August 13, 2019

Is cybersecurity keeping you up at night?

Follow these recommendations and sleep better.

Like all nonprofits, Tech Impact continually struggles to balance cybersecurity against cost, time, and user frustration. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of room for error! With access to hundreds of nonprofits’ systems, Tech Impact is an attractive target for criminals, activist hackers, and even government agencies. We take our mission seriously and put as much as we are able to secure our environments.

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On the other hand, as security experts ourselves, we are quick to spot the difference between what “they say” you should do and what actually makes us more secure. In this post, I’ll share a subset of our security practices so that you too can do more than check the box.

Policies

You’ve heard it before (probably from us) but having written policies is an essential part of any cybersecurity strategy. The trick is to have a specific goal in mind for every policy and to keep the document itself short and to the point. Here are some of the goals and policies that your organization should likely have:

Goal Policy
Be able to hold staff accountable if they use systems or computers in an inappropriate way. Acceptable Use Policy
Educate staff about how to store and share sensitive information Data Sharing & Storage Policy
Make sure risky data isn’t kept forever Retention Policy
Educate staff about how to create, manage, and share passwords Password Policy
Ensure staff understand the potential ramifications (wiping devices if staff leave) of using a personal device for work activities Bring Your Own Device Policy
Prevent staff from transferring money or data based on impersonated emails. Approval Process for Bank & HR Data Transfer
Limit the number of administrators in our systems Administrative Access Policy

One goal of our policies is to allow us to discipline staff who won’t take security seriously. But generally speaking, we don’t expect our policies to guarantee that our staff stays safe. Instead, we use them to educate staff about how to be safe using the tools available to them.

Training

To get staff actually to be safe, we rely much more on training and awareness. Being secure means making the right decisions dozens of times a day. Every time we email a client or share a file, we have to evaluate the risk and take appropriate safety measures. The high frequency of these decisions means that we can’t expect our staff to look up and follow complex policies.

Instead, we teach folks regularly about who might want to attack us, why those attackers are interested in us, and how those attacks are likely to happen. By educating about our actual threats instead of imagined or possible risks, we keep our staff paying attention. That’s why we focus on password strength, phishing attacks, and impersonation attacks and not on protecting against NSA EMF monitoring.

At Tech Impact, our learning culture doesn’t lend itself to formal training. Besides some mandatory training for staff dealing with sensitive data (like HIPAA-regulated data), we mostly don’t force our staff to sit down for training. Instead, we regularly send emails and chat messages to the team with information about attacks we have intercepted or articles that seem relevant. This constant drip of information keeps folks on their toes.

One formal approach we do recommend is to use a third-party phishing penetration service like KnowBe4. Using the service, you can send your staff simulated phishing emails. Folks who fail the tests (by handing over their username and password) can be required to complete additional security training.

Escalation

Between our policies and constant communication, our staff is definitely paying attention! But paying attention isn’t enough by itself if folks don’t know what to do when they encounter something suspicious. At Tech Impact we’re lucky to have a resident security team. Our staff has been trained to forward emails or send questions to the team anytime they are worried about something that came in. By making it easy to report an issue and get help, we have dramatically increased engagement and often prevent staff from taking risky action.

For your organization, this might mean sending one person to security training, or it might mean sending questions to your support provider. However, you approach this make sure to keep a record of the kinds of questions and issues that come in so that you can identify trends and create better training.

Technology

Only now is it worth talking about technology. In truth, technology is important but not enough. Staff and attackers will always find a way to get around anything you put in place. Your best bet (at least for organizations that aren’t facing activist hackers or hostile governments) is to focus on policies, training, and escalation.

But if you’ve handled the basics, or if you are at particular risk, technology can absolutely help your organization stay safe. There are lots of resources out there about cybersecurity technology, so I’m not going to reinvent the wheel. But I will share with you some of the tools that we use. Note that this is only a portion of the technologies we use at Tech Impact to stay safe.

For Everyone

Some of the cybersecurity tools we use are foundational and should be used by every single nonprofit out there. Nothing listed here is particularly complicated or expensive, so don’t wait!

  • Software Updates & Anti-Malware: You should know this by now, but most malware-based attacks use known issues that have already been patched. Keeping your computers up to date and using Anti-Malware software is a foundational need for every nonprofit.
  • Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA): The single most effective thing you can do to keep your organization safe from account compromise. In addition to a username and password, your staff uses a separate code from an app or SMS text message to log into systems. This will almost eliminate the risk of phishing attacks.
  • Single Sign-On: Use Office 365, Google Apps, Okta, or another cloud identity provider to let your users log into all your systems with a single username and password. This enables you to enforce MFA across all your tools and lock all accounts down from once place. Any software you’re using that supports the SAML standard can be integrated for Single Sign-On
  • Device Encryption: Encrypt your devices so that no one can read data off them even if they are lost or stolen. This is free and easy for Android, iOS, Mac OS, and most Windows computers!

For Many

For organizations that have some compliance needs (HIPPA, etc.) or are dealing with otherwise sensitive information, there are some basic tools that can make a big difference without a considerable cost.

  • End-to-End Encrypted Email: Allows you to send social security numbers, healthcare information, passwords, and other sensitive information via email. You send a standard email, but recipients get a simple email with instructions to use a secure web portal to respond.
  • Data Loss Prevention (DLP) Scanning: Scans outbound email, shared files, or files stored in semi-public locations for sensitive information like social security numbers or bank account information. This is an essential backup to your policies educating folks on how to safely store and transmit data.
  • Device Management: Lets you monitor devices remotely and make sure that they are kept up-to-date, encrypted, and secure. It also allows you to wipe them remotely if they are lost or stolen.

For a Few

There are a lot of things we do at Tech Impact because we are at high risk. These aren’t things I would recommend for everyone.

  • Conditional Access: Prevent devices from downloading files or syncing data if they aren’t enrolled in your device management platform. This keeps the staff from saving data to devices that aren’t encrypted or that you don’t own.
  • Advanced Multi-Factor Authentication: Text-message based multi-factor authentication is not secure against a determined hacker. We use code-based MFA from our mobile phones and are exploring U2F and certificate-based MFA to make ourselves even more secure.
  • Centralized Log Analysis: We send all of our logs to a system that looks for unusual behavior. If someone logs in from an unusual location or downloads more files than usual, our security team gets an alert and can investigate.

Wrapping Up

As a technology nonprofit, we know that there are limits to what technology can do to keep us safe. That’s why we use this multi-layered approach that includes policies, education, escalation, and technology. Staying safe is a constant balancing act, and it’s important to remember that some action is always better than no action.

Sam Chenkin
Sam is an organizer and technology professional working to make the nonprofit sector a leader in the fight for an equitable society. Sam founded and manages the 10-person nonprofit-only consulting group at Tech Impact. The consulting group helps nonprofits understand how technology can (or cannot) support their missions and build power in their communities. Sam has technical expertise in the areas of data science, digital security, and digital transformation. Sam uses they/them pronouns and lives in a communal home in West Philadelphia, PA, United States of America.