MSP Data Breach 101: 4 things you need to know about data security

According to the UK Government ‚Cyber Security Breaches Survey 2017‚, some  46% of British businesses had at least ‚one breach or attack‘ during the past year. The most common threat?  Phishing.

However, such reports should be treated with caution as an attack isn’t the same as a breach. Every business on the planet must have received at least one phishing email last year after all. Indeed, SolarWinds MSP’s Global Security Strategist, Ian Trump, and I co-authored a paper on the importance of ‚meaningful measurement methodologies‚ a couple of years back which is still very much worth a read.

Too many companies failing to implement basic security controls

defending.jpgNo need to get overly concerned about the data breach threat then, right? Wrong, very wrong indeed. The threat is very real, and the attack methodologies are varied and increasingly complex. Burying your head in the sand is not an option, despite only 52% of the organizations surveyed in that government report admitting to implementing the basic technical controls as recommended by the Cyber Essentials scheme.

It doesn’t take a genius to realize that there remains a disconnect between the realities of the breach threat and the practicalities of defending against it. Managed service providers (MSPs) and other IT service providers must understand the risks of the business they are in, and how to best protect themselves and their clients against a potential breach.  At the end of the day a ransomware outbreak or data breach will strain the relationship between the MSP and their client, so you need to focus on delivering r consistent, quality service and limiting the possibility of your customer leaving you.

Remember that it’s not just client data that you have to worry about, it’s your own as well. You face the exact same breach threats as your customers at the end of the day. It’s what I like to call ‚eating your own dogfood‘, also known as practicing what you preach!

Here are four things you definitely need to think about:

1. Employ a risk management framework approach

risk.jpgThis means you need to have a structured assessment or audit to enable risks, and their mitigation strategies, to be identified. Every risk should be considered and analysed, in turn this enables you to prioritize the mitigation required for each. In practical terms this means employing some kind of vulnerability scanning, which includes understanding what sensitive data is held and where. SolarWinds has the Risk Intelligence product, for example, that brings all of this information into a single dashboard. Most security experts would agree that a layered approach to breach defense is the way to go. This means ensuring you have the right firewalling in place along with intrusion detection systems (IDS), intrusion protection systems (IPS), and data loss prevention (DLP) systems.

2. You need to stay on top of your patch management game

Vulnerabilities turn into ‚in the wild‘ exploits very quickly indeed these days. Believe me, an attacker will be out there scanning for vulnerable systems and software within days (if not hours) of a patch becoming available. N-able patch management solution can help here as it can notify you about missing patches.

3. It’s not just about the technology

While the technical side of data breach mitigation is, of course, vital to the security of your clients, it’s not the be all and end all of the security equation. Understanding the threat is just as important if you are ever going to get on top of the risk. This means taking a broader view of the threat landscape to ensure you are not front and center on the attack map. Don’t underestimate the insider threat. Plenty of breaches (as much as 25%) are actually inside jobs. They don’t even have to be malicious—indeed, many are the result of negligence or error. Which is why security awareness training is an essential part of any data breach mitigation plan. Ensure that your employees—from shop floor to boardroom if you have one—are aware of the dangers of social engineering/phishing. Also ensure that those with control of the IT infrastructure are aware of the implications of slack access privilege controls.

4. Also remember to see the smaller picture

security.jpgThat sounds like the opposite of what good security is all about, right? Wrong again, sorry. Yes, you need to be able to lockdown your network and that of your clients, but you also need to be able to do this in the most granular of ways. With smartphones now being more like mini-laptops, especially when coupled to (often unknown to the business) cloud data stores, a lost or stolen one can mean a data breach right there on the spot. It may only be a mini-breach, but it can have mega-consequences if the lost data is of a sensitive nature. Remote locking of company devices, along with data wiping, is a minimum requirement for a strong security posture. That staff awareness training thing, with some backup from contractual accessible use policies, should also be in place.

These will all make it harder for the bad guys to get into your network and exfiltrate data. It’s all about widening the window of opportunity to detect an attack before it becomes a breach, while simultaneously reducing the threat surface for the attacker. But what if the smelly stuff does hit the cooling device? That’s where your breach response plan kicks in.

You do have a breach response plan, don’t you?

Protect your partnerships

Dealing with a breached client is never going to be easy, but how you communicate the issue is key to your ongoing relationship. Which means, in the shortest practical timeframe, you need to let them know what data has been compromised, how the breach occurred (if you know at this stage, be honest and say you are still investigating if this is the case), and what is being done to prevent it happening again. Don’t wait for a client to find out from a journalist or customer if you want your reputation to remain intact.


Davey has been writing about IT security for more than two decades, and is a three times winner of the BT Information Security Journalist of the Year title. An ex-hacker turned security consultant and journalist, Davey was given the prestigious ‚Enigma‘ award for his ‚lifetime contribution‘ to information security journalism in 2011.  You can follow Davey on Twitter at @happygeek