Protecting a Distributed Workforce from Cybersecurity Threats

Allowing remote work improves engagement and retention, but it also increases your attack surface. Here’s how to protect your distributed workforce.
October 20, 2022

Over the past two years, the number of organizations that have adopted hybrid and remote-first work environments has surged, with nearly 60% of professionals in the United States reporting the ability to work remotely at least one day a week.

And while Gallup data shows that allowing your employees to work from their preferred location supports higher engagement and better retention, it also increases your attack surface. Protecting a distributed workforce from cybersecurity threats can certainly be more difficult than protecting on-site employees. However, there are plenty of steps your organization can take to reduce vulnerabilities.

Here are six ways you can minimize opportunities for remote employees to fall victim to a cyberattack.

Establish and Enforce Workplace Technology Policies

For many companies across the world, managing a distributed workforce only became a reality within the past two years. Even for those organizations that had previously offered employees the ability to work remotely occasionally, it’s unlikely they had ever been in a situation where nearly every (if not every) member of the workforce was no longer in the same location.

This is why a formal, comprehensive remote work policy is an essential aspect of effective cybersecurity. A remote work policy ensures employees clearly understand their level of accountability and what the organization expects of them when working away from the office. It outlines their responsibilities and helps ensure they know the steps to take to restrict unauthorized access to sensitive information.

In addition to a remote work policy, every enterprise with a distributed workforce needs an acceptable use policy (AUP). An AUP explicitly states the rules and guidelines employees must follow with regard to employer-provided technology as well as personal devices used for work purposes. A remote work policy and an AUP can significantly reduce your risk of cybersecurity incidents by minimizing opportunities for employees to compromise your company’s security.

Always Use Multi-Factor Authentication

Account takeovers are, unfortunately, relatively easy to execute. And once an account has been compromised, it can lead to more costly attacks such as data breaches and payment fraud. Additionally, considering employees reuse one password an average of 13 times, acquiring one set of login credentials can often mean gaining access to a dozen different accounts.

Preventing account takeovers requires creating as many obstacles as possible between the threat actor and unauthorized access to an account. In other words, a single password should never be the only level of security. To reduce the risk of account takeover, your organization must not only enable multi-factor authentication (MFA) but also ensure your MFA process requires users to verify their identity using different authentication factors.

What this means is that instead of just providing a code received via email after entering their password (which is just two knowledge factors), you should require employees to use an authenticator app like Google Authenticator or Duo alongside their password. The latter process requires a knowledge factor and a possession factor, making it more difficult for threat actors to compromise the account.

Adopt Zero Trust Security

Zero trust is a cybersecurity framework in which every person, device, or digital interaction is immediately regarded as a potential threat until proven otherwise. Whereas traditional security frameworks often rely on the assumption that every user and device that has already been granted access to a network is trustworthy, zero trust is based on the principle that nothing should ever be automatically trusted.

Zero trust focuses on protecting a network from internal threats, such as business email compromise and account takeovers. With a zero trust strategy, every user is granted the lowest possible access required to do their job, and the organization constantly monitors the network for anomalous or malicious activity that may indicate a potential threat.

If a threat actor targets an employee at an organization that uses a traditional security framework and successfully compromises an account that’s connected to other applications, they will have essentially unrestricted access to those other applications. However, in an enterprise that has adopted zero trust security, unusual behavior or the use of an unrecognized device can trigger an alert of a possible cyberattack.

Utilize a Mobile Device Management Solution

With an onsite workforce, all employees are connected to one network, granting the IT team near-universal visibility into how devices are being used. Additionally, IT specialists can easily monitor for suspicious activity and install updates and security patches on every device at once.

With a distributed workforce, on the other hand, every employee is connecting to a different network from locations all over the world, often using public networks like those at a coffee shop.

If a network isn’t configured properly, any device that connects to that network is vulnerable to compromise. Additionally, placing the onus on employees to keep their operating system and software up to date is risky, as most employees will click “Install Update Later” indefinitely.

Instead, use a mobile device management (MDM) solution. An MDM solution allows your IT team to track every employee device on which it’s installed to monitor activity, configure network and security settings, automatically deploy updates, and install patches. MDM solutions can also scan employee computers for vulnerabilities and remediate the issue immediately.

Provide Ongoing Security Awareness Training

Whether the incident began with a socially-engineered attack or was simply the result of employee negligence, the Verizon 2022 Data Breach Investigations Report revealed that human error was a key factor in more than 80% of data breaches last year. Recognizing that your employees are the weakest link in your cybersecurity chain is the first step toward safeguarding your distributed workforce against attacks.

Remote employees in particular have an increased risk of falling victim to social engineering. Because remote work is built upon flexible hours and asynchronous communication, an employee may not be able to quickly consult a colleague about a suspicious email and get an immediate response. And if the attacker is creating a sense of urgency (which they often do), an employee may feel they have no choice but to respond before they have an opportunity to confirm a request is valid.

This is why ongoing security awareness training is essential.

You should require employees to complete courses that offer in-depth reviews of the most common types of cyberattacks (e.g., credential phishing, malware, business email compromise, etc.) and also discuss the unique threats the organization is most likely to face. You should also conduct phishing tests, in which employees receive realistic but fake phishing emails—helping them learn how to recognize real attacks.

Block Email-Based Attacks Before Employees Can Engage

Email has firmly established its place as the preferred channel for asynchronous communication. And since 2020, our collective dependence on email has only grown stronger, which means its popularity as an attack vector has also increased.

One of the biggest challenges with email-based attacks is that your employees have to be correct every time whereas threat actors only have to be successful once. Any time an employee has to assess whether a malicious email is genuine or not is an opportunity for them to make a mistake and for a threat actor to capitalize.

Educating employees about potential threats will certainly help reduce the risk of them engaging with a malicious email. But it’s even better to keep the number of email-based attacks they receive in the first place to a minimum.

An email security solution that can detect not only external threats but also internal threats such as a compromised account and automatically block these attacks is vital for a distributed workforce. Socially-engineered attacks will only get more sophisticated, which means enterprises must take advantage of innovative technology to stay one step ahead of threat actors.

Keeping Your Distributed Workforce Safe

Your employees are your greatest asset. They also pose the greatest risk to your organization’s security. And when your workforce is spread across not just multiple locations but multiple time zones, minimizing exposure becomes exceptionally more challenging.

Implementing the six strategies above can significantly reduce the chance of a remote employee falling victim to an advanced attack. To minimize your organization’s risk even more, adopt an email security solution that uses behavioral AI to detect and remediate attacks before they ever reach an employee’s inbox.

Learn how Abnormal can protect every member of your organization from the full spectrum of email attacks. Request a demo today.

Protecting a Distributed Workforce from Cybersecurity Threats

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