Experts: Small firms can take steps to improve cybersecurity

Small businesses can protect themselves against cyber threats, security experts say.

Wading into e-commerce waters can be scary for small businesses because of cybersecurity threats, but they can take steps to protect themselves, a group of security experts said Monday.

Small businesses using the Internet should develop cybersecurity and disaster recovery plans, train employees regularly on security threats, and regularly change computer passwords, said the experts gathered at a U.S. Federal Communications Commission forum on small-business cybersecurity.

Small businesses need to train employees on "proper hygiene" while using computers, said Michael Chertoff, chairman of consulting firm the Chertoff Group and former secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Business owners should regularly remind workers not to connect USB thumb drives of unknown origin, not to use weak passwords and not to leave their passwords where others can see them, he said.

Some criminals have purposefully dropped infected USB sticks in the parking lots of organizations they want to target, hoping employees will pick them up and connect them to their network, he said. "You don't pick up and eat everything that you find on the street," Chertoff said. "You shouldn't pick up every USB stick and stick it into your laptop."

Small businesses should also back up their data and make employees aware of the latest methods cybercriminals are using, he added.

It's easy to fall victim to online attacks, added Maurice Jones, CEO and CFO of Parkinson Construction, a Washington, D.C., firm that lost about US$18,000 in a November 2009 phishing scam. Now, the company encourages employees to raise questions about suspicious e-mail messages and other issues, he said.

A cyber-attack recovery plan is also important, said Cheri McGuire, vice president of global government affairs and cybersecurity policy at Symantec. In a Symantec study released in January, half of all small and medium-sized businesses didn't have disaster recovery plans and 41 didn't know they should have a recovery plan.

Forty percent of the survey respondents said data protection was not a priority for them, McGuire added. "That's kind of a shocking statistic when you think about it," she said. "Data ... is what your business runs on."

Computer downtime costs small and medium-size businesses an average of $12,500 a day, the Symantec study said.

Without a plan in place, small businesses will see increased costs and more distractions because of cyber-attacks, said Julius Genachowski, the FCC's chairman. "Having a cybersecurity plan is a competitive advantage, and not having one is a competitive disadvantage," he said.

The FCC on Monday released a list of 10 cybersecurity tips for small businesses. Among the tips: Regularly download and install software patches, use a firewall and limit employee access to data.

Many times small businesses don't see themselves as targets for cybercrime when they are, Chertoff said. "This really touches everybody," he said.

Still, no one expects small businesses to have perfect cybersecurity, he added. "It's important to recognize that what we're talking about here is managing cyber-risk, not eliminating cyber-risk," he said. "There will never be a program that eliminates all possibilities of a cyberthreat."

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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