As small-business owners, we are used to locking our doors, turning on our alarms and keeping a watchful eye for suspicious activity. But, despite this vigilance, many of us neglect to protect one very precious asset: intellectual property.
Many business owners are aware of the traditional measures of protecting their intellectual property, such as through patents and trademarks on brand designs, products and formulas. But what about the digital files that contain these ideas? Are they safeguarded?
Intellectual property is fast becoming one of the most sought-after targets of cyber criminals. Small contract companies working with government agencies and firms supporting infrastructure and development, such as engineering groups and small research facilities, are often considered ripe for attacks by a new breed of criminals who aren’t simply hacking just to wreak havoc.
Some intellectual property thefts occur simply for competitive advantages, while other data breeches are part of a broader scheme. According to Verizon 2012 Data Breach Investigation report, small businesses, with fewer than 100 employees, were at the greatest risk.
The information technology industry has given a new name—advanced persistent threats—to cyber attacks with defined targets such as blueprints or auto-cad designs. These threats are more advanced and stealthy than ever before and are backed by humans being paid premium dollars to get the targeted information.
Audit Your Data
There are ways to protect your business’ intellectual property. Stephen Cobb, security specialist at Eset, a global antivirus, antimalware firm, said it’s vital to first identify the business’ digital assets and where they are located. Cobb recommends conducting a data audit which assesses the types of data that come into the business and those that are created and stored by employees. He also recommends a network audit to better understand what is currently on the businesses’ servers and networks.
“When you get a clear picture of where the sensitive data is and who has access to it, then you can put some rules in place,” he says.
Elizabeth Ireland, vice president of marketing at nCircle, a networking security and auditing firm, agrees with Cobb. “You can’t keep sensitive information safe if you don’t know exactly where it is and information like this tends to get copied or moved more often than most small-business owners realize.”
Both Cobb and Ireland recommend small businesses incorporate a well-defined digital security plan that includes, among other variables, policies on the use of mobile devices, social networks on corporate computers, sharing of passwords and restricted websites.
Cobb also advises that many larger companies require their vendors and contractors to show “a program of security awareness for its employees” before they agree to do business.
Requiring stronger passwords is the most cost-effective maneuver any small business can make to prevent intellectual property theft. It’s estimated that 60 percent of all data breaches could be prevented with stronger passwords.
Cobb says it’s important to educate employees on the need for strong passwords on all devices being used, including tablets and smartphones. There are several free software programs, such as Microsoft’s password strength checker, which analyzes your existing passwords, grading them weak, medium, strong and best.
It’s also advised that passwords be changed regularly and each new password is completely different from previous passwords.
A Systematic Approach
Traditional security defenses, like antivirus programs, will help protect systems against cyber attacks. According to Verizon’s study, 90 percent of breaches could have been detected by basic or moderate security measures.
There are also more sophisticated defense measures, like application white-listing, a systematic approach to only allowing trusted programs to run on a business’ server or network that may be beneficial in high-target industries.
Any controls that are put in place to reduce the risk of cyber attacks must be continuously monitored and updated regularly. Setting automatic updates will help lessen the possibility of human error.
It’s an unfortunate reality, but data breaches do happen and small businesses should have a plan in place in case their systems are compromised. If a significant breach occurs, the FBI should be contacted to investigate, especially if it involves sensitive data that could potentially pose a threat if placed in the wrong hands.
As a small-business owner, your time, your ideas and your company’s hard work may be the most valuable assets you own. Don’t let lazy digital security and simple passwords put your intellectual property at risk.
Angela Stringfellow is a PR and MarComm Consultant and Social Media Strategist offering full-circle marketing solutions to businesses. Angela blogs via Contently.com.
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