Justin Vaughan-Brown, VP Market Insight at Deep Instinct
Ransomware attacks have nearly doubled in the past couple of years. According to a new report from an international law firm the number of ransomware attacks reported to the Information Commissioners Office (ICO) went up within a year from 236 to 654 in 2021. With threat actors using increasingly advanced methods to launch attacks, organisations are too often financially unprepared when disaster strikes.
Apart from taking a mental toll, cyber-attacks put significant financial burdens on an organisation. Our own research among the C-Suite and IT security decision makers revealed that last year, UK-based organisations paid an average ransom of £3 million. While the decision to pay the ransom should fall on the shoulder of CEOs and CFOs, in many cases the latter were side-lined from the decision-making process. In only 14% of cases, financial officials play an active role in making final decisions around paying ransoms. This is an alarming proposition, as ransomware at its core is a financially motivated attack.
The unmasking of this vast disconnect in ways that the management team determines the risks and aftermath on their organisations after a cyber-attack, reveals a potentially risky misalignment of understanding and priorities when it comes to securing their organisation. So why do CFOs feel that their organisations are not prepared to face a cyber-attack and how does the CFO’s perception of the company differ from that of the CEO?
Why do CFOs feel their firm is ill-prepared against cyber-attacks?
One of the core challenges is the financial cost gap between those willing to pay a ransom and those who paid a ransom. Those who were willing to pay a ransom demand vastly underestimated the cost. For example, respondents who would be willing to pay a ransom in the future, estimated that the pay-out would cost, on average, £760,000; however, in reality the average amount paid was four times higher – standing at £3 million. In addition, it was revealed that only 32% of organisations were able to recover their entire data and show positive outcomes after the ransomware attack.
While CFOs of a company play a major role in boosting the morale of an organisation, CEOs are expected to exude confidence in their organisation. If CFOs do not assume their place in the team to help fight cyber-crime, then the organisation develops a false sense of security. This leads the CEOs and other members of the organisation to believe that they can effectively fight malware gangs.
Due to the plummeting number of financial officials being involved in the risk assessment of cyber-attacks on their organisation, fewer and fewer CFOs feel confident enough to state that their organisations are prepared to withstand a cyber threat. CFOs have also been excluded from making the decisions of paying ransom to malware gangs despite it being a financial issue.
For example, 56% of respondents stated they had paid the ransom to recover their data, with only 14% claimed that their CFO had made the decision – in the other 29%, the CEO had been in charge. Given the fact that there is a true monetary risk to such decisions, it’s essential that CFOs and financial executives should have a critical role in these decisions.
Moreover, only 12% of CFOs are actively involved in the risk management processes and hence only 14% feel their organisation is prepared to withstand a cyber-attack. On the other hand, 63% of CEOs are under the impression that their organisation is well prepared for it.
A wake-up call for the exec suite
From the organisations we spoke to, nearly two-thirds of the respondents confessed that their business had endured a ransomware attack. With the increasing number of cyber-attacks, it has become essential for an organisation to assess the impact a cyberattack may cause. Threat actors provide no assurance that all the data that has been encrypted will be returned even after a ransom is paid. In such cases, it would be important to have an estimate on the losses incurred.
Only 38% of respondents seemed confident in evaluating monetary value to the data within their organisation and analysing the potential impact of the loss. But 48% of organisations revealed inadequacy and inaccurate assessment of the cyber-attack and in some cases, no assessment at all.
Firms should initially analyse the monetary risks of a ransomware attack and response accurately to understand the true cost of any decisions, or else they will fall into the pit of false security after the true cost of the ransom is revealed. It’s imperative that senior executives at all levels should be a part of the ransomware response strategy and all relevant decision-making processes. Afterall, they all have a role in making sure that the business is buoyant and prepared in the face of adversity. Otherwise, organisations will continue to fill the pockets of cybercriminals, while incurring huge losses themselves.
Tax giveaway is a boost for business, but will it drive growth or fuel inflation?
Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng has announced a comprehensive wave of tax cuts and other incentives for individuals and businesses, as well as confirming some of the announcements made earlier this week. The measures are part of a new Growth Plan, which is aiming to boost economic growth. However, only time will tell if they will curb inflation and temper recession concerns.
Richard Godmon, tax partner at accountancy firm, Menzies LLP, said:
“With another fiscal statement to follow, this mini-Budget is a defining moment for the new Government and tax cuts are firmly back on the agenda.
“The biggest surprise was the decision to simplify Income Tax by moving to a single higher rate of tax for high earners of 40%, with effect from April next year. This will encourage a spirit of entrepreneurialism by incentivising work and putting money back into the economy. The flip side is that the Government might also be hoping that the move increases the tax take, as it could help to draw people back to the UK who may have previously chosen to live and work elsewhere, while encouraging others to stay put.
“The reduction in dividend tax rates and the abolition of the additional rate of tax from April 2023 means that business owners will need to consider carefully the timing of dividend payments over the next few months.”
Up to 40 new Investment Zones
The Chancellor also outlined plans to create up to 40 new ‘investment zones’ in England, with the potential for more in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Businesses in these zones will benefit from wide-ranging tax breaks including 100% tax relief on investments in plant and machinery, and no National Insurance Contributions will be payable on the first £50,000 earned by new employees.
Richard Godmon, tax partner at Menzies LLP, said: “The new Investment Zones are reminiscent of the former Enterprise Zones, but they will provide a much more favourable tax environment for businesses and they promise to become a magnet for inward investment. There are currently 38 areas in England on the list for consideration and we look forward to finding out which ones will be selected.”
Incentivising business investment and Corporation Tax rise ‘cancelled’
The limit of the Annual Investment Allowance (AIA) will not revert to £200,000 as planned in April next year, it will now permanently stay at £1 million.
Richard Godmon, tax partner at Menzies LLP, said:
“Capital allowances are highly valued by businesses and they will be pleased that this one in particularly is going to stick at £1 million and that this is no longer being described as a temporary measure, but is to be made permanent.
“The decision to cancel the planned increase in Corporation Tax (due to tax effect next April) will be a relief to many small and medium-sized businesses who have been concerned that this increase would erode profits further and make it even more challenging to remain viable.”
Incentivising entrepreneurial investment
The Chancellor highlighted plans to increase the cap on investments that can be made under the Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme (SEIS) from £150,000 to £250,000. Individuals making investments in start-ups up have had the limit doubled to £200,000, with the 50% income tax relief remining the same. The Government also gave its commitment to continuing to back the Enterprise Investment Scheme (EIS).
“These announcements send a signal to entrepreneurial investors that tax should not be a barrier and the Chancellor wants to expand incentives in this area,” added Richard Godmon, tax partner at Menzies LLP.
Stamp Duty Land Tax
The threshold at which Stamp Duty Land Tax (SDLT) becomes payable on residential property purchases in the UK has been raised to £250,000, double its previous level in a bid to boost the property market. In addition, first-time buyers will not have to pay SDLT on property purchases up to a value of £425,000 (up from £300,000). Both measures will take effect from today.
Richard Godmon, tax partner at Menzies LLP, said:
“The decision to raise the SDLT threshold is designed to build consumer confidence and boost the housing market generally. For property developers it will fuel activity by creating demand, particularly from first-time buyers, and help to free up finance to front-end development projects.”
Richard Godmon, tax partner at Menzies LLP, said:
“The repealing of the 2017 and 2021 IR35 changes will be hugely welcomed as it will remove an administrative burden, risk and cost, enabling businesses to devote resources to furthering their growth strategies.
“It is important to recognise that IR35 has not been abolished and the result of the changes is that the risk and compliance costs are being returned to the individuals and their personal service companies. HMRC will no doubt redirect their focus towards the contractors, which will bring challenges and make enforcement more difficult.”
A zero trust environment is critical for financial services
Not long ago security professionals were still focused on protecting their IT in a similar formation to mediaeval guards protecting a walled city – concentrating on making it as difficult as possible to get inside. Once past this perimeter though, access to what was within was endless. For financial services, this means access to everything from personal identifiable information (PII) including credit card numbers, names, social security information and more ‘marketable data’. Unfortunately, we have many examples of how this type of security doesn’t work, the castle gets stormed and the data isn’t protected. The most famous is still the Equifax incident, where a small breach has led to years of unhappy customers.
Thankfully the mindset has shifted spurred on by the proliferation of networks and applications across geographies, devices and cloud platforms. This has made the classic point to point security obsolete. The perimeter has changed, it is fluid, so reliance on a wall for protection also has to change.
Zero trust presents a new paradigm for cybersecurity. In this context, it is already assumed that the perimeter is breached,no users are trusted, and trust cannot be gained simply by physical or network location. Every user, device and connection must be continually verified and audited.
What might seem obvious, but begs repeating, with the amount of confidential customer and client data that financial institutions hold – not to mention the regulations – this should be an even bigger priority. The perceived value of this data also makes financial services organisations a primary target for data breaches.
But how do you create a zero trust environment?
Keeping the data secure
While ensuring that access to banking apps and online services is vital, it is actually the database that is the backend of these applications that is a key part of creating a zero trust environment. The database contains so much of an organisation’s sensitive, and regulated, information, as well as data that may not be sensitive but is critical to keeping the organisation running. This is why it is imperative that a database is ready and able to work in a zero trust environment.
As more databases are becoming cloud based services, a big part of this is ensuring that the database is secure by default, meaning it is secure out of the box. This takes some of the responsibility for security out of the hands of administrators because the highest levels of security are in place from the start, without requiring attention from users or administrators. To allow access, users and administrators must proactively make changes – nothing is automatically granted.
As more financial institutions embrace the cloud, this can get more complicated. The security responsibilities are divided between the clients’ own organisation, the cloud providers and the vendors of the cloud services being used. This is known as the shared responsibility model. This moves away from the classic model where IT owns hardening the servers and security, then needs to harden the software on top – say the version of the database software – and then needs to harden the actual application code. In this model, the hardware (CPU, network, storage) are solely in the realm of the cloud provider that provisions these systems. The service provider for a Data-as-a-Service model then delivers the database hardened to the client with a designated endpoint. Only then does the actual client team and their application developers and DevOps team come into play for the actual “solution”.
Security and resilience in the cloud are only possible when everyone is clear on their roles and responsibilities. Shared responsibility recognizes that cloud vendors ensure that their products are secure by default, while still available, but also that organisations take appropriate steps to continue to protect the data they keep in the cloud.
In banks and finance organisations, there is always lots of focus on customer authentication, making sure that accessing funds is as secure as possible. But it is also important to make sure that access to the database on the other end is secure. An IT organisation can use any number of methods to allow users to authenticate themselves to a database. Most often that includes a username and password, but given the increased need to maintain the privacy of confidential customer information by financial services organisations this should only be viewed as a base layer.
At the database layer, it is important to have transport layer security and SCRAM authentication which enables traffic from clients to the database to be authenticated and encrypted in transit.
Passwordless authentication is also something that should be considered – not just for customers, but internal teams as well. This can be done in multiple ways with the database, either auto-generated certificates that are needed to access the database or advanced options for organisations already using X.509 certificates and have a certificate management infrastructure.
Tracking is a key component
As a highly regulated industry, it is also important to monitor your zero trust environment to ensure that it remains in force and exompasses your database. The database should be able to log all actions or have functionality to apply filters to capture only specific events, users or roles.
Role-based auditing lets you log and report activities by specific roles, such as userAdmin or dbAdmin, coupled with any roles inherited by each user, rather than having to extract activity for each individual administrator. This approach makes it easier for organisations to enforce end-to-end operational control and maintain the insight necessary for compliance and reporting.
Next level encryption
With large amounts of valuable data, financial institutions also need to make sure that they are embracing encryption – in flight, at rest and even in use. Securing data with client-side field-level encryption allows you to move to managed services in the cloud with greater confidence. The database only works with encrypted fields and organisations control their own encryption keys, rather than having the database provider manage them. This additional layer of security enforces an even more fine-grained separation of duties between those who use the database and those who administer and manage it.
Also, as more data is being transmitted and stored in the cloud – some of which are highly sensitive workloads – additional technical options to control and limit access to confidential and regulated data is needed. However, this data still needs to be used. So ensuring that in-use data encryption is part of your zero trust solution is vital. This also enables organisations to confidently store sensitive data, meeting compliance requirements, while also enabling different parts of the business to gain access and insights from it.
Securing data is only going to continue to become more important for all organisations, but for those in financial services the stakes can be even higher. Leaving the perimeter mentality to the history books and moving towards zero trust – especially as cloud and as-a-service infrastructure permeates the industry – is the only way to protect such valuable data.
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