Top 10 Data Security Best Practices for Remote Workers

Top 10 Data Security Best Practices for Remote Workers

Embracing remote work is a great way to build a team of highly skilled professionals—but it can also expose your organization to new cybersecurity issues.

When all of your team members are working in one physical office, you can more easily control access to computers, documents, and networks. Everyone is using the same file server, network, and internet connection.

When going remote, files must be shared across different computer networks—and may even need to be shared with team members working on personal, not company devices.

Luckily, there are several data security practices you can focus on to reduce risk and make remote work a safer option for everyone.

  1. Implement basic cybersecurity best practices
  2. Secure home and remote office networks
  3. Manage sensitive data carefully
  4. Keep communication secure
  5. Develop a strong password policy
  6. Use multi-factor authentication (MFA)
  7. Regularly back up data
  8. Be wary of social engineering
  9. Stay informed about security trends
  10. Seek professional security help when needed

1. Implement basic cybersecurity hygiene

Taking just a few basic steps and following some simple security measures can improve the remote information security at your company. These security controls can range from specific actions—like keeping software updated—to habits, like remembering to keep an eye on work devices at all times.

  • Keep software up to date. Requiring automatic updates to operating systems and individual software programs can help keep remote team members' devices secured against ever-evolving threats.
  • Scan devices for viruses and malware. Using reputable antivirus and anti-malware programs can offer an additional line of defense on devices that are kept secure and up to date.
  • Secure hardware when not in use. Make sure your remote team members know not to leave their work laptops or phones—even if they're using personal devices—unattended in public places like coworking spaces or coffee shops.
  • Avoid clicking unfamiliar links or links from unknown senders. Email applications like Gmail and Outlook filter out spam emails, but you should never click on a link or attachment from an unknown sender.
  • Only connect to known Wi-Fi networks. Bad actors can easily create public wireless internet networks that appear to be valid, but actually expose users to risk.
  • Turn on a VPN for remote connections. The use of virtual private networks, or VPNs, can add an extra layer of security when remote team members' computers connect to company systems.

If your company handles personally identifiable information (PII), you may also need to follow additional best practices—ones that help you secure personal data and avoid security breaches in accordance with privacy legislation like the GDPR.

2. Secure home and remote office networks

In addition to only accessing known Wi-Fi networks, you’ll want to make sure that the networks are secure.

Using secure internet connections is one of the biggest things that you and your team can do to improve cybersecurity while working remotely.

According to the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), a secure wireless internet network is:

  • Protected by a secure password that's changed regularly
  • Equipped with a custom service set identifier (SSID)
  • Only available to specific users, each of whom has an access password
  • Encrypted with WPA3-level security, which protects information sent and received on the network
  • Protected by a firewall installed on the router or modem

These measures make it harder for unauthorized users to access a network, thereby reducing the likelihood of a breach, attack, or data leak.

Each person who works with your company remotely should commit to only using their computer to access work documentation when on a secure network. The free public networks often found in coffee shops, libraries, and airports typically do not meet appropriate security standards.

Connecting to an unsecured network can open you up to an array of data privacy issues and other vulnerabilities, including malware and man-in-the-middle attacks.

3. Manage sensitive data carefully

When granting access to networks and documents, follow the principle of least privilege. This approach focuses on only giving users the minimum level of access or information needed to carry out a job, and can reduce exposure to sensitive information.

Establishing access controls based on role or project is one way to do this. For example, a content marketer working for a health insurance company shouldn’t need access to sensitive patient information that’s protected under HIPAA and similar privacy laws. You could give this team member access to your website content management system and an email account, but limit access to other systems and protected networks.

By restricting the number of authorized users who can access sensitive data—and by keeping those data access permissions role-based—you can more easily identify internal breaches and revoke user access when needed.

It’s important to stay on top of access management, too. If a team member’s role changes or they leave the company, you’ll want to remove their systems access accordingly.

4. Keep communication secure

Connecting to a secure network and granting role-based permissions won't be enough if you're talking about your work—or sharing files—through insecure channels.

Rather than allowing remote team members to access documents and send work messages through personal email accounts and phones, consider equipping your team with secure, company-issued phones.

If that's not an option, or you have committed to a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policy, you can still improve the security of your work communications by:

  • Assigning company email addresses and using end-to-end data encryption
  • Using encrypted messaging applications like Signal
  • Keeping all work communications on a company-controlled app, such as Slack
  • Only sharing files through approved channels, like a corporate Google Drive account
  • Communicating with independent talent through a dedicated platform like Upwork Messages

5. Develop a strong password policy

All of the apps and devices used for remote work should be password protected.

If you issue hardware to your team members, set up the devices so that they require passwords of a certain length and complexity.

For BYOD situations, make sure that team members have to enter a secure password to access company applications, email accounts, and other sensitive platforms.

In both instances, you'll want to set passwords to expire at dedicated intervals—such as every 90 days—and require that everyone update their passwords at this time.

A company-approved password manager, like Dashlane, 1Password, or Proton Pass, can help your team members create, retain, and update their passwords as required.

6. Use multi-factor authentication (MFA)

Multi-factor authentication (sometimes called two-factor authentication) is also a good idea. As the name suggests, it's a multi-step process that adds an extra layer of security to password-protected accounts and devices.

MFA can be set up in a few ways.

The first step is always to sign into an app or device with a password. After that, the user is triggered to complete another form of login verification. This might look like:

  • Receiving a code or clicking on a link sent via text message or email
  • Clicking a notification in a corresponding mobile app, if trying to log in on a computer
  • Pressing a button on a connected device, like a smartwatch
  • Entering a code generated by a designated authenticator app
  • Providing biometric data, like a fingerprint
  • Inserting or tapping a physical authentication device like the YubiKey

Using an authenticator app, biometric verification, or physical authentication device is typically more secure than sending verification codes via text message. This is because a phone’s SIM card can be stolen, copied, or otherwise interfered with—placing the verification code in the hands of a bad actor and opening up the possibility of a data breach or cyberattack.

If you're issuing hardware to your team members, adding a physical authentication device into each package is simple. If you're working with BYOD usage or independent teams, then consider requiring the use of an app like Google Authenticator or Microsoft Authenticator.

7. Regularly back up data

You should also have a rigorous system to back up your data—even when your devices are physically and electronically secured.

Storing documents in secure cloud services like Google Workspace is helpful. If your computer goes down, you'll still be able to access all of your essential work files on a new device.

Still, even with all your files in the cloud, you could lose access to your existing application settings, contact details, and more if your computer or phone stops working. By backing all of this additional data up to a secure location, you can quickly configure a replacement device to work just the way you need it to.

Apple and Windows computers all have backup capabilities—sending data to either the user's iCloud and Microsoft accounts or to a physical external drive. There are also third-party enterprise security systems that can help you back up your entire corporate computer network, website, and more.

8. Be wary of social engineering

Sometimes, if a bad actor wants to gain access to company systems, they'll do so by contacting a member of your team.

This is called social engineering, and the goal is to create a relationship that grants access to company information, files, or systems.

The person seeking access attempts to establish trust, either through a series of communications purporting to be about a business matter, or by posing as someone who is automatically deemed as "trustworthy"—like a member of your HR or IT team.

The team member that's become a target may trust this person and consequently fall victim to scams like:

  • Phishing. The use of fake links, phone calls, text messages, and other communications to gain systems access
  • Baiting. Sharing malware and viruses through email attachments and other files
  • DNS spoofing. Bad actors taking control of browser traffic to reroute activity
  • Scareware. For example, a ransomware program that brings up a message demanding payment for access to computer systems

This—along with the fact that real trusted contacts can have their own accounts compromised by hackers—makes it doubly important to:

  • Assess the risk of files and links when received via email or text message. If a link seems suspicious don't open it, even if it's from an email address you trust.
  • Carefully read email and web addresses that contain links. Bad actors will copy familiar-seeming addresses by, for example, replacing an “m” with an easily confused “rn.”
  • Be mindful of only sharing truly essential information with external collaborators, potential customers, and more—keep things on a need-to-know basis.
  • Verify unexpected requests, even if they seem to be from a team member.
  • Double-check someone's status as a colleague, vendor, or customer if they are unfamiliar.
  • Escalate concerns about data requests up the chain of command to verify whether or not the information in question should be released.

The people carrying out social engineering attacks are relying on their victims being too intimidated, confused, or embarrassed to ask for help—so don't hesitate to confer with a trusted professional if you're dealing with a suspicious message or link.

9. Stay informed about security trends

Unfortunately, social engineering and other forms of cybersecurity attacks are continuously evolving. Scammers are always looking for new ways to breach systems, gain access to data, and leverage emotions—like trust or fear—to compromise security.

Ultimately, the best thing you can do is ensure your systems are secure and your team understands best practices. You should also have a system for keeping relevant stakeholders informed about security concerns, trends, and developments.

The U.S. CISA, the U.K. National Crime Agency (NGA), and the Canadian Centre for Cyber Security all offer resources and information for protecting yourself from cybercriminals. Many other countries have similar agencies, too—so looking to your government for information is often a reliable first line of defense.

Security companies like Proton and McAfee also maintain resource libraries that can provide valuable information to help you learn more about cybersecurity trends and best practices.

10. Seek professional security help when needed

According to technology services firm AAG, over 53.52 million people in the U.S.—and 39% of U.K. businesses—dealt with cybercrime in 2022. It's unfortunately something that many people deal with, so don't be afraid to ask a trusted cybersecurity professional for help setting up your systems, evaluating risk, and rectifying breaches.

You can connect with internet security specialists, cybersecurity companies, and data protection service providers right here on Upwork.

These pros have experience working with companies of all sizes, across different industries—so you can connect with specialists who have the background and skills you need to develop incident response plans, shore up your security policies, and have a strong security strategy in place.

Build a secure remote team with Upwork

Upwork also makes building a remote team easy. While you'll still need to focus on keeping your files, communications, and systems secure as we’ve discussed, our platform makes it simple to:

  • Find and hire skilled independent professionals
  • Keep messages centralized and organized
  • Share single files related to projects (versus granting broad internal systems access)
  • Securely pay professionals you work with
  • Collaborate with internal and remote team members on projects
  • Build a network of professionals you and your colleagues trust

All you need is an Upwork account to get started. Sign up or log in today to begin finding the remote team—including cybersecurity professionals—you need to do your best work.

Upwork is not affiliated with and does not sponsor or endorse any of the tools or services discussed in this article. These tools and services are provided only as potential options, and each reader and company should take the time needed to adequately analyze and determine the tools or services that would best fit their specific needs and situation.

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Author Spotlight

Top 10 Data Security Best Practices for Remote Workers
Emily Gertenbach
B2B SEO Content Writer & Consultant

Emily Gertenbach is a B2B writer who creates SEO content for humans, not just algorithms. As a former news correspondent, she loves digging into research and breaking down technical topics. She specializes in helping independent marketing professionals and martech SaaS companies connect with their ideal business clients through organic search.

Top 10 Data Security Best Practices for Remote Workers
B2B SEO Content Writer & Consultant

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