How Small Business Owners Can Guard Against Online Security Threats

The question: As a small-business owner, how can I protect my business from looming online security threats?
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The entrepreneurial adventure often starts with a single employee running a home-based operation, with no IT staff and little time to stay aware of Internet security threats. But those threats are not going to wait around for a new business to find its footing before striking. Especially these days, as more small businesses realize the productivity benefits of mobile technology and the promotional power of social media, they are treading on very active breeding grounds for viruses and worms. (Ewww.)

That means entrepreneurs need to at least take some baseline, practical steps to securing any IT devices. "For the smallest entrepreneurial businesses, the biggest thing they can do is install anti-virus and malware software on all their computers and servers," says Jeff Horne, director of threat research at Broomfield, Colo.-based Internet security software company Webroot. "You would be amazed how many businesspeople put the anti-virus software on their workstations but not on their servers, where file-sharing viruses still have an impact."

Mobile viruses, meanwhile, tend to steal personal information, Horne says, so change passwords frequently and lock your phone (and store those, uh, compromising photos elsewhere).

Then there's the social media beast. "If you think about the nature of social media sites, a friend or colleague or someone you trust is sending you a link, and it's easy to be tricked," Horne says. "In a way, it's like the e-mail security threats we have been dealing with for years; the practical advice still applies."

While a small, self-run business may not have the concerns larger ones have about employees downloading corrupted apps or files, there are other threat factors to consider--like kids and Wi-Fi-mooching neighbors.

"If you're a home-based business and you have kids or roaming machines in that environment, they are a frequent target, so it's pretty important to isolate your business computer on the network," Horne says, noting that basic firewall software helps, but as data usage increases beyond 150MB per month, pairing anti-virus software with an edge firewall is more imperative.

With business success comes new hiring, and maybe a move into corporate digs. The job of managing network security also grows: Ensure that updated anti-virus software and security patches are downloaded to all your employees' machines, and that firewalls and access rights are configured properly.

"You need a lot of IT people to keep tabs on those things, so if you don't have them, doing all of that through the cloud really frees up resources and makes it easier," Horne says. "The core concept behind cloud-based security is that decisions are made on a remote server. Daily automated updates handle all these tasks in hours rather than days."

As online security threats extend into a new era, follow some practical advice: Proceed with caution, and always use protection.

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Edition: July 2017

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