How retailers can increase their cyber resilience

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According to the wealth of media headlines in the past 12 months, there has been a dramatic increase in the frequency of data breaches that now occur. This is in large part due to the ever more sophisticated techniques being employed to infiltrate company networks. Today, it seems that a month doesn’t pass without another high-profile blue-chip organisation falling victim to a data breach; and the costs involved should this happen can be crippling. The latest Ponemon institute survey calculates that the average cost of a data breach for UK businesses is an incredible £2.48 million, or almost £100 per record. This cost is calculated by looking at turnover of customers, increased customer acquisition activities, reputation losses and diminished goodwill. 

Protecting networks from complex and sophisticated data breaches is already difficult enough, but it becomes even harder within a distributed branch environment, such as those in nationwide retail chains or franchise businesses. Many of these retail organizations now need to process large amounts of data at the edge – in the physical store where the need for information relating to promotions, offers and stock inventory is required in ‘real time’.   

Catalysts for change 

In recent times, the retail sector has been placed on the frontline of the cyber attack battle and has increasingly had to bear the weight of having to protect not just its own data, but that of its customers as well. As the Ponemon statistics highlight, post breach lack of customer confidence can severely impact brand value, financial reputation and also the bottom line.

Unfortunately, the frequency that retailers are being attacked seem to be rising every day. Recent research by Zynstra has discovered that retailers are now being hit by a cyber attack on average twice a week — with almost one in six (16%) saying they now experience an attack or attempted attack every day. Among retailers, the incidence of cyber attacks was found to be especially high in the grocery sector, with almost twice as many (29%) respondents having to deal with attempted security breaches every day, and 55% doing so every week. In other retail verticals, 65% of respondents in the sports and outdoor sector said they responded once a week, as did almost half (49%) of fashion retailers and 40% of department stores. 

For modern distributed retailers that have several disparate locations throughout the country or internationally, there are many unique security challenges. Changing consumer demands and increasingly stringent regulatory pressures are both catalysts for change, and have forced distributed retail enterprises to carefully consider how they protect themselves, and their data moving forward. 

Patching all the holes 

The distributed nature of a retailer’s network residing across multiple locations and often supported by limited – if any – local IT expertise makes it very difficult to maintain a high state of cyber resilience. One of the most effective tactics to ensure that infrastructure is as resilient to the scourge of cyber attacks as it can be, is to regularly apply security patches and updates.   

Research from Verizon suggests that over 70% of security breaches now come from not keeping systems up to date. In fact, the impact of this year’s most infamous cyber attack, the WannaCry ransomware attack in May, could have been mitigated if available patches had been installed. 

Reducing the risk 

However, with the highly distributed nature of the IT estate, retailers are finding that keeping patches current and up-to-date is a non-trivial challenge. There is a complex supply chain that needs to be built and maintained upstream of any deployed systems. In order to reduce the risk and make the task manageable, automation must be at the heart of any viable current solution, otherwise the risk of manual error or omission becomes too great.

The Zynstra research highlights that work is still to be done in the retail industry in regards to mitigating the risk of cyber attacks, with only around half (55%) of retailers currently applying security upgrades and patches across their branch network weekly and three quarters (77%) once a month. When it comes to backing up critical in-store data across their branch network though, the results were more encouraging, with 75% doing so once a week, and almost half (46%) of retailers doing it daily.   

Trying times 

There is no doubt that — from an IT security point of view —  these are trying times to be a retailer. With only a third (33%) of respondents admitting that they are very confident that their branch network is secure, major concerns identified include back-up data not being restored quickly enough in the event of a cyber event (37%), and that patches and upgrades are not applied in a timely manner (22%). Retailers need to consider a new approach, one that takes the load off IT teams and increases cyber resilience through the intelligent automation of processes required to keep branches secure. As a result, the answer is having a centrally managed secure platform to achieve this level of automation. 

Regular updates form the first line of defence, but if cyber criminals manage to breach your defences, the only solution is to restore from a backup or a snapshot. To be effective against ransomware and minimise disruption, backups or snapshots must be taken frequently, securely retained for an extended period in case the breach is not detected right away, and be capable of being rapidly restored.  

Prevention better than cure 

Today, taking care of a distributed branch network, from a maintenance and security point of view, can be extremely challenging. For modern highly-dispersed network architectures to remain immune to increasingly-prevalent advanced persistent threats (APTs), they need to constantly evolve. Prevention is always better than a cure. Rather than waiting for a breach to happen, it is best for retailers to ensure that their systems are fully patched and up-to-date in order to be fully prepared. 

Of course it is here that compliance also plays an important role — retailers need to ensure their infrastructure meets industry regulations, from GDPR to PCI-DSS. Increasingly automation is the solution to compliance issues; as part of a centrally managed platform, this can be used to mitigate the risk of human error. 

It is important that branch IT – the often-outdated element of the IT estate – is not the weak point in the frontline. It’s not enough to invest in protecting just the head office or the datacentre – the distributed branch network must be brought into the equation too. This is the hostile environment at the edge which could be open to even more threat from cyber attacks. The old mantra of ‘if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it’ doesn’t apply when considering the ever-escalating security challenge retailers are facing. With constantly evolving security and compliance requirements, there’s a greater need to make sure branch IT is secure, to keep customers happy and meet compliance requirements.     

Nick East, CEO, Zynstra 

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