Are Remote Users Your Security Blind Spot?

More people than ever before are working from home - and it is no wonder.

By saying 'sayonara' to the commute to and from work and 'hello' to flexible working hours, employees have more time so they can better juggle their responsibilities outside the office. Such benefits also alleviate stress and worry, which is good news for the employees and the employers alike: happier, more relaxed employees are more productive. And in the U.K. the Government has introduced new legislation that enables eligible employees to apply for more flexible working hours, so the popularity of remote working is likely to increase.
While employers with a remote workforce enjoy the increase in productivity, they can save further pennies by not having to provide each employee with a permanent desk. So, on the face of it, flexible working patterns seem beneficial to all parties. However, this is not necessarily the case for IT administrators, who have to ensure that remote workers have access to the latest updates of files, round-the-clock technical support and, most importantly for the business as a whole, up-to-date IT security.

Indeed, many companies that have embraced flexible working procedures, have not been so quick to instigate a joined-up IT security policy. A recent survey by Sophos of 3,000 IT system administrators revealed a startling difference between corporate attitudes to office-based and remote user anti-virus protection. The results of the poll showed that while IT administrators are wising up to the dangers of lax in-house anti-virus security (two-thirds of companies now diligently update their office-based software on a daily basis) a worrying 70 percent of companies update their remote workers' anti-virus protection on just a weekly or less frequent basis. These remote computers could be harboring viruses and other security vulnerabilities waiting to threaten a network to which the remote computer connects.

Closing the gap

To stop the discrepancy between office-based and remote workforce protection, IT administrators must recognize that employees using remote PCs or laptops pose as much of a security threat as their in-house counterparts. Take, for example, home-office computers. These are often used for personal web browsing and they may also be used by family members and friends who do not know the dangers of downloading games, installing screensavers, sharing drives and opening email attachments. This makes remote PCs even more vulnerable to attack than office-based PCs, which have the added protection of regularly updated anti-virus software, often backed up with well-established safe computing procedures.

The second challenge to the IT administrator is operational. With such a disparate and diverse workforce, how can an IT administrator keep all PCs updated against the latest threats, thus ensuring the integrity of their whole network?

Consider the recent Slammer worm that is reported to have infected more than 200,000 computers in the first 10 minutes. Even the fastest IT administrators would struggle to safeguard all the computers in their charge - particularly those which are not office-based - once a virus like Slammer is on the rampage.

To respond to modern virus threats, IT administrators need to be proactive. They must keep pace with security bulletins, procure any protection required and distribute it across their company's computers, including those outside the network.

So what, operationally, should a business do to ensure its remote users do not provide an easy route by which viruses can infect corporate networks? It is in a company's interest to retain a centralized control on how all computers, including the remote machines, are configured and updated. This goal need not change just because many users are off-site.

Companies should have administration tools that allow the IT team to monitor the status of all computers. Such tools will quickly inform them if a remote computer is not running with the latest security protection when they connect to the network.

Centralizing protection

By using tools offered by reputable anti-virus companies, the IT team can configure the software updates and make them available on their network and internet site. Having updates in both places ensures that if a remote user cannot gain access to the company's network, he or she can download from the web site, even if it is 2:19 a.m. on a Sunday. The remote update tool's configuration options should allow the IT administrator to set when the remote computer should look for updates. For example, each time it is connected to the internet, it can be set to check in first with the company's centralized update location and download any required protection.

It is also worth looking at how efficiently and effectively virus protection is being transferred to a remote machine. Can the user continue working while the machine is transferring protection? Is the size of a typical virus patch small and quick to download? Can the download be configured to take place automatically, or does the user need to be present to click 'OK' in numerous dialog boxes?

A cheap yet equally important security measure against all computer threats is, of course, education. All employees who use computers should have a clear understanding on what viruses are, how they spread, and what harm they can do. Unlike in-house employees, many remote users require administrator rights activated on their computers so they can address technical problems without having to go into the office. A workforce that understands the importance of keeping its laptop or home computer security updated reduces the risk of a user unwittingly erasing vital protection.

So long as IT security is thought out, any business, even one with flexible workers, can have a protected staff and an IT team that can distribute security updates quickly and easily. The result is an employer who really does have a happier, less stressed and more productive company to run - something everyone can smile about.

Carole Theriault is anti-virus consultant with Sophos (

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