of the preventive measures in protecting these remote management systems from unauthorized entry is through the use of multi-factor authentication or 2-factor authentication. As shown in the case of the Avast data breach, using a VPN account without 2-factor authentication attracts malicious actors.
It’s important to note that there are currently tools to bypass 2-factor authentication or multi-factor authentication. For instance, security researchers at DEVCORE disclosed that they were to access the internal network of Twitter by bypassing the 2-factor authentication for the VPN used by Twitter. While the use of multi-factor authentication or 2-factor authentication isn’t the cure-all in protecting your organization’s network, this security measure decreases a number of attack surfaces.
Network segmentation, the practice of splitting your organization’s network into subnetworks, is another cyber security measures to block malicious actors. This practice ensures that if one network is breached, the others won’t be affected.
It’s also ideal not to install or disable remote management systems on the servers that housed your organization’s critical data in order not to expose this data to the public domain.
Steve E. Driz, I.S.P., ITCP