7 Cybersecurity Best Practices for Managed Service Providers (MSPs)

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It seems like not a week goes by that we don’t read a news story about a cyberattack on a major corporation, a prestigious university, or a giant healthcare provider.

All of that attention on high-profile organizations might lull smaller businesses into a false sense of security. After all, small and mid-sized businesses (SMBs) don’t have as much customer and employee data on-hand and are less lucrative a target for cybercriminals.

While it’s true that data has become the most coveted prize for cybercriminals in the modern era, there are still plenty of hackers out there on the prowl for good old-fashioned cash. This is where smaller businesses are at the most risk. Verizon’s Data Breach Investigation Report for 2021 revealed that 93% of attacks on small businesses were financially motivated. In 2022, the same report found that money was behind a full 100% of attacks on very small businesses (organizations with less than 100 employees).

Managed service providers (MSPs) are in a strong position to make protecting those profits easier for small businesses looking for a trustworthy partner with a reputation for providing robust security. For an MSP with a wide range of clients, knowing how to prioritize cybersecurity concerns and support every client’s complex needs can be a daunting. There are seven cybersecurity best practices MSPs should follow when looking to boost their security offerings and give their customers peace of mind.

Cybersecurity Best Practices for MSPs

1) Establish and Follow a Formal Security Framework

When it comes to an issue as complicated and impactful as cybersecurity, it can be difficult for an MSP to even know where to begin protecting its customers. Fortunately, there are a number of proven frameworks for setting up a formal security program that protects both your organization and your customers.

The most widely used of these frameworks is laid out by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). NIST cybersecurity guidelines stress five key steps for maximizing security:

  • Identify the unique security needs of each customer within their industry
  • Protect each customer against the full impact of a cyberattack
  • Detect any potential incidents quickly and efficiently
  • Respond to any detected threats rapidly and according to a plan
  • Recover and restore all functionality in the event of a cybercrime incident
  • Other strong guidelines for setting up a security framework can be found in the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council (FFIEC) Information Technology Examination Handbook. This is a comprehensive resource that offers detailed guidelines for dealing with a wide range of specific cybersecurity scenarios, which makes it adaptable to nearly any business or industry.

2) Assess Vulnerabilities

Every business has its own set of processes, software, and solutions to keep things running smoothly. That also means that every business has its own set of vulnerabilities that can be exploited by a bad actor. Research shows that the average business uses around 130 different apps, each of which comes with its own set of exploitable elements. The U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Vulnerability Database, which tracks the number and severity of vulnerabilities within U.S. businesses, identified 3,239 highly vulnerable systems in 2022 alone.

That can be a confusing and difficult-to-manage scenario for small businesses with limited resources. An MSP can demonstrate value by helping customers with ongoing vulnerability management. This can help a customer streamline their processes and close up potential security gaps that they may not otherwise be aware of. An MSP can also provide guidance for customers looking to add new, more secure tools and systems to their daily functions for proactive vulnerability management.

3) Define and follow a schedule to keep systems patched

One of the biggest challenges in combating cybercrime is the constant evolution of the tools and strategies available to criminals. While technology is also constantly evolving to meet those new threats, unfortunately, too many businesses fail to keep up with the latest defense mechanisms. Criminals keep an eye out for systems with outdated security measures and known exploits, and they won’t hesitate to take advantage of any security gaps they can find.

MSPs can help to mitigate this risk by creating and maintaining security update schedules for each of their customers. Performing regularly scheduled audits of all of the networks and software solutions employed by a small business is a solid way to ensure that your clients are up to date on the latest patches and updates available for their systems. You can be sure that criminals will be doing the same.

4) Manage Third-Party Risks

Very few organizations operate entirely independently in the modern work landscape. Third-party service providers are both a necessary part of doing business and one of the biggest risk areas for cyber attacks.

In fact, a 2022 study found that 54% of breaches originated with a third-party. Worse yet, the same study found that only 34% of organizations had faith that their vendors would immediately inform them about such a breach. In a landscape where a timely response can mean the difference between a brief service interruption and a major incident, that kind of delay can be catastrophic.

Maintaining comprehensive records of the third-party vendors and services with whom your customers do business is a key piece of any cybersecurity plan. This should include regular audits of which third-parties have access to which systems, with plans for limiting that access to only vital partners. Establish a policy for vetting your customers’ third-party vendors that includes well-defined requirements for preventative cybersecurity measures. (And it should go without saying that MSPs are themselves third-party vendors who need to hold themselves to the same high standards.)

5) Equip Both Your Employees and Customers with Knowledge

For all of their complex schemes and high-tech capabilities, a striking number of cybercriminals gain access to systems using unsophisticated attacks that depend on catching a user with their guard down.

In 2022, half of all organizations experienced a breach, and what’s more, 89% of the respondents to Arctic Wolf’s global survey have been targeted by malicious messages in the last twelve months. For breaches where the root point of compromise is user action, the leading tactic is phishing.

For phishing and social engineering attacks to succeed, they require someone within an organization to open a dubious attachment, give away sensitive information, or otherwise provide access unwittingly.

The good news is that education can go a long way toward keeping criminals from getting a foot in the door. 84% of businesses report that improved training programs have reduced failure rates in phishing attacks. This is another area where a managed service provider can offer resources that may be beyond the means of their customers. Developing cybersecurity training programs that can be easily disseminated to both your employees and your customers’ employees helps to defend against potential attacks before they even start, and also helps to ensure that proper steps are followed if a data breach does occur.

6) Perform Continuous Threat Monitoring

Your customers may operate during normal business hours, but cybercriminals do not. An Arctic Wolf Security Operations Report finds that 35 percent of threats are detected between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m., with another 14% of breaches taking place on weekends. That makes perfect sense, as off-hours are the most likely time for a business to leave its network under-protected. Once an experienced hacker is in your system, it becomes much more difficult to mitigate or even detect the damage being done, as a skilled criminal knows how to cover their tracks.

One of the biggest cybersecurity upgrades an MSP can offer is continuous threat monitoring. Smaller businesses often lack the resources and personnel necessary to provide real-time protection around the clock. An MSP with a strong cybersecurity component can give those customers peace of mind with continuous, automated monitoring tools and immediate notifications when any suspicious activity is detected.

Experts agree that the sooner a breach is identified, the better the chance is of limiting the damage. For many SMBs, working with an MSP can cut that response time in ways their organization simply could not on its own.

7) Plan for Disaster Recovery

Unfortunately, even a well-thought-out cybersecurity plan can’t offer a 100% guarantee of protection. SMBs, especially those that don’t require a high degree of online savvy, can sometimes make an incident worse by not knowing how to respond to a breach. MSPs can provide an important service to customers by helping them to plan for the worst.

Every MSP should have a standard, step-by-step data breach response plan that can be shared with all customers. That includes a detailed incident response plan that clearly defines roles and responsibilities for both your employees and your customer. Having a plan in place for identifying a problem, remedying the issue, restoring functionality, and avoiding repeat incidents can make a major difference amidst the confusion and uncertainty of a cybercrime incident.

It’s also important to have a system in place to backup and restore any data that may be impacted by a data breach. Since smaller businesses may lack the tech resources for extensive data backups, being able to offer cloud-based storage options can be a real value-add for an MSP. Even a successful cyberattack does not have to be a disaster for your customers, so long as they have a trusted partner to help steer them through.

Cybersecurity is a vast and complicated field for even large organizations with a deep well of resources. For smaller businesses, navigating this territory and protecting against cybercriminals can be too large an order. MSPs are in a unique position to give their smaller customers a full-service package of cybersecurity protections and countermeasures.

Guest blog courtesy of Arctic Wolf. Read more Arctic Wolf guest blogs here. Regularly contributed guest blogs are part of MSSP Alert’s sponsorship program.