Working From Home? Protect That Data

By Angela Swan


In recent years technology has advanced to the point where we can access work e-mail from remote locations and transport enormous quantities of information on portable devices such as memory sticks. With so much data available to us outside of the office, it is important to understand the risks and best means to protect that data. Security and privacy are important considerations for HR staff who regularly work with employment files, performance documentation and details of background and reference checks. By understanding the risks and knowing simple ways to protect sensitive information, data can be safely transported and accessed outside of the office.


A number of different methods are commonly used to access work documents and information from home. Some companies provide employees pre-configured laptops, others allow remote access to the corporate network from the employee’s home computer and in many cases employees use memory sticks to transport data back and forth between home and the office.


In 2007, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development estimated that 59 million computers within the US were infected with viruses and other malicious software, collectively known as malware. Many malware applications allow a third party to remotely access an infected computer. This means that if your home computer is infected, someone may have access to all of the data on your hard drive as well as the data on the systems and devices that you are accessing. This can include your personal documents, personal and work e-mail and documents that you access remotely at the office.


Portable devices such as CDs, personal digital assistants (PDAs) and memory sticks are vulnerable to both loss and theft.  As technology has advanced, so has the storage capacity of these devices. A single memory stick the size of your thumb can hold hundreds of documents. A PDA can store a small database of information.


By now, you are probably wondering if it is worth the trouble and the risk to access or work with information at home. Not to worry. There are five easy steps that you can take to secure your computer and protect the data on your mobile devices.  


1. Pay attention to those Windows Update reminders. When the computer asks if you want to install the updates, say yes. If you wait until later, it leaves your computer vulnerable until the updates are installed. By the time that an update is released, a vulnerability has already been discovered. This means that the malware writers are working to exploit that vulnerability. The sooner you update your computer, the better and it doesn’t cost anything to do.


2. Make sure you have an anti-virus program running on your computer. Anti-virus software will continually monitor the files on your computer to ensure that they do not become infected with viruses. Configure your anti-virus software to check for updates each day so that new viruses are detected as soon as possible after they are released.


3. Install an anti-spyware program to check for malware that is monitoring your computer use but that is not classified as a virus. Many anti-virus programs now check for spyware as well as viruses but you should check the software that you are using to be certain that it is looking for both.


4. Make sure that you have a firewall protecting your home computer. There are several personal firewalls available, including a few that are free. A firewall prevents people on the Internet from initiating unwanted communications with your computer. This should not affect your e-mail or regular surfing and is designed to prevent other computers from attacking your computer.


If you have an all-in-one security package such as Norton Internet Security or McAfee Internet Security it will include anti-virus, anti-spyware and a firewall.


5. Encrypt your mobile devices. By encrypting the data on your memory stick or the CDs that you create, you can ensure that no one aside from you or the people you designate can read the information. It is important not to confuse the password protection available in your word processer or spreadsheet program with encryption. In most cases, these programs are not using encryption and allow easy access to the document with a small amount of technical knowledge. Encryption transforms data into an unreadable jumble of letters, numbers and other characters so that a person who does not know the access code cannot see the information. Many memory sticks come with encryption software included and you need only enter a code to access your data.


By taking these simple precautions, you can ensure that confidential data remains confidential when you are working from home.

Angela Swan, manager of IT Security for BC Housing, is a Certified Information Systems Security Professional, a Certified Information Security Manager and a Certified Information Privacy Professional – Canada. She has worked in the field of IT security and privacy for 11 years with a focus on security and privacy management, training, and policy development. Her background includes implementing the security and privacy program at Credit Union Central of B.C., managing the security, privacy, and compliance program at EDS Advanced solutions, and designing and managing the IT security program at the City of Vancouver.




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