Fast internet connections, remote roles, and a plethora of professional tools have aided in the transition of more people working on a freelance basis or launching their startup. When you’re working on a client project, it’s easy to forget about keeping your own and your client’s data safe.
It’s almost a source of pride for freelancers and startups to work on a shoestring budget. Freelance and small businesses need little more than a good laptop and a steady internet connection to launch their micro business. While more people than ever before are working remotely, it also gives rise to new security problems for freelancers, entrepreneurs, and employees that work remotely.
One aspect that is often overlooked is the risk that cyber security threats pose. Businesses and freelancers constantly receive confidential information from their clients, such as business profiles, commercial strategies, trade secrets, and financial information. They become responsible to safeguard this sensitive information. Not only can the theft of confidential information tarnish your reputation, but it can also have far-reaching legal ramifications and leave a devastating hole in your wallet. This is especially true when you have entered into a non-disclosure agreement.
While small businesses are not as attractive targets as big cash-rich fish, they are much more vulnerable to the negative consequences of a cyber attack. For example, Sony’s PlayStation Network got hacked in 2011. The attack resulted in millions of affected customers, significant reputational damage, and a massive loss of approximately $100 Million. While this represents a significant negative impact on Sony’s bottom line, the survivability of Sony was not at stake. But how much damage can you suffer before you are pushed out of business?
That’s why you should take cyber security threats seriously. As a minimum precaution, freelance and small businesses should make regular backups of their critical data. They would also benefit from investing in a VPN, a comprehensive internet security software package, and a cyber security insurance policy. In the rest of this article, we have highlighted 3 best practices to reduce your cyber security risks. Continue reading if you want to learn more about the cyber security risks you face as a freelancer or entrepreneur, and how you can mitigate them.
The Three Most Common Types of Adversarial Attacks
The term “information security” refers to protecting information and information systems from illegal access, use, disclosure, interruption, alteration, or destruction.
If you aren’t prepared or don’t know what you’re up against, an enemy can use a variety of techniques to attack and halt your activities. Malicious hackers’ most popular attack vectors include social engineering, phishing, and malware infections, all of which can severely disrupt your operations.
Malware infection – Beware of text files and Excel sheets
There are hundreds of distinct kinds of malware. Some are harmless or simply unpleasant, but others can be extremely harmful.
The following are the most dangerous types of malware to be on the lookout for:
- Spyware: Installs silently and secretly records your screen, keystrokes, video, and audio.
- Remote Administration Tools (RATs): RATs allow hackers to take full control over your computer.
- Ransomware: This type of malware encrypts all your files and demands payment for the decryption key. It is life-threatening when it affects your accounting records or operational systems. In May 2021, the largest fuel pipeline in the US was taken down by a successful hacking attack. Colonial Pipeline, the operator, paid $4.4 million in ransom. The origin seems to go back to a password that was leaked on the dark web.
Do you think it won’t happen to you? That’s what I also thought. A few years ago, I faced a minor incident on my laptop. It got infected by a ransomware virus and all my files were encrypted. The hackers demanded $500 for the decryption key within 24 hours. The amount needed to be paid through bitcoins. I never paid and was fortunate enough to retrieve the data and pictures somewhere in my laptop’s memory. However, I still wasted two days of my precious time on formatting my hard drive and reinstalling all the drivers.
It may surprise you to hear that malware viruses are frequently distributed using word processing files. A dangerous macro malware might lurk behind an innocent word document. A malicious file can infect all your documents as soon as you open or close it. That’s why cyber security training is one of the most effective ways to create awareness around cyber security threats. A malware virus might also install a keylogger or a remote access trojan. With one of these installed, a hacker can gain immediate access to your complete computer and all its data. Sounds terrifying, right?
To avoid such a security incident from occurring, avoid opening any MS Office files from unknown individuals. If you open a document from a stranger, open it in safe mode by keeping the “Shift” key pressed while opening it. It is important to always remain vigilant.
3 vital recommendations to keep your freelance or small business safe
Remote working poses a serious security concern in a variety of ways, mainly because it provides cybercriminals with new channels for an attack. For example, unencrypted connections can be intercepted by hackers, and passwords can be sniffed, stolen, and used against you. Cyber security risks are real and can no longer be overlooked. It is increasingly likely you are confronted with a cyber security attack at some point in time and it might potentially drive you out of business in a blink.
A data leak can include your data and/or your client’s data. When this event occurs, you will have to inform EVERY single of your customers that their data may have been compromised. This will most likely affect your hard-earned reputation and significantly diminish your customer’s appetite to conduct business with you in the short term. In addition, you might be locked out of your systems and face severe business disruption. Spending time on restoring your systems is equal to time you cannot spend on earning revenues. In a worst-case scenario, your documents and methodologies will be permanently lost.
It is an especially sensitive topic when you have signed a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). If your clients suffered damage as the result of your data leak, they will most likely sue you and demand financial compensation. The risk of lawsuits following a cyberattack is real as evidenced in an article of the Washington Post.
Unfortunately, cyber-attacks happen every day. Highly complex and sophisticated organizations that have deep pockets are also not immune. For example, Saudi Aramco was hit by a theft of 1 TB of proprietary company data in June 2021. The data was being offered for sale on the dark web for up to $50 million.
If a highly sophisticated organization like Saudi Aramco can get hacked, it is not hard to imagine that freelance and small businesses are also at risk. While they do not have the same financial resources to protect themselves, they have one major advantage: Their operations are much smaller and less complex.
The following 3 recommendations go a long way in protecting your business and even in attracting new clients since you can assure them you take cyber security threats seriously.
1. Protect Your Connection with a Secure VPN
A virtual private network (VPN) is a means of establishing a secure, encrypted connection across a public network such as the internet. When forwarding network traffic, it employs increased security mechanisms to ensure that your data is not intercepted. A VPN is a secure conduit for your data. Instead of exposing data to the person in charge of the network, you route it through a trusted provider.
To connect to a VPN, users must first install the provider’s app on their devices (such as a computer, laptop, smartphone, or tablet). After you log in with your credentials, your computer will connect to a remote server. Once this connection is created, your internet connection, and thus any data received and transmitted over it, will be secured and encrypted.
Most individuals will use VPNs for business, to stay connected when traveling, to access websites that have been restricted by the government or internet service providers, or to watch TV shows from other countries. A VPN allows you to watch UK TV channels from the United States, or to watch US Netflix while residing in Thailand.
A VPN protects you on public Wi-Fi
One of the greatest perks of working as a freelancer is that you are extremely flexible in choosing your working spot. Many freelancers like to work from coffee shops. Individuals might also connect to Wi-Fi networks in bustling transportation hubs, shopping malls, or other locations. But is public Wi-Fi safe?
The answer is a clear NO! Various hazards have been discovered in free Wi-Fi hotspots over the years. Unencrypted data can be detected and captured by Wi-Fi sniffer software installed on laptops, tablets, and smartphones. Fake wireless networks that masquerade as authentic ones monitor everything you do while connected.
As a freelancer or even as an individual, you must exercise caution when using public or unsecured Wi-Fi networks, as some scammers may attempt to get access to your system via phony Wi-Fi networks. You probably don’t want a stranger sitting nearby to steal your username and password.
It makes little difference whether the Wi-Fi is free or purchased. You should not connect without a VPN if it is not yours. You have no control over what data is collected and how it is being processed.
Even when the network name appears to be legitimate, for example, Starbucks Wi-Fi, it doesn’t mean the connection is safe. Hackers prefer to mimic the names of public networks to build a clone. A public internet connection can carry any name and you never know who is watching when you connect to it.
So, opening your laptop in an airport or coffee shop to check your bank account or connecting your phone or tablet to public Wi-Fi to read your emails is not a smart idea. You are putting your personal and your client’s information at risk! Alternatively, you can always host a hotspot on your phone, if possible. Unfortunately, that might not be feasible when you are traveling.
Use VPN to browse without restrictions
Working as a freelancer allows you to work from anywhere in the world. You can fly to another nation and work from there while on vacation. However, because of geo-restrictions, various websites and services are frequently restricted in specific regions.
Major websites use geo-restrictions to regulate who sees what content and where. The geo-restrictions result from government censorship, copyright restrictions, security concerns, and commercialization schemes. This explains why certain websites are not accessible from certain geographies, or why you might have trouble binge-watching your favorite show from a remote location. With a VPN, you can often bypass these bothersome restrictions.
A VPN is a valuable tool to secure your connection and access blocked content
Virtual private networks (VPNs) have numerous benefits, ranging from keeping private information secure when traveling to allowing you to access prohibited websites. More than a quarter of internet users worldwide use a VPN regularly.
When your data is encrypted by a VPN service, you may work with peace of mind that your data is safe. ExpressVPN is my #1 choice because it offers a secure, reliable, and fast connection. It also has a clear no-logging policy which is important from a privacy perspective. From my experience, some other well-known VPN providers’ service was not always accessible.
2. Backup your data
If you don’t have a reliable data backup solution in place, you could lose all of your critical work data when there is a power outage or when your computer is compromised. It is always a good idea to back up your files regularly. Not only does it ensure that you won’t lose important documents, but it will also ensure that you can avoid embarrassment by not having to request your client to resend documents, or to be confronted with a sizeable amount of unbillable working hours.
3. Use a Password Manager
You’ve probably heard this before, but it can’t be emphasized enough. Make use of complex passwords and don’t use the same password for all your applications. It is also not a good idea to save your passwords on your desktop. Instead, you can securely store them in a password manager. Not only are password managers a lot safer, but they also speed up logging in to a website when you visit it.
Conclusion: Cyber security risks can threaten your business and should be mitigated
The digital age is characterized by several cyber security challenges, especially because of the increased prevalence of malware and phishing assaults. Freelance and small businesses should not ignore the threat. Some best practices to mitigate the likelihood and impact of cyber security threats are to make regular backups, to use a password manager to store your passwords, and to use a VPN service to keep your connection secure and private.