Blog · 23 Mar 2020

Turning on the human firewall

Head of Security Advisory Services, UK

The impact of the Coronavirus pandemic is being felt far and wide.

With travel restrictions and social distancing, we’re having to think and work in ways we’re not necessarily used to. These changes are being done to try and stop the spread of Coronavirus, but it’s causing massive upheaval and problems all round.

First and foremost, the focus needs to be on people’s safety and wellbeing. New measures are being introduced every day to try and protect against the disruption, to ease the challenges and to try and reassure people.

Thankfully, the stories of countries, organisations, communities and individuals pulling together to look out for each other are widespread. But there are some people who are trying to exploit the situation.

With teams dispersed and a greater reliance on technology than ever before, we can’t just turn to the side to discuss or check our thinking or actions with a colleague. Working from home is a change in mind set and behaviour, and such changes can make people behave differently to how they would in an office.

Fast thinking versus rational thinking

During times of crisis, we tend to use our fast thinking, not our rational thinking. Rational thinking takes a bit longer to kick in, so when we feel under pressure, fast thinking may take over. But this can lead to us slapping our foreheads as we realise we made a decision too quickly; one that’s led to a mistake.

And we’re facing pressure, not just from the Coronavirus, but from potential hackers who are trying to exploit the situation.

This is why we need to turn on our human firewall.

Our 3-stage thinking approach

In our security organisation, we adopt a 3-stage thinking process:

  1. Stop
  2. Think
  3. Protect

As we all face a new way of working, it’s a process we think everyone could benefit from adopting.

We’re seeing hacking campaigns that are a mix of social media and emails. The subjects range from contacting you urgently about how to protect yourself from the Coronavirus, to how you’ve been identified as someone who’s had contact with someone who’s been tested as positive for the infection.

These kinds of emails make you want to act. They make you feel that time is of the essence. They purposefully engage your sense of urgency, worry and fear.

Always-on awareness

Everything is moving so rapidly that normal procedures are impacted. Scammers are focused on this change in work mode. They’re creating plausible stories (specialist cleaning companies) to draw you in, or making their emails appear to be from someone with financial accountability, or recommending a collaboration download that will make working from home easier. The more legitimate the email, the better the response.

They need just enough intelligence about an organisation and who the accountable people are to be able to direct their emails. All they need is one or two people to act out of character (in good faith), and they could get the credentials of someone in the organisation.

Or they’ll try a broader scatter gun approach or a low, slow working of credentials in an organisation - trying simple passwords that people may be using in haste, something users find easy to remember amongst the chaos – until they get access to a mailbox. Then they can set up a forwarding rule so the user is completely unaware.

If you receive an email, no matter how legitimate, no matter how urgent, take a pause. Take a step back. Ask yourself, ‘Is what I’m being asked to do normal?’, ‘Is there anything strange about this email / instruction?’

If there’s a little niggle at the back of your head about it, pay attention. Think how you can verify if it’s real, how you can keep yourself safe, and who to report it to if you’re suspicious.

It takes no more than 30 seconds to engage your rational brain. Those seconds won’t make much of a difference to the right decision, but it could make all the difference in the world to the wrong one.

Security begins at home

Your location and physical security is just as important as your online security. So, when setting yourself up to work from home – particularly when it’s at short notice – try to give some thought to where in your home you’re working from. Make sure:

  • your screen and paperwork can’t be seen through your windows or doors
  • your computing equipment is hidden from outside view.

You don’t want to be a victim of theft, and if your computing equipment is stolen, your ability to work from home is taken away too. Follow the same security as you would in the office - lock your screen when you’re not using your computer, and at the end of the day, tidy away any confidential paperwork.

Secure, sustainable thinking

We don’t know when this situation will begin to calm down. What was usual a few weeks ago is very different to today.

The human race has been successful because of our ability to think ahead, consider different scenarios and plan. So do that with your colleagues - and especially for the key functions you’re involved with. That way, you can rapidly check and verify key decisions or transactions.

And make sure you:

  1. use your rational brain
  2. stay aware
  3. try to think ahead.

If you’re facing a security threat or have fallen foul of a scam, don’t be embarrassed, but do act quickly. Your security team is there to support you, reduce the potential impact and protect you. Make sure you know who to contact if you need them and together, we can do our bit to help our businesses and communities survive during these challenging times.