Gina Sanders -

Small business not necessarily weakest security link

Small businesses may not be the weakest link in the supply chain after all, with a lack of skills and best practices being bigger factors, a study by (ISC)² reveals

Half of large enterprises view third-party partners of any size as a cyber security risk, according to the latest Securing the partner ecosystem study by security professionals’ association (ISC)2.

However, only 14% have experienced a breach as the result of a small business partner, while 17% have been breached as the result of working with a larger partner, the poll of more than 700 security professionals across North America reveals.

These findings contradict the widely held belief that small businesses serve as the easiest conduit for cyber attacks against large enterprises, with 94% of respondents saying they are “confident” or “very confident” in their small business partners’ cyber security practices, while 95% said they have a standard process for vetting their suppliers’ cyber security capabilities. 

“This research highlights the fact that building a strong cyber security culture and subscribing to the right best practices can help organisations of any size maximise their security effectiveness,” said Wesley Simpson, (ISC)2 chief operating officer.

“It’s a good reminder that in any partner ecosystem, the responsibility for protecting systems and data needs to be a collaborative effort, and multiple fail safes should be deployed to maintain a vigilant and secure environment. The blame game is a poor deterrent to cyber attacks.”

Nearly two-thirds (64%) of large enterprises outsource at least a quarter (26%) of their daily business tasks, which requires them to allow third-party access to their data. These outsourced functions can include anything from research and development, to IT services and accounts payable.

This data access and sharing is necessary as a large enterprise scales its operations, but the research indicates that access management and vulnerability mitigation is often overlooked.

More than a third (34%) of large enterprise respondents said they have been surprised by the broad level of access a third-party provider has been granted to their network and data, while a similar proportion (39%) of small business respondents expressed the same surprise about the access they were granted when providing services to large enterprise partners.

The study also shows that 35% of large enterprise respondents admitted that when alerted by a third party to insecure data access policies, nothing changes in the large enterprise’s practices, while 55% of small business respondents reported that they still had access to a client’s network or data after completing a project or contract.

More than half (54%) of small business respondents have been surprised by some of their large enterprise clients’ inadequate security practices, and 53% have provided notification of security vulnerabilities they have discovered in large enterprise networks.

The report found that while small businesses have fewer employees overall, the proportion of their cyber security staff is not necessarily lower than in large enterprises. Nearly half (42%) of small businesses, with 250 or fewer workers, employ at least five dedicated cyber security staff.

By comparison, 75% of large enterprises, with more than 1,000 employees, have at least 10 staff members focused on cyber security. This means that some small businesses have a higher percentage of security professionals working to implement best practices and defend data and networks. 

The study found that, while they may have differing toolsets, small businesses and large enterprises approach data protection similarly by focusing on many of the same cyber security best practices.

Both sets of respondents indicated that they employ the same top three best practices to protect their networks and data:

  1. Regular automatic scans with antivirus and anti-malware programs.
  2. Blocking access to known malicious IP addresses through firewall configuration.
  3. Strong email filters to prevent phishing.

The report concludes that enterprises are just as likely to be breached through a relationship with a larger third-party supplier, and that enterprises need to improve their security practices in some critical areas, specifically in relation to addressing security issues discovered by partners and removing access to systems when partners no longer need it

“Breach prevention responsibility rests with all parties in a partnership, and enterprises should have the proper layered security controls in place to defend themselves from all angles of attack,” the report said.

Creating a strong culture focused on cyber security is a core element in raising the bar of cyber competence and readiness, no matter the size of the organisation, the report notes.

The report cited a 2018 study by (ISC)2 which found that companies that recruit and maintain strong cyber security teams – and are by extension more confident in being able to defend their information systems – do it by fostering a resilient culture of cyber security, in which executives understand and reinforce the importance of security practices, hire certified security professionals, train and promote from within, and draft clear job descriptions when hiring.

“Size isn’t the best indicator of a company’s cyber security abilities or likelihood of being breached. It’s everyone’s joint responsibility to do their due diligence in working with partners when shared access to networks is concerned,” the report said.

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