Cybercrime: Why CAs must be more vigilant than ever
The growth in remote working and the proliferation of cloud software have increased opportunities for cybercrime. David Fleming, Chief Technology Officer at Mitigo, tells Fraser Allen why CAs need to be vigilant
Cybercrime has been one of the few areas of the global economy to flourish during the pandemic. As businesses scrambled to transfer office-based staff to homeworking, digital criminals seized on the fresh opportunities it presented to create havoc.
Government figures show that an astonishing 27% of UK businesses were attacked at least once a week in 2021. The average annual cost to firms which lost data or assets after breaches was £8,460 – and, for many, it was much higher than that. “A cyber-attack can be devastating, both in terms of its financial and emotional impact,” says David Fleming, Chief Technology Officer at ICAS partner Mitigo. “This is a global criminal industry. Attacks are automated, indiscriminate and high volume, and as soon as the attackers see something that’s working, the impact rapidly accelerates.”
Fleming warns that there are essentially three types of cyber-threat that businesses need to guard against.
Many in the UK became aware of the dangers of ransomware through the Wannacry attack of 2017, which paralysed parts of the NHS. The attackers seized and encrypted data, demanding a bitcoin ransom to release it.
Fleming remembers being called into one organisation where extensive data had been seized and encrypted by criminals who initially gained access through one compromised laptop. “We advised them on their obligations to the regulators, to their customers and to the police,” he says. “And then we had to help them with some serious conversations about the ransom deadline. The standard advice is never to pay up but, as a business, you have to think carefully about the sustainability of your business and your responsibilities to your clients.”
Email phishing has become even more dangerous with the move to cloud-based email accounts. It takes just one person in your organisation to click unwittingly on a compromised email link for criminals to access all the folders and files associated with the account. For an accountancy firm, this could prove particularly disastrous.
3. Software vulnerabilities
Software vulnerabilities are a particular area of concern for Fleming. Often, the creation of a software patch by a supplier can alert criminals to the existence of a weakness – and then they can begin to target businesses that aren’t on top of their software updates.
Staying on top
The growing threat of cybercrime adds to the pressures faced by SMEs, many still grappling with the heightened data management requirements of GDPR, while CA firms must also meet the expectations for integrity, competence and due care set out in the ICAS Code of Ethics. Fleming advises CAs to give data security the time and importance it deserves. “It’s one of those things that’s easy to put off until it happens to you, and then it may be too late,” he says. “There’s a certain amount we can do after an attack but it’s much better to protect yourself in the first place.”
Fleming also encourages CAs to think about their security management in terms of these three key pillars.
1. Company policy
Make sure you have sensible, comprehensive security policies in place. Consider whether staff use their mobile phones or laptops for work – and, if so, how? Put protocols in place for staff to follow and consider how they are being monitored by the firm.
Track the devices, hardware and software used by people in your business and get an understanding of the potential risks involved. For instance, identify the platforms being used to transfer files – as well as who is responsible for managing software patches. Consider whether company emails are appropriately secured.
There’s often an assumption that highly trained professionals won’t click on phishing links – but it’s a mistake anyone can make. Ensure that everyone in your organisation has received training to stay alert to this threat. Then put in place processes so that staff know what to do if they think they may have clicked on a compromising link.
Fleming’s core message to CAs is to take action now, and stay on top of the threat: “Data is probably the most valuable and sensitive asset that a CA firm has. Big conversations about how you protect it from criminals should be a priority.”