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The hybrid office will create great opportunities—for companies and cybercriminals

April 27, 2021, 9:30 AM UTC
“Our growing dependence on virtual systems means that hackers have the ability to cause more havoc than ever before and to disrupt daily life in countless new ways,” writes Jesper Andersen.
(Courtesy of Getty Images)

Spring is always a time of renewal, but never more so than this year. After our long winter of forced isolation, the increased accessibility of safe and effective vaccines has many looking forward to shutting off Zoom, putting on some real pants, and emerging to see friends and colleagues in person for the first time in more than a year. Normality, it seems, is just around the corner.

Yet the world has been irrevocably changed by the past year, and the businesses, schools, and other workplaces that we enter back into won’t be the same as the ones we left last March. 

The pandemic accelerated long-standing trends in workplaces across sectors as companies quickly embraced remote work and stood up infrastructure to enable their employees to remain productive while working from home. 

Today we are finding that many of these developments are pretty good—enabling employees to work and be productive from anywhere without the headaches of a commute or a noisy office. And so, as the economy begins to reopen, many are looking for ways to make these temporary solutions more permanent and merge them with more “traditional” forms of working to create a sort of hybrid work environment. 

These new hybrid workplaces will create new opportunities for businesses and will allow us to create organizations that are more flexible, productive, and accessible than ever before. But they can also open up new avenues of uncertainty that could threaten every organization. And make no mistake—cybercriminals know this and are finding ways to take advantage of these vulnerabilities. 

Dangers of the hybrid model

The post-pandemic workplace will be a hybrid of the old and the new, with employees taking advantage of cloud-based technologies to work from anywhere, while also maintaining the ability to go into an office as needed.

From a cybersecurity perspective, however, this has the potential to be a nightmare scenario. While completely remote workers can be segmented in a way that protects central networks, hybrid workers expose these networks to increased risk every time they return to the office and reconnect, potentially bringing with them malware they picked up. 

In 2020, bad actors sent 61% of malware through cloud applications to target remote workers. Barely a month ago, the California State Controller’s Office, which handles $100 billion a year, suffered an email phishing attack on an employee that gave the hackers cloud access to internal documents and a launch point they used to phish another 9,000 employees. 

Multiply this by hundreds (or thousands) of employees connecting and reconnecting a couple times each week and you have hundreds (or thousands) of new vectors through which malicious actors can gain a foothold in your network, making the task of securing a network, and the users and data that are on it, even more complex.

Hackers smell an opportunity

The pandemic and confusion around the adoption of technology, the remote workplace, and demand for widespread digitized services created a perfect storm that hackers have been exploiting over the past 12 months. And the scale, frequency, and sophistication of hacking are only going to grow as organizations further accelerate their transitions to new, hybrid workplace models, and our social and economic systems become increasingly dependent on these digital technologies. 

A prime example of this is personal health data. Experian, the credit reporting agency, has pegged the value of an individual’s health care data at up to $1,000. Cybercriminals know this, and given the rise of telehealth and increased dependence on medical Internet of Things (IoT) devices, they sense the opportunity to more easily steal sensitive data and disrupt and hold ransom critical digital infrastructure. The result: Over half of health care providers suffered a data breach in the past 12 months, according to a study by my company, potentially exposing the records of millions of patients. The chief information security officer of Northwell Health called her sector the “No. 1 target for cybercrime” and noted, “It’s become a challenge now with the expanded remote workforce that we’ve been living in since COVID-19.”

This situation will be repeated across the economy. As workplace transformation continues to spread across sectors like state and local governments, attackers are finding a growing number of targets and vulnerabilities to exploit. And our dependence on virtual systems means that hackers have the ability to cause more havoc than ever before and to disrupt daily life in countless new ways—and to demand increasing amounts of ransom as well. 

* * *

Countering these threats won’t be easy. Solutions exist that are flexible and scalable enough to manage the growing number of remote connections—whether they come from remote employees, IoT devices, or students—and sophisticated enough to automatically identify and address the growing number of threats that users and networks face. (My company, Infoblox, helps organizations around the world extend and secure their digital infrastructure.)

Most importantly, companies need to thoroughly evaluate their cybersecurity strategy and make sure it is ready for this new world. Even with the rise of SaaS solutions and the widespread migration to the cloud, the adoption of cloud-based security solutions has lagged greatly, making the shift to remote work more costly, risky, and difficult. Making these investments at the outset can make the shift to a hybrid workplace smoother and more secure—sealing off possible vectors of attack before they are exploited. 

But in order for these solutions to be fully effective, a shift in outlook is also necessary. CIOs and CISOs need a seat at the table now, while the plans to reopen are still being made, to help identify and plan around potential vulnerabilities before they become threats. Cybersecurity can no longer be a tech or IT problem—it needs to be an organizational and operational priority.

The world that we are preparing to enter will be defined by the threats we face. The companies that thrive in it will be the ones that recognize this now and make security an integral part of their plans from the beginning, not something that is considered after the plans have already been made. Welcome to our next “Normal.”

Jesper Andersen is the CEO of Infoblox, a leading provider of core networking and security services to more than 12,000 customers.

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