Remote work and security: Which tools help the most?

As businesses go all-in on remote work, what tools are available to help maintain and improve business security?

With remote working policies truly entrenched into business culture as a result of Covid-19, it's important to understand the tools that can be used to keep workforces secure, and deliver positive outcomes.

SpecOps Software recently put together a list of the top 10 free IT tools that businesses are using to protect their remote employees. Each of these tools serves a different purpose and can help organisations to focus on, and improve, different aspects of their cybersecurity program.

Tools turn the tables on cybercrime

For many businesses, authentication has become integral to the viability of their remote working policies and the ability to keep company data safe. SpecOps Password Auditor is a tool that helps improve authentication policies and allows businesses to maintain healthy password security across a workforce. It works by permitting IT admins to scan their active directory for password-related security vulnerabilities. Its companion tool, SpecOps Password Notification, is used simultaneously to send out emails to remote workers letting them know about password expirations. When used together, these two tools give ID admins greater control over their enterprise authentication processes and help ensure that password related issues are minimised.

Alongside authentication, many security teams prioritise maintaining full visibility into the devices connected to the network. If security teams know who is accessing the network, and when, it makes it much easier to notice when potential cybercriminals have caused a breach. mRemoteNG, gives IT leaders this visibility allowing them to view and monitor all remote connections accessing the network at any time.

Another tool widely used by security experts is Clonezilla, an open source toolkit designed to clone disks and hard drives and facilitate backup and recovery. Suitable for single machine backup and restore, Clonezilla allows users to clone a device's storage media to a separate new device. This makes it a handy tool for companies unable to supply their workforce with remote devices and who rely on their own personal equipment whilst out of the office.

Whilst many of the tools mentioned by SpecOps are dedicated towards staples of any cybersecurity and remote working policy, some serve a more precise purpose that can often be overlooked. Windows Sysinternals is a highly specific tool that helps IT professionals to manage, troubleshoot, and diagnose Windows systems and applications. At first glance, this tool may not stand out as a vital resource, however on closer inspection, security professionals understand that a healthy, updated Windows environment is much harder for cybercriminals to compromise.

When it comes to solving issues that remote employees experience with their devices, TightVNC is a popular tool that IT managers frequently turn to. The desktop sharing software allows a manager to monitor and control another computer from a remote location, meaning they can diagnose and remedy security issues without having to be present with the device. This feature can help minimise the downtime that remote employees experience, and also ensures that the security team is not wasting valuable time having to go back and forth with an employee trying to describe what is wrong with their device.

Finally, the ability to lock users out of a device or application is another tool that IT leaders depend upon to keep their remote workforces secure. Account lockouts are an inconvenience at the best of times, more so when an employee is working remotely and may not have alternative access to the right applications and information. Microsoft Account Lockout and Management Tools alleviate instances of lockout by providing a range of features that can help admins manage accounts and troubleshoot account lockouts and get their employees back to work quickly.

Outside of SpecOps Software's list, David Nolan, Founder and Strategic Advisor at Fusion Risk Management, highlights the company's Pandemic Toolkit, a free resource "for business continuity and risk managers, practitioners, and our global neighbours who need help managing the current crisis". The toolkit's advocates highlight how the solution can be used to help prepare for future scenarios by giving organisations the visibility and information they need to make more insightful business decisions and manage their business resilience.

The trusty VPN

Not listed in SpecOps' list is virtual private networks (VPNs). Although they are not usually a free resource, experts unanimously agree that VPNs should form an integral part of any organisations' cybersecurity and remote workforce strategy. A form of access control, VPNs create a secure link between an employee's device and the business network, allowing them to access business sensitive documents and shield their online activity from cybercriminals.

VPNs help to counter some of the more unique challenges of working outside of the office environment. For example, Simon Michie, CTO at Pulsant, remarks that "most laptops will now be accessing the internet through a consumer broadband device with no firewalling capability". In the absence of effective firewalls, a good VPN can protect users working online by preventing cybercriminals from monitoring their internet traffic and stealing personal data. 

VPNs also gives employees an additional layer of protection if they find themselves working from a public Wi-Fi hotspot. Public Wi-Fi connections, like those often provided in coffee shops and libraries, are notorious for their weak security. Transferring critical data across these network connections often runs the risk of interception by opportunistic cybercriminals. Yet, with the secure, encrypted connection offered by a good VPN, remote workers can send and share business information over public Wi-Fi networks in relative safety.   

Whilst VPNs do improve a remote employee's security, business leaders should remember that they are not presently a cure-all solution. Chris Konrad, Director, Global Financial Security, WWT, argues that "many business VPN setups were not designed for the kind of workloads now being experienced as we all are forced to work from home". Overloading a VPN can cause connectivity issues for the whole workforce, potentially exposing everyone to cybercrime, and preventing them from accessing the critical information they need to do their jobs effectively. If businesses want to make VPNs an integral part of their remote strategy, they will need to find a way to increase the burden they can bear, perhaps by purchasing more capacity or requesting employees only connect when working on sensitive data.

Other areas to consider: collaboration software and tool sprawl

Ben Griffin, Director at Computer Disposals, stresses the need for organisations to have "tools and applications that make communication with remote workers easier for everyone". Collaborative working has become increasingly important throughout lockdown as teams' try to coordinate with one another from many different locations. To improve their collaborative capabilities, many organisations have turned to virtual meeting solutions such as Zoom, Skype, and Microsoft Teams which have seen unprecedented levels of adoption in the last few months. Collaborative file sharing systems such as Dropbox and WeTransfer are also helping organisations to maintain productivity and keep projects running smoothly. 

Yet, whilst collaborative systems have helped keep businesses operational and efficient, these tools do come with security issues of their own that must be addressed first. Phil Richards, CSO at Ivanti, explains that IT teams "must not neglect the importance of securing collaboration software platforms". Cybercriminals often attempt to hijack chat windows in applications like Zoom to capture user credentials via the use of phishing links. Training the workforce to recognise common cybercriminal tactics can help improve overall security and minimise the likelihood of threat actors gaining a foothold in an organisation. Training intensity varies between organisations, but for those with limited resources, training could be as simple as making employees aware that they should not download or click on links from unknown, or suspicious contacts on their collaboration platforms.

Although many of the tools mentioned above can be used to improve an organisation's overall security strategy, Konrad highlights how most organisations already make use of 75-100 unique security products. He argues ‘that this tool sprawl creates operational challenges for everyone and exposes an organisation to unnecessary risk". He continues, "it is important to understand the technology you are integrating into your business and seek unbiased advice and expertise so there are no unexpected issues down the line". Given the complexity that comes from having so many tools that overlap with one another, it is imperative that businesses assess their own security architecture before going gung-ho with new tools. If businesses can accomplish this, they will put themselves in an even greater position to keep their remote workforce safe.

As businesses continue adjusting to remote working policies, there are many areas that IT teams need to focus on to ensure that their employees remain as secure as possible. However, by taking advantage of the free tools available on the market and putting aside time to ensure these new additions do not overcomplicate security, organisations can create a remote working framework that allows employees to do their best work at any time, securely.