The shift to a digital, mobile and virtual world means that businesses and their intellectual property, regardless how big or small, are increasingly at risk from cyber threats. For example, in a recent survey, conducted by Penn, Scheon and Berland Associates, 49 percent of small and medium business respondents said the security of their company’s computer system has been threatened in the past year. And according to technology research firm Gartner Group, $2.4 billion was lost by U.S. banks in the past year as a result of theft from unauthorized access to checking accounts. Another $1.2 billion was lost by U.S. banks and credit-card issuers as a result of e-mail phishing attacks in 2003.

Fueled by global fears, increased regulation, SPAM, phishing and virus outbreaks, it is, now more than ever, crucial for businesses to focus on ways to secure their business from both internal and external security threats.

Other major motivations to deploy IT security solutions are regulatory compliance, SPAM prevention and a desire to reduce the risks associated with business operations that are becoming increasingly Web-based.

While many business owners now understand the need for increased IT security measures, it may be confusing trying to determine where to begin. This series of columns will address critical areas in which organizations can beef up their security playbooks.

The most crucial component of securing your business is to develop a security program that educates you and any employees on the vulnerabilities of technology, and puts in place processes to help avoid risk. No matter how much secure technology you have in place, you can’t be safe without support from your technology users. A robust security governance policy, including basic IT security training for all new employees and strict user access policies, is also key.

Your governance policy should cover the basics such as “thou shall not post your password next to your monitor, open suspicious looking e-mail or give anyone your password, or thou shall be fired,” to ongoing education about the latest external threats, such as social engineering. Similar to phishing, social engineering involves a malicious insider with access to company information that tricks other users into providing access to restricted information.

Social engineering threats

Good social engineers have very accurate information and can present a user with situations that seem completely legitimate. For example, you receive an internal call from someone who provides a name you can confirm in the company directory as part of the IT group. This person then proceeds to explain that you are being moved to a new e-mail server and apologizes for the slowness today, but that they can expedite your move if you provide your network password. Or you receive an e-mail from your boss that tells you to give someone else access to sensitive documents. Studies have shown that the majority of people would immediately supply their credentials.

It is also wise to set specific access rights to help prevent employees from inadvertently giving outsiders access to sensitive information, and to potentially protect from malicious insiders. Users should not be able to access each others’ files unless they are given explicit permission to do so. Many companies may only have a single piece of expensive equipment such as a workstation, or a small pool of notebooks for occasional travelers which employees share. In this type of situation, an additional precaution to take is to create separate user accounts for any systems used by more than one person.