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Posts from February, 2015


Do Surveillance Cameras Always Keep Your Company Safer? You’ll Be Surprised

Friday, February 20th, 2015

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You probably remember the 2001 blockbuster remake of Ocean’s Eleven starring George Clooney and Brad Pitt. While George and Brad’s grand scheme—robbing a secret multi-casino vault underneath the Las Vegas Strip—may have been pure Hollywood, a key element of the plot is actually quite realistic, if not frighteningly simple: commandeering live surveillance video feeds, anywhere from ultra-secure government facilities to your company’s server room.

We learned the true scope of this problem from cyber-vulnerability analyst (and former NSA specialist) Craig Heffner’s highly informative presentation at the annual Black Hat security conference in 2013, which is posted on YouTube here.

We don’t expect you to sit through the entire 30-minute video (it gets pretty technical pretty quickly), but Heffner reports how he examined the wide range of embedded surveillance cameras on the market today, from standard off-the-shelf products by trusted name brands (typically under $1,000 per unit) to top-end, “contact-us-for-pricing” equipment relied upon by schools, hotels, casinos, prisons, and many other high-security applications—including essential enterprise IT facilities.

While most vendors focus on the hardware quality of their cameras, they allow a surprising number of vulnerabilities on the backend… the kind of vulnerabilities a moderately skilled hacker can easily exploit.

The Achilles Heel: Unsecure Firmware

Almost all embedded surveillance cameras operate using web-based firmware provided by their manufacturer. Heffner points out that most vendors structure their firmware code in a similar fashion—while hardly updating it for newer model cameras. By simply substituting a few characters on a single line of code, he demonstrates how shockingly easy it is to hack into a camera’s web server and view its existing factory default password—which most users never get around to changing—and gain full access to that server’s admin interface.

Once inside admin mode, that hacker can do any of the following:

  • Eavesdrop on your live video feed

  • Freeze or loop that feed to mask any intruders (as the Ocean’s Eleven gang did)

  • Remotely reboot the system to gain full “root access”—literally the backdoor key to your entire IT network

George and Brad won’t be tunneling into your secret vault anytime soon, but a hacker can unleash havoc throughout your entire company.

Try Before You Buy?

As we said, Heffner’s full presentation is code-heavy and may be difficult to follow, but do scroll ahead to the last three minutes. Before choosing a new camera, he recommends doing your homework: investigate that model’s existing online firmware for any glaring security bugs. A knowledgeable cyber-security expert will know how to download that code and literally “think like a hacker” to keep you as safe as possible from these types of attacks.

Put your Cameras in a DMZ (De-Militarized Zone)

See our recent blog post about Internet of Things (IoT) devices—and how to protect your home or office from damage. (Security cameras, by the way, are IoT devices.)

Contact MPA Networks, a leading Bay Area IT Managed Services Provider, for more information.

Surprising New Study: Email an Essential Cross-Generational Business Asset

Thursday, February 12th, 2015

email-297068_640What was cutting-edge in the 1990s is still relevant today — at least, when it comes to Email technology. According to a new PewResearch report, 61 percent of office workers say Email is “very important” to their work productivity. That same study placed the Internet and landline phones at 54 and 35 percent, respectively. Gadget enthusiasts may be surprised to learn that only 24 percent of office workers consider cellular and smart phones very important, making mobile devices even less important than landlines. And just four percent of workers view social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn as essential.

If there’s one indispensable takeaway from this study, it’s that you need to establish and maintain an adequate and reliable Email system if you want to keep your business operating efficiently.

Email continuity equals business continuity, especially when dealing with customers and clients.

Invest in Your Email Service (or Wish You Had)

Despite being contingent on the second most popular office tool (the Internet), Email is a single web service you can spotlight within your IT strategy. Consult with your Managed Services Provider (MSP) to identify the best possible setup to meet your business needs and keep your Email running at top speed. Since your Email service is essential to your operation, it’s crucial to employ a quality, business grade Email service on a reliable server. After all, you’re likely to spend more money on lost payroll from a slow or out-of-service Email system than you would on simply upgrading it.

Whether you’re a law firm, an investment advisor, or a logistics company, your employees require swift communication channels to reach your clients.

Email Continuity

Consider using an Email continuity system to keep things running if you lose power, drop Internet connectivity, experience a server crash, or encounter an Email service disruption. There are now excellent Email continuity systems available that kick in instantly when your Email system or your Email provider goes down or breaks — so you won’t miss a beat. These systems work with workstations, laptops, tablets, and smart phones. Ask your MSP for more information.

Multiple Internet Connections

You can work around Internet outages by using multiple Internet connections at your office. For example, a dual-Internet system setup with two service providers can bail your office out of trouble when your main service provider experiences a local outage. Since ISP availability varies between areas, and since all of the tech you rely on is unlikely to break at the same time, you could use (for example) a Comcast Business cable connection as your main provider, and an XO copper over Ethernet as your backup connection. These are two distinct and independent technologies with different supply routes under the streets to your office.

Your Managed Services Provider (MSP) can even configure a Firewall so that both Internet connections can be used simultaneously and balance each other. When one breaks, the other one keeps working. This is the new way to reliably handle Internet access when “it can’t be down.”

Accessing Email via mobile Internet is a good continuity fallback plan. Just make sure in advance that your Email system is configured on the mobile devices. Also, this does not work if the Email service goes down — only if your office’s Internet access goes down. For true Email continuity with mobile devices, you should investigate Email continuity systems instead (see above).

Build Your Email System Up — and Then Out

The technical aspect is just part of a successful Email business strategy. Training your employees on proper Email procedures and practices is important for establishing a professional and efficient operation.

Implement a standardized Email signature block across your entire firm — including both your company name and logo — to help set a consistent, unified brand tone in the eyes of your customers and clients.

And don’t overlook the importance of keeping your contact databases organized — it’s easy to find yourself wasting time digging up a client’s Email address if your “books” or CRM databases aren’t regularly tidied.

For more information on building a reliable Email system, click here.

Disaster Recovery: Smart Ways to Work Around a Broken System

Wednesday, February 4th, 2015

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Computers have a knack for breaking at the most inconvenient time. Murphy’s Law is alive and well. But you don’t need to wait for IT repairs in order to get an employee back to work: smart techniques and planning can minimize your downtime so you can maintain productivity and take back otherwise lost hours.

Small businesses endure around 14 hours of IT downtime every year per employee, costing them around $55,000 on average—and that number can increase depending on the extent of the outage and when it hits.

Don’t Quit Before You Get Started

You might assume you’re out of luck if you are working on a project stored only on a laptop or desktop computer, and that system goes down. However, there are smart techniques you can use to avoid downtime or work around a failure when it happens.

Use Roaming Profiles and Synchronize Your Data Files with Your Server

If your office uses PCs and a Microsoft Server, have your IT service people proactively set up Roaming Profiles. This wonderful Microsoft system synchronizes files and settings between your computer and your server every time you log in or log out.  Make sure when Roaming Profiles are set up that everyone’s “My Documents” folder is set to synchronize. Then make sure your staff knows to store local files under “My Documents” and nowhere else. (Note: this applies only to files that must be stored on your workstation or laptop.)

With Roaming Profiles, there are always two copies of any one file—one on your computer and one on the server.

If your computer breaks and files are lost, no problem. Backup copies are safe on the server.

Store Files on Your Server, not your Workstation or Laptop

If your office is like most, there is a system that backs up your server either to an on-premises system, to a Cloud system, or to both. If you have this sort of arrangement, avoid storing data files you can’t afford to lose on your computer or laptop. When your computer breaks, simply continue working by using another computer at your company. Your data files are accessible from any computer in your office by simply logging in to it.

A Spare System = Smart, Inexpensive Insurance

Computers today are really cheap. Your labor, and your staff’s labor, is really expensive. Always have at least one spare computer at your office all loaded with software and ready to go. When a computer breaks, simply unplug the broken one and plug in the spare. That way, when your computer breaks, you’ll be up and running again in five minutes. Make sure to follow either or both of the previous guidelines (Roaming Profiles or storing data on the server), and you won’t miss a beat. Then get the broken computer repaired in a less expensive, non-crisis way.

One spare system can save thousands of dollars of labor downtime per year.

A spare pays dividends in other ways as well: If your company is growing, a spare system allows you to get a new employee set up simply and quickly. Just plug in the spare for a new hire—and then purchase another spare to replace the one you just used.

Use a Backup System that Backs Up Automatically at Frequent Intervals

A backup system that backs up your firm’s data files on a frequent basis—once an hour or even once every 15 minutes—is a fantastic way to avoid the downtime that would otherwise result from someone’s computer failure. Automated backups may be configured by your IT service team to back up to an on-premises hard drive, a Cloud data center, or both. The best backup system is called a Hybrid Cloud Backup System. This type of system continuously copies files to an on-premises device and then replicates current and historical versions of the files to one or more Cloud data centers. That way, copies of your files are stored in multiple locations.

Use Your Resources and Your Wits

As long as your broken computer’s hard drive still works, you may be able to get back up and running with spare hardware and some quick thinking. Almost every modern production computer uses the SATA connection standard, making the hardware cross-system compatible. You can quickly recover data that was stored on the failed computer by extracting its hard drive and connecting it to a functioning computer. Anyone attempting this process should have a firm understanding of computer hardware and be prepared to consult an IT professional (or MSP) for guidance if they reach a point of confusion. While by no means a permanent solution, transplanting the hard drive works as a temporary fix until your service people can resolve the actual problem.

Desktop computers typically have support for multiple internal SATA drives, so you can use a second desktop system to recover the data without any additional hardware. You can use a laptop to perform the process by installing the broken computer’s hard drive in an external enclosure. External enclosures convert internal hard drives into external ones, and are useful to keep around for data recovery situations. Once you’ve connected the hard drive to the working computer, you can use the file browser program to locate and copy the files you need. Note: use of encryption software on the hard drive will prevent this method from working.

PC World has an excellent guide on installing hard drives.

When All Else Fails

If your hard drive has failed and it won’t work in another computer, if you have no Roaming Profiles, no backup, no stored files on your server, and if your lost files are valuable to you—then you have no choice but to hire a hard drive recovery facility to see if they can extract data from your damaged drive. Kroll OnTrack provides this service. You may pay a steep fee, and you may pay whether or not your files can be retrieved.

And if you lose data and your precious time forever, guess what? There’s a bright side. You will now wise up and implement some or all of the above recommendations so this never happens to you again. That’s peace of mind—even if you learned it the hard way.

Expect the Worst

Computer components suffer increasing failure rates as they age, meaning it’s likely that you’ll experience some sort of device failure before your hardware refresh cycle is up. A Square Trade study found that one in three laptops fails in the first three years. According to a Microsoft study, the CPU is the part most likely to fail, followed by the hard drive and RAM.

Prepare yourself for these eventualities with the right hardware and the right support to minimize your downtime and maximize your productivity.