Cybersecurity threats pose a significant risk to small- and medium-sized businesses (SMBs). Hackers often target smaller organizations because they tend to lack the robust security infrastructure of larger enterprises. The consequences can include financial losses, damage to reputation, and legal action—and in some cases, it can even lead to the business being so damaged or losing so much money that it has to shut down.
The threat is real: 76% of SMBs surveyed in a 2022 ConnectWise study said they’d been the subject of one or more cyberattacks during the previous year. In a CrowdStrike survey of SMBs, 63% said they were facing increasingly advanced cyberthreats, including ransomware and identity-based attacks, and 61% said they lacked the cybersecurity staff and expertise to deal with these threats. Yet, in a recent AWS survey of SMB leaders, 35% said that cybersecurity was not a strategic priority.
What accounts for this disconnect? Why aren’t 100% of SMBs making cybersecurity a strategic priority? Simply put, it’s a combination of an increasingly complex threat landscape and a lack of in-house cybersecurity expertise.
The SMB threat landscape
Common cybersecurity vulnerabilities for SMBs include outdated software, weak password policies, lack of encryption, and insufficient employee awareness. It’s not that SMB owners are in the dark — far from it. It’s that they don’t have the staff or the cybersecurity expertise to address these vulnerabilities in the same way that larger enterprises can. In short, many are too busy running their businesses to constantly monitor malicious activity and protect their digital assets to the same degree as larger organizations.
But this can make them susceptible to phishing attacks, ransomware, and other malicious activities. Over the past several years, we’ve seen a rise in cyber threats targeting SMBs. One notable trend is the continued high rate of ransomware attacks, in which malicious actors encrypt a company’s data and demand payment for its release. SMBs, often with limited resources for robust cybersecurity measures, are attractive targets. Unless the ransom is set too high, they’re much more likely to pay it — especially if it’s business-critical data that’s being held hostage.
We’ve also seen a huge increase in identity-based attacks, in which attackers impersonate an employee or break into the identity management system used by a company and take over a legitimate identity. These are the systems that provide a single login that employees can use across all of the company’s applications — and while such systems’ security is usually much more robust than what any SMB can muster on their own, attackers that succeed in gaining access to an identity system will have effectively captured the whole ring of keys.
Additionally, supply chain attacks have gained prominence, with cybercriminals exploiting vulnerabilities in the networks or software code of smaller partners to gain access to larger organizations.
SMB owners are usually well aware of the cybersecurity risks they face. Unfortunately, they tend to have limited options for how to respond. They don’t generally have a built-out security team or the resources to support them. They may know they need a cybersecurity solution, but for most of them what that means is purchasing an antivirus product or something bundled into their OS, neither of which is very effective.
How AI can help make SMBs safer
Artificial intelligence can simplify the landscape for SMBs considerably, enabling them to realize far better security against ransomware, malware, and other kinds of attacks — without requiring an advanced degree in cybersecurity.
AI plays a pivotal role in simplifying cybersecurity for SMBs in at least three key areas. First, static AI, through advanced machine learning algorithms, can enhance threat detection and prevention by moving beyond traditional signature-based approaches. It identifies patterns and anomalies in data, enabling it to recognize potential threats that may not have known signatures.
Second, behavioral AI is able to address attacks in progress and stop breaches. By continuously analyzing user and system behavior, behavioral AI models establish a baseline of what normal behavior looks like — so any deviations from that baseline immediately stand out as a potential threat. This proactive use of AI enables real-time response, helping thwart attacks before they escalate.
Third, conversational AI can help simplify SMB cybersecurity by providing interactive explanations and answers to complex issues. Through natural language processing, this kind of AI assists SMBs in understanding security concepts, interpreting alerts, and making informed decisions. As a result, even without extensive cybersecurity expertise, SMBs will be able to effectively manage and respond to potential threats.
The combination of these three AI-driven approaches empowers SMBs to strengthen their cybersecurity posture in a more accessible and streamlined manner. The good news is that this is not science fiction: All three of these AI capabilities exist today.
What SMBs should focus on in 2024
With the help of AI-powered cybersecurity, and by implementing a few basic security measures, SMBs can rapidly improve their security postures in the coming year.
Implement AI-powered defenses: While collecting threat intelligence and analyzing it is beyond the reach of most SMBs, AI-powered defenses can provide the benefits of threat intelligence with a high degree of automation. It can be as simple as installing a cybersecurity agent—a small piece of software—on every machine in your network and in your cloud applications. An AI platform then uses data from the agent, plus the kinds of AI described above, to identify and prevent attacks from happening and to shut down any malicious activity that might be occurring. Setting up and configuring this kind of defense doesn’t have to be more complicated than a couple of clicks.
Implement multi-factor authentication (MFA): As we’ve seen in 2023, identity-based attacks have become an increasingly important way that attackers breach companies. MFA provides an extra layer of defense, making it that much harder for attackers to log in. With MFA, having an employee’s password is no longer sufficient to gain access — and this makes it exponentially harder for attackers to get in.
Perform regular backups: If your business gets attacked, cloud-based backup provides peace of mind and minimizes downtime. In the case of a ransomware attack, a backup might mean the difference between having to pay the ransom or not. Cloud-based backup systems provide better visibility and accessibility, and are generally protected by strong security themselves.
Lock down your cloud: Protect your cloud drives (such as Box or Google Drive) by implementing MFA and by using what cybersecurity pros call “the principle of least privilege,” which means giving people only the minimum level of access that they need for their jobs. That way, if someone’s identity gets compromised, the attackers won’t have access to the entire company’s data — only to the data and applications that person is specifically authorized for.
Educate your employees: Don’t underestimate the value of cybersecurity awareness training. Your staff should know what kinds of threats the company faces and how those threats might show up in their day-to-day jobs (phishing emails, smishing texts, honey traps, and more).
The landscape of SMB cybersecurity continues to evolve, and the arrival of new AI technologies offers a beacon of hope amid the challenges. By harnessing these tools, and by taking some basic cybersecurity measures, SMBs can bolster their defenses against cyberattacks. The future holds promise as AI will not only act as a guardian against evolving threats but also empower SMBs to navigate the complex realm of cybersecurity with confidence.
Daniel Bernard is the chief business officer for CrowdStrike. CrowdStrike Falcon® Go delivers CrowdStrike’s award-winning, AI-powered cybersecurity to small and medium businesses in seconds. Learn more and try a free trial of Falcon Go for SMBs.