While life in the digital realm is convenient, intuitive and helpful for the most part, we are constantly being reminded to stay safe and carefully protect our online access. Digital threats are becoming more and more common, putting our personal data as well as our company files at risk from hacking, social engineering tactics, ransomware and just plain eavesdropping. You might think – I’m no spy, what could I possibly have that others would want? But the reasons cyber-thieves target individuals and small businesses are complex. It could be to gain control of your system in order to add it to a malicious network of hijacked computers, it could be to steal financial information, or it could be to discover personal information about you so they can steal your identity, or leverage that information to obtain something else that they want. Money, information, identity, computer power – while we might think nobody would ever target us, you can’t ever be too careful. The more lackadaisical we are about it, the more vulnerable we are. And you never know, the people closest to us might be the ones we need to protect ourselves from the most.
It might be your co-worker, your boss, your brother, your spouse. Even if you feel you have nothing to hide, that won’t always stop somebody from trying, and that’s just on a personal level. Your business life is another issue entirely. Unencrypted text messages, emails, phone calls and detailed financial information in the wrong hands could spell disaster. Think about Edward Snowden. Think about the Democratic National Committee. Think about what using an unencrypted server cost Hilary Clinton in this last American election. These are, of course, high level examples, but down at the street level it can be just as devastating.
The end of our personal privacy as we know it
In this age of social media, public profiles and eavesdropping on cellular calls, you might feel that there is little defence, short of going off the grid completely. With digital communication taking over our lives – not just ours, but everybody’s – it’s easy to become complacent. Everywhere you turn there is a new piece of hardware or an app that makes our life more convenient. Your favourite ratings app notifies you when you’re near a good sushi restaurant, because it knows you like sushi. You are constantly being fed ads for items you have recently looked at on line. Your social profiles offer suggestions as to who you might like to be friends with. While this is quite magical for some, it is an open gateway into your most personal preferences, and information that can be easily exploited for nefarious purposes.
Risk is on the rise
Interestingly enough, it’s the smart gadgets that we use at home and in the office that are the most easily hacked. If a hacker can gain control of your communications through one of these devices, they might have easy access to your entire life. However, if your communications are encrypted, they don’t stand a chance. Encryption may not be the answer to all the world’s woes, but it can certainly give you that extra layer of privacy that will make it possible to keep noses out of where they shouldn’t be. In the business realm, preventative measures, of which encryption is just a single layer, will increase in importance as risks continue to mount.
If your company’s data is hacked by the wrong people, you could lose, big time. So could your customers, as evidenced by so many high-level hacking incidents, like the Starbucks mobile app hack of 2015. In this case, the cyber criminals were able to gain access to users’ linked credit cards without even knowing the card numbers. This is just one example of the vulnerability of unencrypted 3rd party data.
How encrypted communications can help
Let’s first talk about the benefits of encrypting your communications, and what communications can be encrypted. Then we’ll get into how you can make it happen.
Any and all of your communications can be encrypted:
- Cellular or mobile phone calls
- VoIP phone calls
- Text messages/SMS
- Instant messages
- All internet communication
With wide adoption of mainstream digital communications, we have left much of our lives open to access for any that are so inclined. And while nothing is ever 100% secure, data encryption ensures that your communication can only be accessed by those who have the appropriate software, encryption key or password to unlock it. If keeping your communications private matters to you for any reason, encryption should be a high priority.
The benefits of encrypted communications are many:
Protect classified information: when you are sending information about business deals, innovations or finances, it is important that only the person it was intended for can access the message. An unencrypted message can unwittingly reveal trade secrets or put your company at risk for a multitude of reasons.
Messages can’t be altered by a 3rd party: using encryption on your emails will apply a digital signature to all of your messages, giving your recipient confidence that the message was indeed sent by you. There is probably nothing more embarrassing than having your email hacked and a spam message sent to everybody on your contact list, showing how unsecure your email server is and projecting a poor image of your business overall.
Professional compliance: in sensitive industries like the medical profession, defence or any government agency, security and privacy is of high importance. If your communications are unencrypted and intercepted, you run the risk of divulging personal information, opening yourself up to potential legal action or being shut down completely.
Keep your accounts private: since only an encryption key will be able to unlock your data, it is protected from all but those who have been granted access. This key can be a password, a fingerprint, iris scan, voice print or pin code. Apple is considered the ‘gold standard’ of phone data encryption, and there is much evidence to show just how secure their systems are. The caveat here is that while the device itself might be more secure than just about anything else, the applications downloaded to the device may not be. If a 3rd party app’s data is stored in the cloud or on an external server, there is no guarantee of security, no matter how confident you feel about your phone’s encryption. This includes the data you choose to save to iCloud, for example. While it is convenient to share your data between your devices, if it is shared to or stored in a location other than on the phone itself, it doesn’t have the same level of encryption. 3rd party server encryption varies from provider to provider.
Encrypting your communications
So now that we know why we encrypt communications, let’s look at some of the types of encryption and how they work. Data encryption is all about mitigating risk. The harder it is to access your data, the less interested a thief is going to be. If you don’t present an easy target, anyone on the hunt for this type of data will go elsewhere.
Endpoint encryption at the gateway protects anything that operates within the network. File systems, shared files, removable media and files shared to the cloud are protected. If you are running a VoIP system on the network, voice communications should be protected as well. There are two main types of network encryption: IPsec (internet protocol security), which encrypts and authenticates packets moving between network systems, and MACsec (media access control security), which encrypts and authenticates communications over Ethernet connections. The latter can be handy in situations where a network spans two buildings, for example, as it protects the data as it passes through untrusted locations and will drop the traffic if any irregularities are identified. Both of these methods can be deployed at the same time, offering protection from threats both coming into and going out of the network.
SSL, also known as secure sockets layer, is a commonly known security feature that protects our internet transactions. One of the most recognized forms of encryption, it ties a specific domain to a specific transaction, such as a credit card purchase, a login or a data transfer. It creates a secure connection between a web server and your browser, and is also commonly used for secure browsing on social media sites.
Pre-installed encryption software
Consumer level encryption is quite adequate for most purposes, and our email software as well as the operating systems that come pre-installed on our personal computers and devices comes with encryption pre-installed. Most of us don’t bother activating this option as sometimes it can affect the performance of our devices, and many find this to be annoying. While this level of encryption is sufficient for most of us, from a business standpoint we have more complex issues to consider.
Encrypting your personal devices
Your personal devices and computers should use some form of local encryption, but encrypting your network, your routers, your files and other data is also important. There are many enterprise level encryption products that are scalable to any size business, and will protect your data across a range of channels.
Instant messaging and encryption
Many commonly used messaging apps are well-encrypted. Messaging apps like WhatsApp and Signal use robust encryption powered by Open Whisper encryption software. Facebook Messenger now offers a ‘secret conversation’ option that encrypts your conversations, and messages can be set to expire within a certain timeframe, much like SnapChat. The caveat with these apps and others is that for the encryption to be effective, the end user needs to be using it as well. Skype, for example, encrypts communications in transit but once it reaches its destination all bets are off. It’s like getting your child to school safely when there is a rabid dog loose in the hallways.
Mobile communications encryption
One of the most vulnerable forms of digital communication is in the mobile realm. Unsecured wireless networks and cellular networks leave your conversations open to listening unless you provide a barrier. Blackberry UEM provides a product with full endpoint encryption of your mobile devices with BES 12. Available for all platforms including iOS and Android, it can be deployed internally or in the cloud and has the ability to scale to 150,000 devices on a single domain.
When files are encrypted individually they will hold that encryption, even when transferred to a thumb drive or saved to the cloud. File encryption ensures that your data is only accessed by the person it is intended for.
Encrypted communications made easy
Although encrypted communication is a complex subject – and getting more so all the time – that should not be a hindrance to its adoption. As cyber threats begin to threaten the least likely targets, it is more important than ever to identify and deploy an effective encryption strategy.
The good news is, many of our favourite unified communications systems come complete with an end-to-end encryption solution. Microsoft Office365, Cisco, McAfee and Sophos are just a handful of providers that offer scalable solutions for the small office all the way up to the enterprise level.
Ultimately, encryption should be just one element of your security protocol. Additionally, a good IT department or consultancy and strict employee policies around security, access and confidentiality should be employed. Your company’s needs are as individual as the products or services you provide, and your policies should reflect that. Understanding the larger landscape of risks that apply to your entire industry may help you to identify how best to structure your security protocol, and by proxy the level and complexity of encryption you will require.
How EC-MSP can help with your encrypted communications
There is always a balance to be struck: the balance between performance, convenience and security. It should go without saying, if you are in an industry that has requires a certain level of compliance for any reason, encrypting your communications should run high on your list of priorities. With so many encryption products on the market today, consulting the experts at EC-MSP should be your next logical step. EC-MSP is London’s most trusted IT consultancy, helping small to medium sized businesses become more productive, secure and in synch with all their technology. From networks to security, our technicians have the answers you need. Call today or drop us a line to find out how we can help you get started with encrypted communications.