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Spectre and Meltdown: Valuable Lessons for Your IT Security Team


February 12th, 2018


At the end of 2017, the world learned about Spectre and Meltdown: two far-reaching security threats that exploit how CPUs work to expose protected information on nearly every recent PC, server and smartphone. Hackers can use these exploits to do things like steal passwords and other protected private information stored in a computer’s memory through programs such as a web browser.

These vulnerabilities essentially affect every computer, including Macs, iOS devices and Chromebooks.

Hardware and software manufacturers are hard at work fixing the vulnerabilities, but it is up to the end users to make sure the fixes go through.

How the Exploits Work

Spectre seizes the ultra-fast memory on the CPU itself, known as the CPU cache. CPUs use processes called “Branch Prediction” and “Speculative Execution” to guess the most likely upcoming instructions from branches in a program to speed up performance. Spectre attacks manipulate those processes to push data from protected memory into the cache then load that pushed data from unprotected memory. The exploit identifies protected information because it loads faster from the cache.

Meltdown exploits a flaw in processor privilege escalation that allows executed code to get access to protected memory. Essentially, Meltdown breaks the isolation between the application and the operating system. Meltdown is the easier to exploit, but the easier to fix of the two.

What It Means for IT Security

IT security staff needs to make sure that all devices impacted by Spectre and Meltdown are properly updated to mitigate the threat. For the most part, this means staff needs to take some key steps: apply the operating system patches, install firmware updates, update web browsers and update other software that works with secure data, all while keeping the antivirus active.

In many cases, it means just staying out of the way, as Windows and MacOS devices will automatically install the updates. According to Microsoft, end users mostly just need to make sure Windows Update is active. However, some anti-virus programs may block patches and others aren’t compatible with the updates, so IT staff will need to find an alternative option to update those devices.

The Damage Done

Fortunately, Spectre and Meltdown haven’t led to any major security breaches, but researchers have identified more than 130 instances of malware designed around related exploits. So far, related malware seems to be proof-of-concept attempts rather than attacks.

At this point, most of the damage comes from performance degradation associated with the security updates. Both Spectre and Meltdown exploit techniques used to improve CPU performance, so closing those vulnerabilities often involves disabling those techniques. In particular, Windows-based systems running 2015-era Intel Haswell or older CPUs may experience performance drops, with older operating systems being more likely to show symptoms.

However, the performance loss isn’t consistent and can vary between 2 and 14 percent depending on the task. Some processes are affected more than others, with “privileged” processes seeing the most slowdown. Your IT staff should be concerned about this if your business is running virtual machine clusters. The performance loss may mean a hardware update is in order.

MPA Networks offers valuable services such as desktop management that can help your business avoid the pitfalls of Spectre and Meltdown by keeping your computers updated and secure. Contact us today to learn more.

 

 

Do You Have a Crisis Management Plan for a Cyberattack?


February 8th, 2018


A crisis management plan is your business’s best defense for minimizing cyberattack damage after technology-based preventative measures have failed. Unfortunately for most businesses, cyberattacks are not a matter of if, but a matter of when. Establishing a crisis management plan can help your business minimize data compromise, limit attack scope, decrease recovery time and reduce harm to your reputation. Having a plan in advance means your operation can immediately get to work on containing the attack when it occurs rather than allow it to incur further damage while you scramble to develop a plan during the breach.

What Threats Do Cybersecurity Attacks Pose?

Cybersecurity attacks aren’t going away. According to CBS, as of 2015, criminals contributed to 1.5 million annual cyberattacks. These attacks can have major repercussions for a business.

According to IBM, the average breach costs a business $3.6 million.

Some attacks can lead to massive fallout that can put a business in financial trouble. In 2016, there were 15 breaches that exposed more than 10 million identities, Symantec reports.

The technical side of preventing cyber-attacks is an ongoing cat-and-mouse game. The tech industry pushes to close security holes as soon as — if not before — hackers find and exploit them. Hackers like to take advantage of businesses that haven’t applied software patches to close established security holes.

Malware, ransomware, botnets, IoT vulnerabilities and email phishing were all major threat sources in 2017. In particular, ransomware is a growing problem because businesses are paying more than $1,000 on average to recover “locked” data. Many of these payouts could have been avoided by implementing proper crisis management and disaster recovery plans in advance. While big businesses offer big targets, SMBs still need to protect themselves from attacks.

What Your Plan Should Contain

A cyberattack crisis management plan revolves around three main elements: preparation, response and recovery. Every step is crucial, because a poor response can actually make the situation worse. According to WIRED, Equifax’s management response could have stopped the problem before it started in their major 2017 breach, if they had not done such a poor job. Here’s what to consider:

  • Prepare: Your business should prepare for extreme-level attacks in advance. Part of this process involves creating a response team with key players from all necessary departments. The plan should include what each group needs to do in the event of an attack. The crisis response team should take action to plug major known security holes as they are discovered to prevent a breach.
  • Respond: The response team should identify the attack, secure the compromised systems, and investigate the cause of the breach in that order. Next, the team should take action to prevent further attacks that exploit the same or similar security holes.
  • Recover: The cycle continues after your business contains the threat. The response team should next work to minimize public damage and repair customer trust. According to a 2011 Ponemon Institute study, larger businesses say they averaged $332 million in diminished business value following a customer data breach.

The disaster recovery experts at MPA Networks can be a vital part of your business’s crisis management plan. Our experts can help your staff gets back to business as usual as quickly as possible. Contact us today to find out how we can help.

 

 

5 Specific IT Considerations for Remote Employees


February 5th, 2018


Businesses have a lot to gain by hiring remote employees, including the ability to recruit from a larger talent pool and the potential for less expensive workplace accommodations. However, remote employees introduce new challenges in IT security because of the lack of centralized IT management. While the majority of security best practices and techniques still apply, your business and its remote employees will need to take a more hands-on approach to properly protect devices and information. Remote workers introduce the following unique IT security challenges:

1. Increased Importance of Human-Based Security Policies

Remote workers need to be more self-directed when it comes to IT security, as there’s no physically centralized IT staff or infrastructure to reinforce safe practices. A business with remote employees should establish a well-developed set of strict security guidelines to protect both devices and online information.

2. Reduced Reliance on Centralized IT to Secure Devices

Any device used for company work needs to be secured with strong passwords, updated operating system software, current antivirus software and regular malware scans. All applications need to be patched to the most recent versions, too.

Hackers take advantage of weak security practices and known vulnerabilities that were patched by attacking unpatched software installations.

Employees will need to make sure all devices they use for work are properly updated and secured.

3. Potential Threats From Personal Devices

Just as with in-office staff, remote employees often use many different devices to do their jobs. They don’t use only the company-provided laptop; they may also use personal smartphones, tablets and computers. While remote IT services can access and update company-owned devices, ensuring personal devices are secured entirely falls on the remote employees.

4. A Lack of Office Network Security

Remote employees do not have the benefit of office network security. Instead, they are likely spending most of their time working on a personal network from their homes. This means employees need to configure their own secure Wi-Fi connection with a strong password and keep both their router and modem updated with the latest firmware. Additionally, remote employees need to change the default password on all networked devices, including the router and IoT devices.

5. Protecting Online Information

While office-based employees transfer a great deal of data over the internet, remote employees do almost all of their work online. If possible, your company can protect this data by configuring a VPN for remote employee use. Businesses should use cloud applications, such as Google’s office suite, whenever possible. These programs are automatically updated and won’t introduce legacy security issues with information exchanged online. Additionally, remote employees are likely to store and share most of their work over cloud-hosted platforms, so your company will also need to consider the security of those platforms.

If your business is considering the addition of remote employees or you want to make existing remote work more secure, the experts at MPA Networks can help. Through IT managed services and desktop management, we can provide your remote employees with security closer to what they’d expect from an office setting. Contact us today to learn more.

 

 

Does Fintech Pose a Threat to Cybersecurity at Financial Services Companies?


January 29th, 2018


Financial services companies should embrace a healthy dose of caution when implementing new fintech in their business. Fintech, or any technological innovation in the financial sector, is not inherently more or less secure than any other new technology, but because it works with substantial sums of money, it is a common target for hackers and would-be criminals. Financial services companies need to keep up with innovations in how people transact business including cryptocurrency, digital cash, blockchain technology, smart contracts and open banking in order to remain competitive. Therefore, it’s vital that companies working with fintech pay close attention to risk mitigation and security.

Fintech Is Growing

Bitcoin is likely the best-known and most publicly discussed story in fintech today. It’s an excellent topic for discussion because it’s well known outside of the financial industry for both its potential and problems. Bitcoin shows its potential with its fluctuating value, starting at just pennies a coin and reaching a peak value of over $15,000 USD as of early 2018. However, Bitcoin also has a high-profile case of the risk associated with new technology: the 2014 MtGox theft, which resulted in more than $800,000 in stolen Bitcoins.

As of early 2018, fintech startups continue to proliferate and innovate. Fintech startup funding reached $17.4 billion in 2016 and was on track to surpass that for 2017.

According to CB Insights, there were 26 venture-capitalist backed fintech firms with a combined value of $83.8 billion in Q2 of 2017.

Fintech is chipping away at the traditional financial institution, so the traditional businesses need to embrace it in order to remain competitive. Consumer demand drives financial services companies to use these new technologies; however, it’s the businesses that shoulder security risks.

Security Vulnerabilities Thrive in Fast-Growth Environments

Fintech’s incredible level of success is the very reason it’s a cybersecurity threat at financial services companies. With such a large number of innovations being adopted in the financial services industry, it’s inevitable that some technology won’t have sufficient security in place. If the vulnerabilities exist, it’s only a matter of time before hackers will find and exploit them. Because there are so many players with so much money on the line, it could lead innovators to push technology to the market as fast as possible at the expense of proper security development. Enterprise Innovation cites a survey respondent who expresses concern that the financial services industry can’t keep pace with how quickly fintech is evolving.

Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to cover all the possible threats that can come from new fintech — because those threats don’t exist until the technology exists. However, financial services companies must ensure they employ proper security practices. Firms need to use fintech platforms securely and ensure devices are always running the latest versions of software for security purposes. Additionally, businesses should be prepared for problems outside of their control with insurance. The 2017 Equifax hack is a warning sign for any business that wants to skimp on security, because it shows exactly how destructive the financial hacks that exploit poor security can be.

MPA Networks offers extensive experience and incredible expertise in providing IT service and support to financial services. If your business is expanding into fintech use, contact us today to learn more about how we can enhance the safety of your information and your customers.

 

 

3 Subtle Ways IT Management Makes Day-to-Day Operations More Manageable


January 22nd, 2018


For many businesses, it is difficult to gauge how helpful IT management can be in the workplace on a day-to-day basis — mainly because when things are going well, there’s little to notice. Some of the most important benefits of an IT managed services provider show themselves subtly in what doesn’t happen rather than what does.

A well-managed IT environment means your staff spends less time worrying about issues such as technology security and network capabilities and more on getting work done.

IT management makes day-to-day operations more manageable in a number of ways. Here are just a few.

1. Fewer Outages and Faster Service Thanks to a Stable Office Network Infrastructure

People don’t say much about network service that works at an acceptable speed, but they’ll be more than happy to give a mouthful when things are running slowly. IT management handles the background work in installing and maintaining workplace networks to provide the rest of the workforce with smooth, secure internet and network access. IT management will examine network traffic to determine necessary infrastructure upgrades concerning both performance and security. This work helps prevent service outages and keeps staff happy with performance speed. If all goes well, employees will only hear about the subject when IT management staff communicate with them to ensure their needs are being met.

2. Staff Can Focus on the Human Element of Digital Security Rather Than the Technical

IT management makes technical security a priority. Your staff may still spend time deciding whether an email requesting confidential information is legitimate, but they can spend less time worrying about infecting their computers with malware when browsing the web. Managed services puts in the effort to ensure all computers are running updated software, including making sure operating system patches get installed and antivirus programs are up-to-date. They also ensure network infrastructure elements such as routers and modems are using security best practices and updated firmware. IT management takes care of security holes that most employees wouldn’t ever consider as potential threats until there’s a breach. And if that breach never happens, staff will remain unaware the threats even existed.

3. Managed Services Providers Free Money for Other Uses

Managed services providers (MSPs) save your business financially in three ways: They help boost productivity with faster infrastructure, avoid lost business from outages with a more stable work environment and cost less to operate than traditional on-site IT staff. MSPs help lower the cost of IT overhead, which means your business can budget that extra money elsewhere as needed. Managers and employees alike may find it difficult to see the value in paying for IT management that ensures smooth operations, but they will certainly notice problems that show up from inadequate IT.

IT managed services sells itself on the concept of helping clients avoid the high cost of downtime, but it also makes daily work easier in subtle ways. MPA Networks can provide your business with a customized IT management plan that addresses the unique needs of your business. Contact us today to get started.

 

 

Four Security Threats Your Company Could Face in 2018


January 16th, 2018


Hot off the tail of the massive 2017 Equifax breach that exposed personal information of 143 million customers, businesses are on high alert concerning IT security in 2018. While the IT security industry has been successful in mitigating and cracking down on many common threats, hackers are finding new ways to exploit devices that haven’t received as much attention and protection as PCs and servers have. Trends indicate that your company could be looking at security threats from previously ignored devices and sources in 2018. Be on the lookout for the following threats this year.

1. Missing Windows Updates Over Incompatible Antivirus Software and the Meltdown-Spectre Fix

This is one security threat your company could already be facing: There’s an inherent flaw in the way modern CPUs by Intel, AMD and ARM handle data that can be exploited to leak information. This is a substantial problem because it stems from the hardware as opposed to the software, and fixing it can negatively impact device performance. To make matters worse, some types of antivirus software conflict with Microsoft’s fix. If your business is using one of those incompatible programs, you need to switch to a compatible option to continue receiving Windows Updates as of January 2018. Those Windows Update patches are vital to keeping your company’s computers safe.

2. Internet of Things Devices Become a Bigger Threat

As of 2017, there were 17.68 billion IoT-connected devices, and that number is expected to grow to 23.14 billion in 2018.

Your office may interact with devices like an Amazon Echo, a smart thermostat and dozens of smartwatches. These are all IoT devices that could be the targets of security attacks.

These devices can be used to piggyback onto your office network. Additionally, DDoS attacks from hijacked IoT device botnets could be an even bigger threat in 2018.

3. New Devices Are Targeted

Ransomware is for more than just computers now. In 2018, IoT devices could be the next major target for hackers using ransomware to get your business to fork over payment to regain control. A workplace that’s lost control of the thermostat because of ransomware might be highly motivated to pay. Hackers may also be looking to exploit security holes in your office router and modem, as these devices are often neglected when IT staff applies regular security updates. Hackers often exploit the fact that many users don’t change the default password on these devices.

4. Watch out for Mobile Malware

The growing mobile device user base is making the Android and iOS platforms much more attractive targets for hackers over the traditional PC targets. According to Kaspersky, Android devices are more vulnerable to malware, but attacks are easier to identify and fix. While iOS devices are more secure, it’s much harder to tell if a device has been compromised.

Keeping up with IT security in your workplace is your best bet to avoid disastrous breaches and downtime. Our IT consulting experts can help your company identify and protect its security weak points. Contact us today.

 

 

Putting Unused Computers Back to Work


December 28th, 2017


There are many ways to reuse an old computer. Replacing an old computer that still works is a good feeling.   The device survived the replacement cycle. However, some desktops and laptops have the potential to lead second lives in the workplace. Re-assigning old devices to different jobs is a great way to save money and increase productivity. For instance, maybe it wasn’t cost-effective to buy a dedicated office server, but a retiring computer serves as a low-cost alternative. Some businesses also may want to avoid throwing out old devices to avoid regional computer recycling fees.

Draw inspiration from the following five ideas — these are just some of the many unique second-life uses for an old workplace computer.

1. Old Operating System Testing Computer 

Your business may keep its devices running modern operating systems and software, but there’s no reason to believe all your customers do the same.

An old computer running an old version of Windows is a great troubleshooting tool.

You may encounter customers who can’t get your site or online services to work and are running old software and hardware, so the dated computer will help confirm the problem exists and possibly identify an easy fix. However, keep security in mind with this old system and isolate it from your main network.

2. NAS or Office Server

An old desktop computer can be easily converted into an onsite mass storage solution as either a network-attached storage device or a local server. This device, which can be used to store backups and share files, is helpful for collaboration purposes. Setting it up is pretty straightforward, and your server can even take unused hard drives from other computers to amass plenty of space. Your office may have much to gain with a NAS device or local server.

3. Media Server

Similar to the office server solution, the retiring computer could be reused as a media server. This device can be helpful for creating a localized storage place for promotional videos, training information and other frequently accessed media.

4. Intranet Server

Medium-sized businesses looking to invest a little time into a more user-friendly server option should consider using the old computer as an Intranet server. Intranet servers behave like an inexpensive internal website.

5. Conference Room Skype PC

An old laptop with a functioning webcam can work well as an office conference room “Skype system.” The laptop stays in the conference room and is only used when someone needs to hold a teleconference. Because nothing else is running on the computer, it’s a hassle-free solution.

If your business wants to get the most out of the technology you purchase, the IT consulting experts at MPA Networks can guide you with an IT and Productivity AssessmentContact us today to learn more about our services.

 

 

HTTPS: Securely Sending Personal And Private Information


December 28th, 2017


Avoid costly data security breaches by training your staff to check for secure connections when handling private information on the Internet. Secure Hyper Text Transfer Protocol, or HTTPS, is a technology legalhealthcare, and financial businesses use to protect confidential client information safe on the Internet. Hackers do not have to go to much trouble to intercept non-encrypted website communications, especially when a target is using public Wi-Fi networks. Therefore, it’s essential employees make sure they’re using encrypted HTTPS instead of HTTP when working with confidential information like uploading patient information to a website or sending a record of financial information to a client.

Defining HTTP and HTTPS

HTTP is a data transmission method web browsers and website servers use to communicate with each other; HTTPS is a version of the protocol that encrypts communication for extra protection. Simply put, HTTP and HTTPS are the communication protocols Internet-connected devices use to “talk” to websites.

Checking for Protection

Websites and browsers make determining if a connection is secure straight-forward. HTTPS applies to individual connections, so every open tab has its own security configuration. The easiest way to check if a page is running an HTTPS connection is to look at the address bar:

  • if the URL starts with HTTPS:// it is a secure connection
  • if the address reads HTTP:// the page is not running a secure connection

However, manually checking can be tedious, so modern web browsers are built to make confirming if a page is secure easy.

For example, Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox will display a green padlock icon at the start of the address bar when HTTPS is present; both browsers will display warning icons if the connection’s security is in question or the website is a known danger.

Plugins like HTTPS Everywhere provide additional security by forcing HTTPS connections whenever possible.

When HTTPS is Necessary (and when it isn’t)

Train employees to recognize that HTTPS is necessary whenever they are using a service with login credentials, are uploading confidential files, or are filling out forms with private information. However, HTTPS can actually make web browsing worse when it’s being used unnecessarily.

With HTTPS providing a seemingly simple fix for a large share of security woes on the Internet, it might seem negligent for sites to continue using regular HTTP. Unfortunately, HTTPS comes with several caveats including increasing connection latency and disabling caching which contribute to longer load times. If someone is just browsing a news site or reading a public blog, there’s no confidential information being sent so HTTPS increases the load time to protect nothing. By eliminating caching, people accessing the site need to go through the original hosting server instead of a possible closer-located CDN server which could substantially increase loading times for users outside of the hosting region. Additionally, HTTPS hosting costs more than HTTP hosting.

If your business is looking to improve its Internet security practices, the IT Consulting experts at MPA Networks can help. Contact us today!

 

 

Latest Popular Smartphones Significantly Dip in Drop Test Performance


November 22nd, 2017


After years of improving smartphone glass durability, a shift design is bringing back the perils of dropping the device only to discover the glass has cracked on impact. The newly released iPhone 8 and iPhone X aren’t doing well in drop tests, with screens breaking relatively easily. A “drop test” measures the durability of a device by dropping it on a hard surface and gauging the damage.

However, this isn’t a sign that Apple has made a design flaw, but rather a reflection of industry design trends taking away protection where material durability improvements can’t compensate. The full-front-screen-equipped Samsung Galaxy S8 performed abysmally in drop tests as well.

On Smartphone Productivity

Cutting-edge smartphones are a great way to increase productivity in the workplace as the faster performance and new features lend themselves to better problem-solving. However, implementing a device that is prone to breaking means employees will hesitate to use it over damage fears or won’t use it at all because it’s broken.

Why is this Happening?

Two design trends can take the blame for screen cracking:

  1. Newer phones are using glass on the rear of the device in addition to the front to enable wireless charging. This doubles the amount of glass on the device.
  2. The “bezel wars,” or the push to shrink borders and increase screen size, are eliminating the amount of material on the device itself that can absorb impact damage.

While modern smartphones are using increasingly durable glass, the increase in total glass used and lack of side protection make the devices vulnerable to fall damage. However, the more durable glass is doing very well in scratch and bend tests.

The Dollars and “Sense” of Repairs

The good news is the glass is a repairable component; the bad news is the repairs can quickly approach device replacement costs. There are three options for a repair; which one to go with varies on experience and severity of the damage:

  1. Manufacturer Repair or RMA
  2. Independent Repair Shop
  3. DIY

The cost and complexity of a front vs. rear glass repair can vary greatly depending on the phone. For example, replacing the rear glass on the Galaxy S7 will run a person about $70 professionally or can be done for around $20 in 45 minutes by a modestly skilled DIYer. Comparatively, a Galaxy S7 front screen and glass repair runs about $190 from an independent shop. The iPhone X is different, with Apple charging $279 for a front display replacement and $549 for a rear glass replacement. The front screen replacement costs are in line with each other, while the rear glass replacement costs are dramatically different.

How can I Protect my Investment?

Fortunately, your business can take a few safeguards to avoid having to replace the device:

  1. Get a protective case and require its use
  2. Get an extended warranty or device care package

Is your business using the right technology for the job and the right accessories to get the most out of those devices? The IT Consulting experts at MPA can help your business increase productivity by getting the most out of tech. Contact us today!

 

 

Don’t Neglect Surge Protectors in Your Workplace


November 16th, 2017


Businesses use surge protectors every day without thinking about them; however, they are an incredibly important piece of technology that can make the difference between a $20.00 and a $2,000.00 equipment replacement. While uncommon, a power surge can wreak havoc on computers, monitors, TV screens, smartphones, printers, routers, and any device connected to a power supply. Making sure your office devices are properly protected at the outlet is an efficient way to avoid a potential disaster recovery situation.

What is a Power Surge and What Does a Surge Protector Do?

A power surge, also known as a voltage surge, occurs when a power source delivers an increased voltage for more than three nanoseconds. Surges can occur from a wide range of events including lightning strikes, power grid problems, massive static electricity discharge, or a change in the building’s electric flow. A surge protector is a device that diverts extra electricity out through the grounding pin on its plug so that the higher voltage doesn’t reach any connected devices, thus avoiding damage.

Best Practices

It’s very easy for employees to fall into the habit of not using the proper protective practices for workplace devices. However, it is important to use the devices because the minimal upkeep costs mitigate risk for expensive damages.

  • Choose the Right Features: Not all surge protectors are created equal; look for features like indicator lights, a UL rating (just having one rules out poorly constructed models), a clamping voltage under 400 volts, a joule rating of at least 600, and a minimal 1 nanosecond response time.
  • Have Enough Available Outlets and Keep Spares on Hand: Preemptively avoid having employees plug devices directly into wall sockets by making sure the surge protectors in use at workstations, desks, and other electronic devices are at locations that have a handful of free outlets. Keep a few spare surge protectors available just in case.
  • Don’t Keep Splitters in Your Office: Power strips and surge protectors look very similar but have an extremely important difference: power strips are adapters that increase the number of available outlets for electronic devices and do not offer any voltage increase protection. If you have any in use, replace them.
  • Don’t Daisy Chain: Do not connect surge protectors to other surge protectors, as this won’t provide any additional protection. Instead, it’s just more likely to cause a short.
  • Connect Laptops and Smartphones to Surge Protectors: While devices that have their own built-in power source offer a small degree of voltage regulation protection, a surge protector is still necessary to protect these devices while charging spike. A substantial surge can still break these devices.
  • Uninterruptible Power Source Alternative: A UPS device, also known as a battery backup, can be used in place of a surge protector for devices like desktop computers. These will also keep the devices working for a brief time in the event of a power outage.
  • Replace Surge Protectors When Necessary: Some surge protectors have an indicator light that will tell you if the device has broken; replace these immediately. Protectors without indicator lights should be replaced if they are known to have deflected a substantial surge or are several years old.

The IT consulting experts at MPA Networks are ready to help your business keep its computer investment protected from harm.  Contact us today to learn more.