Chuck Provini knows he has a bright red bulls-eye painted on his back. As CEO of startup Natcore Technology, he hopes to develop technologies that will render the use of silicon crystals to make solar energy panels obsolete. Provini’s Rochester, New York-based company, which works with U.S. Department of Energy research labs, among others, to develop new technologies, represents a threat to China’s solar energy industry.
China’s position in solar energy is based on silicon, and the Chinese are targeting solar energy as a strategic industry of the future. The Chinese show no hesitation in trying to crack open the IT systems of American companies and government agencies to obtain proprietary information—despite President Xi Jinping’s promises to the contrary.
“Small companies do not typically have the budget to build all the great and wonderful things that bigger companies do, and they still get hacked,” says Provini, who dealt with top-secret issues while serving in the U.S. military. “So you try to create several boxes that people cannot access and keep as many things away from the Internet as possible.”
One of his large shareholders in the cyber intelligence business was the first to recommend that Provini keep his secrets in different modules not connected to the Internet. “That’s what you learn—to keep modules that are independent and accessible only on a need-to-know basis. Sometimes the simplest mechanisms are best.”
Not everyone can follow Provini’s example. In fact, the vast majority of small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) don’t have that option. Trends in the business world demand that smaller companies establish computerized supply chain connections with their larger customers and more connectivity, rather than less. This connectivity, in turn, creates vulnerability.
DOORS WIDE OPEN
The hackers who breached Home Depot and Target won entry through suppliers. It is precisely because of their connections with larger companies that SMB companies get targeted.
“A lot of smaller company CEOs are saying, ‘It won’t happen to me,’” says Devon Nevius, executive vice president of Upward Technology in Portland, Oregon, which provides Internet security for about 50 small companies in that region. “They’re saying, ‘It’s more of a Home Depot thing.’ But that is naïve.”
Cloud computing, or the use of large company server farms to store data and use software on demand, is a hotly debated piece of the emerging debate about cybersecurity at SMBs. Some smaller company CEOs believe that basing crucial information in systems managed by Amazon Web Services, IBM or Microsoft makes their data and intellectual property safer because the big IT providers boast the latest technologies and the best brainpower. Others argue that the systems those big companies use to store the data of thousands of companies makes them an increasingly
attractive target for cyber villains and that it is only a question of time before they get hacked.
Many smaller companies use a hybrid form of cloud computing, meaning that some data and some functions are based in the cloud while others are located on-premises. Trying to understand the security implications of hybrid systems can be difficult as well.
Other technological trends also open doors for the bad guys. Many SMB CEOs haven’t realized that doing something as simple as outsourcing a call center creates an opening because of the application program interface (API) used to link the call center company and the customer. It can be attacked and employed as an entry point into all the company’s systems. Elsewhere, the trend called the Internet of Things (IoT)—the massive linking of sensors, cameras and computers—promises big productivity gains but will only intensify the security challenge.