The dangers of telecommuting: a growing concern

Working from home has its perils

Telecommuting has become a way of life as more companies allow employees to work from home doing jobs that might otherwise be done on corporate premises. As a result, IT managers are adapting security policies to encompass home PCs.

Last year an estimated 8.9 million telecommuters worked from home in the US for three or more days each month, during regular business hours, according to market research company IDC.

A quarter of them worked exclusively from home. At places where home-based work has become the norm, IT managers say a key concern is ensuring each telecommuter’s PC — typically granted remote access to a corporate LAN — keeps pace with office security guidelines.

“We have a fair number of employees who are telecommuters,” says Dan Lukas, lead security architect at Wisconsin-based Aurora Health Care, which operates 13 hospitals and dozens of clinics, and has about 25,000 employees. “We’re driven by the business, not the technology.”

Several hundred Aurora employees work from home, transcribing voice recordings made by physicians regarding their patients. These transcriptionists, situated all over the country, then remotely access Aurora’s private-line network over the internet, to file each transcribed recording with a patient’s online medical records.

Another type of telecommuter at Aurora is the radiologist, who accesses the network to look at medical images.

Kettering Medical Centre Network, a group of five hospitals in Dayton, Ohio, with 7,000 employees and 1,200 physicians, is one of many hospitals that see growth in telecommuting.

“More and more, physicians want access to their offices from home, and we’re giving radiologists secure access so they can read images from home,” says Bob Burritt, Kettering Medical Centre Network’s director of technology.

According to IDC, healthcare is the industry in which telecommuting is most common, followed by science and technical services, and manufacturing.

Lukas says Aurora transcriptionists who telecommute are given PCs with a standard image on them for hospital applications and security, such as anti-virus. They also are required to use secure VPN access.

The hospital is migrating from a Cisco IPSec VPN to a Juniper SSL VPN, since the latter doesn’t require special agent-based software to deploy.

Aurora’s IT staff coordinate with a business manager in charge of workers’ assignments, to ensure they have access only to the database resources they require.

Another group of Aurora’s telecommuters, tele-radiologists, may be called upon at home to examine medical images stored in Aurora’s multigigabyte storage-area networks and server-based repositories.

Because remote access is a critical part of Aurora’s daily operations, Aurora installed Lancope’s StealthWatch intrusion-prevention system to repel denial-of-service attacks or break-in attempts.

Despite the industry buzz about automated procedures for checking a user’s anti-virus and patch updates before granting network access, Lukas says Aurora officials, who recently tested Cisco’s Network Admission Control products, believe that for the moment it’s not a mature technology and is too expensive. “It would cost us US$50 per seat,” he says.

Telecommuting is growing in acceptance: IDC predicts there will be 9.9 million telecommuters in the US by 2009. A wide variety of organisations are offering telecommuter support. The Defence Information Systems Agency, which supports the military through technical services, is considering allowing its 5,000 employees, many of whom live in Northern Virginia, to telecommute at least a few days per week.

The financial-services industry is stepping gingerly into telecommuting, with IT managers being aware that government regulators and auditors will want to know about security controls on home-based computers.

Consultant Tom Walsh recommends that organisations adopting telecommuting equip at-home employees with dedicated PCs to be used for work only.

“Don’t allow shared computers,” says Walsh, noting that it’s poor practice to mix business and a family’s home computer use.

“Kids are too smart. They know how to get things like key loggers, and it’s happened.” Walsh suggests an alternative might be to install a separate hard drive on a home computer, with security controls that deny access to all but the telecommuter.

Beyond simply having a telecommuter’s PC mirror office PCs, Walsh recommends that businesses enter into signed agreements with telecommuters on exactly how home-based PCs are to be used.

This helps establish not only that the business owns them, but also how they’re to be used and maintained.

A number of vendors, including CA with its Remote Unicenter, offer tools to manage Windows-based applications remotely.

Sioux Fleming, director of product management at CA, says she has seen insurance companies, and other large companies, hire third-party technical services to be on call to fix machines when telecommuters have trouble far from corporate headquarters.

While most companies deploy anti-virus software on telecommuter PCs, one type of security protection that’s often overlooked is adding a desktop firewall, she notes.

“Port attacks are a real thing,” Fleming points out. “While people inside the corporate LAN are probably protected at the gateway, people working at home are not.”

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