13 key steps to cyber security for non-technical Board members

Cyber attacks can be complicated, but in our experience over many years, most are REALLY SIMPLE and EXPLOIT BASIC WEAKNESSES.

In the vast majority of cases, simple steps can make you safe, or minimise disruption in the event of an attack. But, normally, these decisions are taken by technicians and the Board are not able to effectively challenge or lead.

Here is a simple list of 13 questions and answers to allow non-technical Board members to stop hoping for good luck!

  1. How do we get security risks and issues under control?
    Every substantial business should maintain a list of risks and issues, with some analysis of the options and mitigations. Each risk or issue should be owned by someone around the Board table who has the expertise, time and ability to manage it. This document should be reviewed by the Board at least annually. The list and the open discussion drives sensible, productive decision-making and avoids a culture of sweeping issues under the carpet. This approach prevents overspending in the wrong areas – it’s all about “proportionate response”.
  2. What kind of insurance do we need?
    Unfortunately, not all Cyber Insurance is created equal and you need to take care to select an appropriate policy and provider. Check the exclusions on the policy and ensure a member of your Board understands the cover. Cyber Insurance may not give you back money that’s stolen from you – that generally requires Criminal Insurance. Check your IT is compliant with your policy conditions – the devil is always in the detail and your IT team or supplier need to know what they have to do to maintain compliance? Finally are your suppliers’ contracts clear about their liability and are they appropriately insured?
  3. How do I get staff to take security seriously?
    Security systems can be bypassed by canny criminals because they know where the weak link is … it’s your people. Create a “security culture”, where taking this stuff seriously is encouraged. Ensure you and the Board demonstrate good practice – for example, if you write your passwords on post-its then you should fully expect your staff to do the same… and one day you will probably be hacked as a result. Many hackers exploit helpful staff who simply hand over money! Sound financial processes, clear controls, good education and ongoing training are all vital to security. Remind people to “think before you click”!
  4. How do we keep data secure?
    Access to systems and data should only be given to those who need it. This is known as a least-privilege policy. For example, when a person is given access to a system, the default should ensure that person has no rights to anything. Then privileges should be granted according to what that person needs to do in the system, building up to only include the data and processes they require. If you don’t follow a least-privilege system, then you are really exposed to cyberattack, to fraud and to errors. When users’ roles change their access should be reduced if their job doesn’t require it anymore (and their access removed altogether when they leave!)
  5. What are firewalls?
    Start by ensuring your office has sensible physical security. Then make sure the equivalent measures are in place for your systems – these are your firewalls. Knowledgeable and trusted experts who understand the complexities of system and firewall management need to configure this equipment and to keep it up to date. Specifically ask them whether they have minimised points of access (ports) and are using secure ports for email and web access rather than standard ports.
  6. Why is it important to keep security up to date?
    This should be so simple, but most hacks exploit the fact that many companies fall behind. All computers should use up to date operating systems which are properly patched; utilise up to date anti-virus and anti-malware systems. However these systems only work well when they know what they’re up against. Newer protection systems coming on the market look for programmes acting suspiciously and will automatically shut down the programme before it has had time to cause mayhem. These systems provide protection against new attacks (often called “Zero Day”) because they spot the bad behaviour of an application rather than recognise the malware itself.
  7. What is data encryption?
    To protect your data, it should be encrypted and only accessible to those with the approved rights to look at it. Where you have customer data, particularly user accounts and passwords, ask your IT team whether the data is “hashed and salted” which will make it very secure and difficult to break even if your systems are breached. It is unforgiveable nowadays to be holding personal or confidential data unencrypted (known as “clear or plain text”).
  8. How should we backup our data?
    Your data and systems should also be well backed up and the backup must be stored off-site, preferably with no connection to your live systems (known as an “airgap”). Ensure the backups include multiple versions of the same document in case corruption or malicious encryption took place at some point in the past. Having a decent data backup can be the difference between having a business post-disaster and not.
  9. What is a penetration test?
    A penetration test is an assessment by an expert company of your website and network to find weaknesses. This is essential if your website includes custom software or any kind of ecommerce services. Poor technical practices can result in custom software being full of holes and these are well documented in a standard list known as the OWASP top 10. This list are the standard vulnerabilities that almost all hackers focus on – ensure your penetration test includes checks against the OWASP top 10. Simple!
  10. Practical but secure password rules.
    Many hackers don’t have to be clever because users make it easy by choosing “password123” – hackers automate attacks testing thousands of obvious passwords until they get lucky! Users must take passwords seriously, choose long passwords that are hard to guess, use different passwords, and don’t share. Software can be used to store passwords securely, but if people must write down details then these must be locked away. Make sure your systems are configured to enforce good password discipline and lock out users after repeated failure attempts. Sensitive systems should be protected by 2 pieces of information, not just a password (this is called “2 factor” or “multi-factor” authentication).
  11. Sensible Cyber Attack crisis plans.
    Establish how you will handle a crisis in advance. Who’s in charge if you are attacked by ransomware and decisions need to be taken on the spot. GDPR makes specific requirements about notifying the ICO if you suffer a security breach – who is responsible for making this happen; failure to do so will result in a fine.
  12. Why does security certification matter?
    Certification will give a focus and purpose to your efforts to improve security. A good place to start is Cyber Essentials Plus certification. This will provide you with a government standard accreditation that directly demonstrates to you, your company and your customers that you take security seriously and that you’re working to ensure their data is held securely and your systems are well managed. We know of clients that have won new customers simply because they stood out from the competition by having Cyber Essentials Plus accreditation. If your business is complex or has specific security requirements then ISO27001 provides you with a means to go further and embed a “security culture”.
  13. Who should be in charge of Cyber Security?
    Someone around the Board table who has the time, expertise and right commercial attitude! This person needs to start by getting clear on what you’ve got – who are the users, 3rd parties and suppliers who access your systems. List your equipment, networks, software etc. What are the crown jewels that really matter and ensure these are these properly protected. If you want a high-class CIO, CTO or IT Director on your side and sitting around your Board table … then that’s where we come in!

You can download and read our full CEO’s Briefing about Cyber, Legal, Compliance here.

Freeman Clarke is the UK’s largest and most experienced team of part-time (we call it “fractional”) IT leaders. We work exclusively with ambitious organisations and we frequently help our clients use IT to beat their competition. Contact Us and we’ll be in touch for an informal conversation.