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Source: National Computing Centre

Posted on September 24, 2008

      Whenever a security breach occurs or something goes wrong on the network, it is always the end-users' fault - employees who, despite receiving lengthy lectures, dozens of e-mails and verbal warnings, continue to ignore even the most basic of security recommendations such as not leaving their password on a piece of paper stuck to their workstation.

      99 per cent of the time this would be the case, but there are occasions when an accusatory finger has to be pointed in the direction you would least expect: the IT administrator's office.

      Yes, even IT administrators can make mistakes and they do, especially in small and medium sized businesses. They are human beings after all. Unlike end-users who usually cause problems because they are not IT savvy or just cannot understand the logic behind computer security, IT administrators are expected to be infallible where technology is concerned.

      Unfortunately, IT administrators in SMEs are 'forced' to do more than just sit down and monitor the network. They are responsible for nearly every piece of hardware; they are the de facto handymen in the building and, if that were not enough, they also have to deal with end-user issues (the 'I don't have internet connectivity.', 'the cable's not plugged in' situations).

      Too heavy a workload, too little time and the pressure to meet deadlines and keep the bosses happy, inevitably leads to the IT people making errors of judgment. at times serious ones too.

      Here are the top 10 mistakes that IT people in SMEs make and some guidelines on how they can be prevented.

1) Connecting systems to the internet before 'hardening' them. Classic mistake. Computers are not designed to be connected to the internet straight out of the box. Before a phone line, Ethernet cable, or wireless card is anywhere near a new computer, install at least virus protection and spyware scanners, and a program to prevent malicious software from being installed.

2) Connecting test systems to the internet with default accounts/passwords. A hacker's dream. Leaving the default accounts/passwords makes it all the more easy for a hacker to gain access to your network. Change passwords and delete/rename default accounts immediately.

3) Failing to update systems. Security holes exist in your operating system and no software is perfect. Once a vulnerability is found, it's usually exploited within a very short period of time. Therefore, it is imperative to install security patches as soon as possible even if it takes time to check them out in a test environment before updating.

4) Failure to properly authenticate callers. Giving users passwords over the phone, or changing user passwords in response to telephone or personal requests when the requester is not authenticated may be the easiest way to reduce the support call tickets, but it is a joy for those involved in social engineering efforts. Enforce proper authentication at all times, even if the voice is familiar.

5) Failing to maintain and test backups. Laziness is one of the biggest security threats, but creating proper backups is much easier than recreating the data from scratch. Backups should be made often and copies kept offsite (not in the boss's safe).

6) Failure to confirm that your disaster recovery plan actually works. Okay, so you have your backups now. But do they work? Have you verified the backups are good? Do you have a disaster recovery plan? Three 'no's'? You're in trouble.

7) Failing to implement or update virus detection software. What is the use of having virus and spyware scanners if they're not updated? Up-to-date scanners ensure that the latest malicious software is detected immediately.

8) Failing to educate users. Users need to know exactly what kinds of threats are out there. Uneducated computer users are often those who fall victim to viruses, spyware, and phishing attacks, all of which are designed to corrupt systems or leak personal information to a third party without the user's consent. Don't take users for granted or trust them too much.

9) Trying to do it all yourself. Large companies have IT departments, but IT administrators in small businesses should ask for advice and help if they have problems setting up their network. External help, though costly at times, ensures you've done the job right, first time round.

10) Failing to recognise 'insider threats'. Too much trust can kill your network. Disgruntled employees and others can cause enormous problems if they're not properly monitored. IT people should monitor network activity, especially the use of portable devices such as iPods, memory sticks and others. You do not want the company's confidential data sold by an irate employee to the competition.

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