Cybersecurity in the Pandemic Panic - A Silver Lining for Remote Workforces

Uncover the opportunities presented by COVID-19

It is easy to feel overwhelmed and helpless when disruptive events such as COVID-19 erupt out of nowhere. While there is no denying that this pandemic is incredibly horrific, it does not mean organizations should bask in the fear and take a break from normal operations. Instead, this period of uncertainty should be viewed as an opportunity for organizations to re-calibrate and highlight their mission-critical initiatives.

Before the Crisis

Prior to COVID-19, a typical workday involved employees following routine tasks at an office. Now, per the recommendation of the CDC, most employees are working from home (WFH). The reality is long-term remote work arrangements will be a more common aspect of business operations, regardless of the COVID-19 outcome.  Instead of being viewed as an inconvenience, remote work should be seen as an opportunity.

The departments most affected by the newfound opportunity face the challenge of quickly employing a remote workforce without neglecting basic cybersecurity needs. Moreover, the rapid adoption of work from home (WFH) transpired instantaneously.  As a result, it left many Information Technology (IT) and Security Operations Centers (SOC) disorientated.


Overcoming the Pandemic Panic

Despite the increased hysteria from COVID-19 being painted as this unbearable catastrophe, it should really be viewed as a wake-up call. This is because in the real-world unforeseen incidents are inevitable. As such, COVID-19 should be approached like any other incident. Head-on and with a rational understanding that the business must continue to operate despite the widespread panic and ominous thought that the pandemic could last indefinitely.

It is important organizations recognize that in the life of a cybercriminal, there is no ceasefire. In fact, in their twisted minds, COVID-19 is a dream come true. Adversaries see this as the perfect opportunity to take advantage of unprepared businesses. Of course, no one could have expected COVID-19 to completely debilitate the market, shut down cities, and cause people to panic as if this were truly Armageddon. As tempting as it may be, organizations must not feed into the pandemic craze. Instead, this volatile time is the perfect occasion for organizations to re-prioritize processes and address inadequate business procedures. By overcoming the panic, organizations are fortifying their business processes and can ultimately advance their priorities.


Is there a Light at the end of the Tunnel?

Perhaps the largest takeaway from COVID-19 is that organizations have a rare opportunity to not only improve their business procedures but gain a competitive advantage they might not have had otherwise. So, while many people are still in a state of shock and sulking on the short term financial forfeiture from business disruption; smart organizations can use this time to their benefit.

Standard IT procedures like patch management and endpoint security don’t dissolve when a catastrophe strikes. In fact, they become even more imperative because attackers are on high alert for businesses utilizing vulnerable platforms. Unfortunately, threat actors thrive off unprepared businesses during times of stress. However, organizations can choose to not cave into the fear associated from WFH and impede adversaries by maintaining their standard IT task list. 

For instance, many organizations are realizing that they have no backup plan for accessing on-premise mission-critical applications. However, when examining the current situation, organizations must not jump to the conclusion that they are powerless. Instead, the apprehension of a poor disaster recovery plan (DRP), or lack thereof, can be applied to expose and justify the dire need for an IT refresh. In which case, perhaps COVID-19 presents a perfect opening to identify bottlenecks, problem areas and inefficient practices residing in a business.

Additionally, this period can be leveraged to diagnose and document complications that arise when planning for disasters. Such as exposing whether an organization’s DRP and risk register are operable. Formalizing and testing a DRP can enable organizations to better respond during future disruptions. Despite these tasks sounding complicated, they should be viewed as short-term challenges that act as a means to shift business uncertainty into reassurance. 


Driving Process Change

Going back to the fundamentals that IT exists to support the business and acknowledging that businesses must still operate in spite of COVID-19 will enable organizations to maximize the time spent during this period of uncertainty. Furthermore, overcoming the setbacks associated with a mostly remote workforce will allow organizations to alleviate personnel time. This newfound time can be effectively used to improve the long-term sustainability of a remote workforce. Thus, yielding a competitive advantage after the pandemic or similar catastrophe. 

Encouraging business change starts by slowing down processes and remembering that standard business routines must still occur regardless of world events. With clientele and competitors in a temporary haze, right now is the perfect time to make business adjustments and modifications.

Support can be garnered by illustrating how all employees benefit from process improvements, most notably an improved work life balance. Organizations seriously seeking process change should start by observing the state of normal operations. This means documenting the current infrastructure and resources. They should then analyze what avenues can be taken to refine or improve processes deemed inadequate. Repeating this process will put organizations on a clear path to reformation and portfolio improvement.  


Transitioning to long-term WFH

Modern technology has made the transition to a remote workforce rather stress-free. While the process approach might change, normal operations still take place. Consider the previous example of patch management and endpoint security. These are fundamental to securing an organization, but because employees are now remote, IT cannot just run a network scan and deploy the corresponding patch or anti-virus. Accepting this reality and the need to adopt modern solutions to combat modern challenges is critical to surviving events like COVID-19. We are fortunate to live in a time where there is a technical solution for most archaic topics. Organizations have been given an opportunity to automate tasks that were previously conducted manually, whether that be investing in an anti-virus agent to auto secure remote devices or enabling active directory mandatory updates. 

The big picture is that the way IT tasks are handled predisposes an organization in how they operate. Viewing IT tasks as more than just “enabling WFH,” but as motivators for long term growth can transition the mentality from defensive to offensive innovation.

WFH is here and not disappearing anytime soon. So, it is worth noting that challenges like communication and transparency should be immediately addressed. As problems can emerge with long-term WFH because coworkers are no longer in the same vicinity. As a result, issues that could be quickly solved by buzzing over to a coworker’s cubicle might now be drawn out if someone has muted notifications or is not looking at their email. At the same time, the reduced interruptions can free up time for employees to work on tasks that were previously delayed.

Returning to the patch management example, IT can use the alleviated time to host virtual conferences and walk personnel through activities like updating software. They can also use the time to conduct security training thereby improving the security posture and keeping employees’ minds engage. Additionally, taking into account that when successfully deploying WFH, business overhead is shed, and resources are more efficiently used. Therefore, organizations would be very wise to take the present situation and consider how they can apply it even after the pandemic. So, while much of the business world is disengaged and frantically hanging on by a thread, proactive organizations will use this time to fine tune their objectives and surface stronger.


Lessons Learned

Beyond COVID-19 teaching us that hand sanitizer and toilet paper are golden during pandemics, the incident exposes how little most organizations are prepared for incidents. At the same time, it presents an opportunity for organizations to refine their operations and emerge stronger. Recognizing that amidst, the uncertainty lies a silver lining to improve business maturity and therefore shift from fear to innovation is the most valuable lesson from this volatile period.

About the Author

Written by Haidon Storro

Cybersecurity Research & Content Manager, Silent Sector -- Haidon Storro is a Cyber Security Analyst for CVS Health. She has her BS in IT Cyber Security as well as security certifications like CompTIA Security+ and ISC2. While Haidon is newer to the security community, she has dedicated herself to learning as much as she can through internships, online courses, and conventions like DefCon. In her free time, she enjoys reading about new advancements in technology, going to security meetups and participating in cyber defense competitions. One of Haidon’s goals is to make the connected world safer by bridging the human aspect with technology.