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When the skies clear:
Web-hosting
outage hits Amazon data centers

03.01.17

During my lunch in sunny Florida while traveling for business, enjoying a nice reprieve from another cold Maine winter, I checked my social media account. I noticed several postings about people having nothing to do at work because their company’s systems were down, the result of a major outage at one of three Amazon Web Services (AWS)’ Data Centers and web hosting operations. Company sites were down directly or indirectly through a software as a service (SaaS) provider hosted at the AWS data center.

The crash lasted for four hours and affected hundreds of thousands sites, including Airbnb, Expedia, Netflix, Quora, Slack, and others. The impact of such crashes can be devastating to organizations that rely on their website for revenue, such as online retailers and users of SaaS providers that may rely on a hosted system to conduct day-to-day business.

We advise our clients who consider hosting services in the cloud to weigh the option seriously and understand potential challenges in doing so. Here are some steps you can take to prevent future outages and loss of valuable uptime:

  1. Know the risks and weigh them against the benefits.  Ask questions about the system you are thinking of having hosted. Is the system critical to business? Without the system, do you lose revenue and productivity? Is the company providing the SaaS service hosting their own systems, or are they hosted at a data center like AWS? Does the SaaS provider have failover sites at other, separate data centers that are geographically distant from another?
  2. Have a backup plan. If your business conducts e-commerce or needs SaaS service to function, consider hosting your web servers and other data at two different providers. Though costly, the downtime impact is highly reduced.
  3. Consider hosting yourself. In some cases, we advise against relying on a third-party hosted data center. We do this when the criticality of the function is so high that having your own full-time dedicated support personnel, with multiple internet service providers available, allows you to address outages in-house and reduce the risk of outages.
  4. Have a service level agreement. Having a service level agreement with the hosted third party establishes expectations for uptime and downtime. In many instances where uptime is critical, you may consider incorporating liquidated damage clauses (fines and penalties) for downtime. Often when revenue is involved, the hosted party will take deeper measures to ensure uptime.

These types of outages are rare, but significant and while most organizations should not be scrambling to host their own systems and cancel all hosted agreements, it’s a good idea to take a hard look at your cyber security and IT risk management plan. Then, like me, when the clouds clear and you are in warm and sunny Florida, you can take a long lunch and enjoy the day.

A version of this article was previously published on the Massachusetts Nonprofit Network

Editor’s note: while this blog is not technical in nature, you should read it if you are involved in IT security, auditing, and management of organizations that may participate in strategic planning and business activities where considerations of compliance and controls is required.

As we find ourselves in a fast-moving, strong business growth environment, there is no better time to consider the controls needed to enhance your IT security as you implement new, high-demand technology and software to allow your organization to thrive and grow. Here, five risks you need to take care of if you want to build or maintain strong IT security.

1. Third-party risk management―It’s still your fault

We rely daily on our business partners and vendors to make the work we do happen. With a focus on IT, third-party vendors are a potential weak link in the information security chain and may expose your organization to risk. However, though a data breach may be the fault of a third-party, you are still responsible for it. Potential data breaches and exposure of customer information may occur, leaving you to explain to customers and clients answers and explanations you may not have. 

Though software as a service (SaaS) providers, along with other IT third-party services, have been around for well over a decade now, we still neglect our businesses by not considering and addressing third-party risk. These third-party providers likely store, maintain, and access company data, which could potentially contain personally identifiable information (names, social security numbers, dates of birth, addresses), financial information (credit cards or banking information), and healthcare information of your customers. 

While many of the third-party providers have comprehensive security programs in place to protect that sensitive information, a study in 2017 found that 30% of data breaches were caused by employee error or while under the control of third-party vendors.1  This study reemphasizes that when data leaves your control, it is at risk of exposure. 

In many cases, procurement and contracting policies likely have language in contracts that already establish requirements for third-parties related to IT security; however the enforcement of such requirements and awareness of what is written in the contract is not enforced or is collected, put in a file, and not reviewed. What can you do about it?

Improved vendor management

It is paramount that all organizations (no matter their size) have a comprehensive vendor management program that goes beyond contracting requirements in place to defend themselves against third-party risk which includes:

  1. An inventory of all third-parties used and their criticality and risk ranking. Criticality should be assigned using a “critical, high, medium or low” scoring matrix. 
  2. At time of onboarding or RFP, develop a standardized approach for evaluating if potential vendors have sufficient IT security controls in place. This may be done through an IT questionnaire, review of a Systems and Organization Controls (SOC report) or other audit/certifications, and/or policy review. Additional research may be conducted that focuses on management and the company’s financial stability. 
  3. As a result of the steps in #2, develop a vendor risk assessment using a high, medium and low scoring approach. Higher risk vendors should have specific concerns addressed in contracts and are subject to more in depth annual due diligence procedures. 
  4. Reporting to senior management and/or the board annually on the vendors used by the organization, the services they perform, their risk, and ways the organization monitors the vendors. 

2. Regulation and privacy laws―They are coming 

2018 saw the implementation of the European Union’s General Data Privacy Regulation (GDPR) which was the first major data privacy law pushed onto any organization that possesses, handles, or has access to any citizen of EU’s personal information. Enforcement has started and the Information Commissioner’s Office has begun fining some of the world’s most famous companies, including substantial fines to Marriott International and British Airways of $125 million and $183 million Euros, respectively.2  Gone are the days where regulations lacked the teeth to force companies into compliance. 

With thanks to other major data breaches where hundreds of millions’ consumers private information was lost or obtained (e.g., Experian), more regulation is coming. Although there is little expectation of an American federal requirement for data protection, individual states and other regulating organizations are introducing requirements. Each new regulation seeks to protect consumer privacy but the specifics and enforcement of each differ. 

Expected to be most impactful in 2019 is the California Consumer Privacy Act,  which applies to organizations that handle, collect, or process consumer information and do business in the state of California (you do not have to be located in CA to be under the umbrella of enforcement).

In 2018, Maine passed the toughest law on telecommunications providers for selling consumer information. Massachusetts’ long standing privacy and data breach laws were amended with stronger requirements in January of 2019. Additional privacy and breach laws are in discussion or on the table for many states including Colorado, Delaware, Ohio, Oregon, Ohio, Vermont, and Washington, amongst others.      

Preparation and awareness are key

All organizations, no matter your line of business must be aware of and understand current laws and proposed legislation. New laws are expected to not only address the protection of customer data, but also employee information. All organizations should monitor proposed legislation and be aware of the potential enforceable requirements. The good news is that there are a lot of resources out there and, in most cases, legislative requirements allow for grace periods to allow organizations to develop a complete understanding of proposed laws and implement needed controls. 

3. Data management―Time to cut through the clutter 

We all work with people who have thousands of emails in their inbox (in some cases, dating back several years). Those users’ biggest fears may start to come to fruition―that their “organizational” approach of not deleting anything may come to an end with a simple email and data retention policy put in place by their employer. 

The amount of data we generate in a day is massive. Forbes estimates that we generate 2.5 quintillion bytes of data each day and that 90% of all the world’s data was generated in the last two years alone.3 While data is a gold mine for analytics and market research, it is also an increasing liability and security risk. 

Inc. Magazine says that 73% of the data we have available to us is not used.4 Within that data could be personally identifiable information (such as social security numbers, names, addresses, etc.); financial information (bank accounts, credit cards etc.); and/or confidential business data. That data is valuable to hackers and corporate spies and in many cases data’s existence and location is unknown by the organizations that have it. 

In addition to the security risk that all this data poses, it also may expose an organization to liability in the event of a lawsuit of investigation. Emails and other communications are a favorite target of subpoenas and investigations and should be deleted within 90 days (including deleted items folders). 

Take an inventory before you act

Organizations should first complete a full data inventory and understand what types of data they maintain and handle, and where and how they store that data. Next, organizations can develop a data retention policy that meets their needs. Utilizing backup storage media may be a solution that helps reduce the need to store and maintain a large amount of data on internal systems. 

4. Doing the basics right―The simple things work 

Across industries and regardless of organization size, the most common problem we see is the absence of basic controls for IT security. Every organization, no matter their size, should work to ensure they have controls in place. Some must-haves:

  • Established IT security policies
  • Routine, monitored patch management practices (for all servers and workstations)
  • Change management controls (for both software and hardware changes)
  • Anti-virus/malware on all servers and workstations
  • Specific IT security risk assessments 
  • User access reviews
  • System logging and monitoring 
  • Employee security training

Go back to the basics 

We often see organizations that focus on new and emerging technologies, but have not taken the time to put basic security controls in place. Simple deterrents will help thwarting hackers. I often tell my clients a locked car scares away most ill-willed people, but a thief can still smash the window.  

Smaller organizations can consider using third-party security providers, if they are not able to implement basic IT security measures. From our experience, small organizations are being held to the same data security and privacy expectations by their customers as larger competitors and need to be able to provide assurance that controls are in place.  

5. Employee retention and training 

Unemployment rates are at an all-time low, and the demand for IT security experts at an all-time high. In fact, Monster.com reported that in 2019 the unemployment rate for IT security professionals is 0%.5 

Organizations should be highly focused on employee retention and training to keep current employees up-to-speed on technology and security trends. One study found that only 15% of IT security professionals were not looking to switch jobs within one year.6  

Surprisingly, money is not the top factor for turnover―68% of respondents prioritized working for a company that takes their opinions seriously.6 

For years we have told our clients they need to create and foster a culture of security from the top down, and that IT security must be considered more than just an overhead cost. It needs to align with overall business strategy and goals. Organizations need to create designated roles and responsibilities for security that provide your security personnel with a sense of direction―and the ability to truly protect the organization, their people, and the data. 

Training and support goes a long way

Offering training to security personnel allows them to stay abreast of current topics, but it also shows those employees you value their knowledge and the work they do. You need to train technology workers to be aware of new threats, and on techniques to best defend and protect from such risks. 

Reducing turnover rate of IT personnel is critical to IT security success. Continuously having to retrain and onboard employees is both costly and time-consuming. High turnover impacts your culture and also hampers your ability to grow and expand a security program. 

Making the effort to empower and train all employees is a powerful way to demonstrate your appreciation and support of the employees within your organization—and keep your data more secure.  

We can help

Ensuring that you have a stable and established IT security program in place by considering the above risks will help your organization adapt to technology changes and create more than just an IT security program, but a culture of security minded employees. 

Our team of security and control experts can help your organization create and implement controls needed to consider emerging IT risks. For more information, contact the team
 

Sources:
[1] https://iapp.org/news/a/surprising-stats-on-third-party-vendor-risk-and-breach-likelihood/  
[2] https://resources.infosecinstitute.com/first-big-gdpr-fines/
[3] https://www.forbes.com/sites/bernardmarr/2018/05/21/how-much-data-do-we-create-every-day-the-mind-blowing-stats-everyone-should-read/#458b58860ba9
[4] https://www.inc.com/jeff-barrett/misusing-data-could-be-costing-your-business-heres-how.html
[5] https://www.monster.com/career-advice/article/tech-cybersecurity-zero-percent-unemployment-1016
[6] https://www.securitymagazine.com/articles/88833-what-will-improve-cyber-talent-retention

Blog
Five IT risks everyone should be aware of

Is your organization a service provider that hosts or supports sensitive customer data, (e.g., personal health information (PHI), personally identifiable information (PII))? If so, you need to be aware of a recent decision by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants that may affect how your organization manages its systems and data.

In April, the AICPA’s Assurance Executive Committee decided to replace the five Trust Service Principles (TSPs) with Trust Services Criteria (TSC), requiring service organizations to completely rework their internal controls, and present SOC 2 findings in a revised format. This switch may sound frustrating or intimidating, but we can help you understand the difference between the principles and the criteria.

The SOC 2 Today
Service providers design and implement internal controls to protect customer data and comply with certain regulations. Typically, a service provider hires an independent auditor to conduct an annual Service Organization Control (SOC) 2 examination to help ensure that controls work as intended. Among other things, the resulting SOC 2 report assures stakeholders (customers and business partners) the organization is reducing data risk and exposure.

Currently, SOC 2 reports focus on five Trust Services Principles (TSP):

  • Security: Information and systems are protected against unauthorized access, unauthorized disclosure of information, and damage to systems that can compromise the availability, integrity, confidentiality, and privacy of information or systems — and affect the entity's ability to meet its objectives.

  • Availability: Information and systems are available for operation and use to meet the entity's objectives.

  • Processing Integrity: System processing is complete, valid, accurate, timely, and authorized to meet the entity's objectives.

  • Confidentiality: Information designated as confidential is protected to meet the entity's objectives.

  • Privacy: Personal information is collected, used, retained, disclosed, and disposed of to meet the entity's objectives.

New SOC 2 Format
The TSC directly relate to the 17 principles found in the Committee of Sponsoring Organization (COSO)’s 2013 Framework for evaluating internal controls, and include additional criteria related to COSO Principle 12. The new TSC are:

  • Control Environment: emphasis on ethical values, board oversight, authority and responsibilities, workforce competence, and accountability.
  • Risk Assessment: emphasis on the risk assessment process, how to identify and analyze risks, fraud-related risks, and how changes in risk impact internal controls.
  • Control Activities: Emphasis on how you develop controls to mitigate risk, how you develop technology controls, and how you deploy controls to an organization through the use of policies and procedures.
  • Information and Communication: Emphasis on how you communicate internal of the organization to internal and external parties.
  • Monitoring: Emphasis on how you evaluate internal controls and how you communicate and address any control deficiencies.

The AICPA has provided nearly 300 Points of Focus (POF), supporting controls that organizations should consider when addressing the TSC. The POF offer guidance and considerations for controls that address the specifics of the TSC, but they are not required.

Points of Focus
Organizations now have some work to do to meet the guidelines. The good news: there’s still plenty of time to make necessary changes. You can use the current TSP format before December 15, 2018. Any SOC 2 report presented after December 15, 2018, must incorporate the new TSC format. The AICPA has provided a mapping spreadsheet to help service organizations move from TSP to the TSC format.

Contact Chris Ellingwood to learn more about how we can help you gain control of your SOC 2 reporting efforts. 
 

Blog
The SOC 2 update — how will it affect you?

As the technology we use for work and at home becomes increasingly intertwined, security issues that affect one also affect the other and we must address security risks at both levels.

This year’s top security risks are the first in our series that are both prevalent to us as consumers of technology and to us as business owners and security administrators. Our homes and offices connect to devices, referred to the Internet of Things (IoT), that make our lives and jobs easier and more efficient, but securing those devices from outside access is becoming paramount to IT security.

Many of this year’s risks focus on deception. Through deception, hackers can get information and access to systems, which can harm our wallets and our businesses.

In our 2017 Top 10 IT Security Risks e-book we share with you how to understand these emerging risks, the consequences and impacts these risks may have on your business, and approaches to help mitigate the risks and their impact. Some of the key ways to address these risks are:           

  1. Do your homework — change your default passwords (the one that came with your wireless router, for instance), and also make sure that your Amazon Alexa, Google Home, or other smart devices have complex passwords. In addition, turning off devices when they are not in use, or when you are gone, helps secure your home.
  1. If you work from home, or have employees who do, set up and use secure connections with dual authentication methods to help protect your networks. Remote employees should be required to use the same security measures as on-site employees.
  1. Protect your smartphone at work and at play—smartphones have become one of our most important possessions, and we use the same device for both work and personal applications, yet we don’t protect them as well we should. Password protection is step one. Consider uploading new antivirus software to corporate smartphones and using container apps for corporate emails and documents. These apps allow users to securely connect to a company’s server and reduce the possible exposure of data.
  1. Train, inform, repeat. Create a vigilant workforce—through continuous and consistent training and information sharing, you can reduce the occurrence of phishing, hacking and other attacks against your systems.
  1. Conduct IT security risk assessments annually to help you identify gaps, fix them, and prepare for any incidents that may occur.
  1. Monitor and protect your reputation through tools to identify news on your company and understand the sources of the information.

Our 2017 Top 10 IT Security Risks takes a deeper look at the IoT and other risk issues that pose a threat this year, and what you can do to minimize your own and your organization’s IT security risks.

Blog
The 2017 top IT security risks: Everything is connected

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