Maintaining a secure small business or home network isn’t easy, and even for an old hand in IT, it still takes time and energy to keep things locked down. Here are 10 of the most critical steps you can take to keep your data from ending up elsewhere, and none of them take much time or effort to accomplish.
- Get a Firewall
The first step for any attacker is to find network vulnerabilities by scanning for open ports. Ports are the mechanisms by which your small business network opens up and connects to the wider world of the Internet. A hacker sees an open port to as an irresistible invitation for access and exploitation. A network firewall locks down ports that don’t need to be open.
A properly configured firewall acts as the first line of defense on any network. The network firewall sets the rules for which ports should be open and which ones should be closed. The only ports that should be open are ports for services that you need to run.
- Password Protect your Firewall
Great you’ve got a firewall, but it’s never enough to simply drop it into your network and turn it on. One of the most common mistakes in configuring network equipment is keeping the default password.
It’s a trivial matter in many cases for an attacker to identify the brand and model number of a device on a network. It’s equally trivial to simply use Google to obtain the user manual to find the default username and password.
- Update Router Firmware
Outdated router or firewall firmware is another common issue. Small business network equipment, just like applications and operating systems, needs to be updated for security and bug fixes. The firmware that your small business router and/or firewall shipped with is likely out-of-date within a year, so it’s critical to make sure you update it.
Some router vendors have a simple dialogue box that lets you check for new firmware versions from within the router’s administration menu. For routers that don’t have automated firmware version checking, find the version number in your router admin screen, and then go to the vendor’s support site to see if you have the latest version.
- Block Pings
Most router and firewalls include multiple settings that help to determine how visible your router and/or firewall will be to the outside world. One of the simplest methods that a hacker uses to find a network is by sending a ping request, which is just a network request to see if something will respond. The idea being if a network device responds, there is something there that the hacker can then explore further and potentially exploit. You can make it harder for attackers by simply setting your network router or firewall so that it won’t respond to network pings. Typically, the option to block network pings can be found on the administration menu for a firewall and/or router as a configuration option.
- Scan Yourself
One of the best ways to see if you have open ports or visible network vulnerabilities is to do the same thing that an attacker would do – scan your network. By scanning your network with the same tools that security researchers (and attackers) use, you’ll see what they see. Among the most popular network scanning tools is the open source nmap tool). For Windows users, the Nmap download now includes a graphical user interface, so it’s now easier than ever to scan your network with industry standard tools, for free. Scan your network to see what ports are open (that shouldn’t be), and then go back to your firewall to make the necessary changes.
- Lock Down IP Addresses
By default, most small business routers use something called DHCP, which automatically allocates IP addresses to computers that connect to the network. DHCP makes it easy for you to let users connect to you network, but if your network is exploited it also makes it easy for attackers to connect to your network. If your small business only has a set number of users, and you don’t routinely have guest users plugging into your network, you might want to consider locking down IP addresses.
- Use VLANs
Not everyone in your small business necessarily needs access to the same network assets. While you can determine and set access with passwords and permissions on applications, you can also segment your network with VLAN or virtual LANs. VLANs are almost always part of any business class router and let you segment a network based on needs and risks as well as quality of service requirements.
For example, with a VLAN setup you could have the finance department on one VLAN, while sales is on another. In another scenario, you could have a VLAN for your employees and then setup another one for contract or guest workers. Mitigating risk is all about providing access to network resources to the people who are authorized and restricting access to those who aren’t.
- Get an IPS
A firewall isn’t always enough to protect a small business network. Today’s reality is that the bulk of all network traffic goes over Port 80 for HTTP or Web traffic. So if you leave that port open, you’re still at risk from attacks that target port 80. In addition to the firewall, Intrusion Prevention System (IPS) technology can play a key network security role.
- Get a WAF
A Web Application Firewall (WAF) is specifically tasked with helping to protect against attacks that are specifically targeted against applications. If you’re not hosting applications within your small business network, the risks that a WAF helps to mitigate are not as pronounced. If you are hosting applications, WAF in front of (or as part of) your Web server is a key technology that you need to look at. Multiple vendors including Barracuda have network WAF boxes. Another option is the open source ModSecurity project, which is backed by security vendor Trustwave.
- Use VPN
If you’ve gone through all the trouble of protecting your small business network, it makes sense to extend that protection to your mobile and remotely connected employees as well. A VPN or Virtual Private Network lets your remote workers log into your network with an encrypted tunnel.