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Protecting your Office 365 data against the threat of external and insider data breaches

(Image credit: Image Credit: Dennizn / Shutterstock)

Today, one out of every five corporate employees use Office 365 as more enterprises adopt the cloud-based suite of applications to reduce costs and increase productivity. While Office 365 provides opportunities and efficiency gains, it also exposes its users to security threats despite its basic set of retention and security features.  Emails and files used to send and host sensitive data are especially vulnerable.  According to data from Statista more than 347 billion emails will be sent and received by 2022, demonstrating the pervasiveness of email.  

How can you more effectively protect data in your Office 365 accounts?

As the modern threat landscape evolves, we hear daily of one report after the other of data breaches through phishing campaigns and ransomware attacks. Destructive malware attacks continue to increase in frequency and impact.  And ransomware is spreading from city to city around the world. 

Ransomware, a malicious program that infects a device and either encrypts or blocks access to data until the victim pays for its return, has become the most common variety of malicious code. Once it strikes, it is difficult to defeat without paying. And because perpetrators request payment through anonymous tools such as cryptocurrency, they are rarely caught.

To protect against these types of attacks, organisations need to look closely at the weak points in their IT infrastructure. And possibly one of the weakest points within any network is Office 365. 

Office 365 combines multiple apps together, creating a honeypot of sensitive data and files that can be exploited. According to recent analysis of account-takeover attacks targeted at Barracuda global customers, 29 per cent of organisations reported their Office 365 accounts were compromised by hackers in March 2019. More than 1.5 million malicious and spam emails were sent from the hacked Office 365 accounts in that one month.

Likewise, Microsoft was the number one phished brand. And according to a recent Ponemon report, 52 per cent of organisations’ sensitive or confidential data is stored in SharePoint, which if exposed could cause irreparable damage.

While headlines frequently focus on external attacks, the risk from employees accidentally or intentionally leaking data is also significant and arguably more difficult to confront. Increasing volumes of unstructured data and a wealth of sharing tools make it easy for employees to leave their companies and carry data with them to new jobs, or download it to personal systems at home.

Where to start?

Insider breaches can happen easily, and are incredibly hard to control and manage.  While there are solutions available, none are fool proof. That’s because insiders already have access to valuable data and often have legitimate business reasons to use and transmit it.

When we talk about insider data breaches, this can be anything from an intentional data breach, such as employees taking data to a new job, to employees rushing and sending sensitive data to the wrong recipient or simply through employee fatigue causing mistakes.

According to statistics from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), human error caused 90 per cent of cyber data breaches in 2019. Nine out of 10 of the 2,376 cyber-breaches reported to the ICO last year were caused by end-user mistakes.  This marked an increase from the previous two years, when respectively, 61 per cent and 87 per cent of cyber-breaches were ascribed to user error.

Where should organisations start?  While training, education, policies and tools such as email encryption are all part of the answer to combating this threat, you should also consider a robust backup solution with your Office 365 environment.  

As organisations continue to migrate to the cloud, so many are now looking at cloud-based backup that offers advantages over on-premises systems such as the ability to leverage the scalability and flexibility of the cloud while escaping the burden of building and managing additional infrastructure.  These types of backup solutions can recover a system quickly or, in some cases, instantaneously.

Though, isn’t a cloud product like Office 365 already providing backups? After all, Microsoft runs Office 365 in its secure data centres, so you always have access to it, right?.  While this is essentially correct, this often isn’t to the extent organisations think and need for true protection from cyber-threats.

Mind the gap

Whereas a backup solution from a software vendor such as Veeam, for example, can back up all your data, Office 365 backs up just some of your data, and for a limited amount of time. In most cases, Office 365 backups are held by Microsoft for just 30 days, while Veeam offers much more flexibility, including unlimited file retention. And if an employee leaves the company, Microsoft will remove their data, whether the business still needs it or not.

Therefore, a cloud-based backup solution enables you to recover data.  You can rest easy knowing you always have a trusted saved copy of your data available. This is equally helpful in the case of many of the most common accidents.

If an employee deletes or mistakenly corrupts a valuable file, a trusted copy awaits in your backup solution. Backup solutions are designed so that if a threat makes its way through your other defences, you can minimise the damage and bounce back quickly. The key to knowing you can achieve this is finding the right backup partner.

One example of a backup solution tailored to help support your Office 365 installation is our Secure Cloud Backup which is powered by Veeam. Our solution offers a cloud repository that automatically backs up Office 365 users’ data, including mail, calendar, contacts, SharePoint and OneDrive. The solution backs up data daily and provides unlimited storage and retention, so you can keep as much as you want for as long as you want.

Ultimately, for true peace of mind, organisations should combine Office 365 with a cloud-based backup solution as it will be increasingly targeted by hackers because of the weaknesses that we have highlighted in this article. Further information on this topic can be found in our white paper: Mind the Gap. Understanding the threats to your Office 365 data.

Brian Ussher, President and Co-founder, iland