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Telecommuting May Cause Security Risks for Companies

|Dec 16|magazine14 min read

 

As many people struggle to find work-life balance, the concept of telecommuting- the ability to work from home- is gaining traction. According to the latest Statistics Canada data, 1.4 million Canadians work at home at least part of the time and a 2010 study by Workopolis found that more than half of Canadians would like the option to work from home in order to avoid long commutes and increase productivity.

Laptops, PDAs and iPads have all made it much easier to work from any remote location. Camera-enabled tablet computers and programs like Skype make virtual face-to-face meetings simple.

Besides the obvious benefits for the employee, there are benefits for the employer as well. Studies have found that a business with 250 telecommuting employees could save about $3-million a year. The primary financial savings are derived from increased productivity, reduced real estate costs, reduced energy consumption and lower absenteeism and turnover.

Despite these savings, Douglas Grosfield, President and CEO of Xylotek Solutions, says telecommuting can pose significant risk to the company’s network security. This becomes an issue when an employee connects to his/her office network via a home computer. While security settings are generally standardized on all workplace computers, it can be more difficult to ensure that an employee's home machine and network are as secure. Because the employer has less control over the security of the employee’s home computer, Grosfield suggests the following:

 

  • Consider using a virtualized solution- A virtual desktop or application virtualization solution would allow all programs and files to reside in a virtual environment in a secure location, which could then be accessed from a home computer or any other computer in the office. If a laptop is lost or stolen, there would be no client data or files on the computer that could be compromised. In addition, software updates and anti-virus scans can be managed centrally to ensure all employees are well covered. Products like Citrix are considered industry leading in this space.

 

  • Create a telecommuting policy- According to Ponemon Institute’s 2010-2011 security tracking study, 91 percent of surveyed companies reported their employees downloaded applications that contained malware, viruses, etc. A telecommuting policy can help to prevent this by outlining basic steps for network security such as guidelines on what can be downloaded as well as the need for regular software updates, anti-virus scans, etc. The policy should also identify who can use the computer and should limit the use to the employee only as other individuals in the household may download and install software or malware which may unintentionally infect the system or track sensitive information such as userIDs and passwords. It can also include guidelines on what types of data should not be stored on these devices and details on how to report a lost or stolen device. Ensure policies are strictly enforced.

 

  • Ensure any home wireless networks are adequately secured to avoid making them open to intruders- This is critical in order to protect client data and financial information which can be stolen. Having a security key for the wireless network is not enough. It can be cracked depending on the level of encryption. Set the SSID (service set identifier) to not broadcast. Every wireless access point has an SSID, the public name of a wireless network. By setting it not to broadcast, it will be hidden and not come up as an option for others to click on as a wireless network.

 

  • Consider using Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) for added security- If the network connections are not properly secured, confidential corporate information can be intercepted while the data is transmitted between the home and the office network. Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) are a way to secure communications to an organization’s internal network. 

 

  • Ensure the work laptop, mobile devices and any storage media are always safely secured- Laptops and other mobile devices could be considered one of the greatest risks to a company because of the confidential information that could be lost should these devices be misplaced or stolen. It is therefore imperative that they are not left unattended, in the car or in plain sight at home as they may be stolen during a break-in.

 

  • Ensure all devices are encrypted and consider anti-theft technologies- Encryption is the process of scrambling information so it cannot be read by unauthorized individuals. According to a 2009 Ponemon study sponsored by Intel, the total economic impact of one lost laptop is $49,256. That same study found that on average, encryption can reduce the cost of a lost laptop by more than $20,000. In addition to encryption, there are anti-theft technologies that can be used to remotely wipe the data on a lost mobile device preventing thieves from accessing the information.

 

  • Request all staff to report any suspicious activity on their employer-issued computers- If an employee notices any changes to the computer and its operation, it must be reported to the company’s IT representatives. E.g.) ads suddenly popping up, a slow-down in performance, etc. This may indicate the presence of software or malware which may cause more harm than good.

While there are significant IT risks to telecommuting, they can be easily managed and should not discourage a company from considering this potentially cost-saving work arrangement which comes with many other benefits. By taking precautions and creating a strong telecommuting policy, companies can reduce the risk of a costly data breach and damaged reputation due to the loss of sensitive client information.