Cybersecurity should be a top priority for meeting professionals, who often work out of hotels, conference centers and coffee shops and use Internet connections that may not be secure.
“Event professionals are typically on-the-go and rely on wired and wireless networks to communicate business intelligence and private information. There are vulnerabilities,” warns Matti Kon, a security expert and president/CEO of InfoTech Solutions for Business.
Potential risks include data falling into a competitor’s hands, identity theft, and compromised bank account and credit card information.
“While it is more widely reported when large corporations such as Sony are attacked, the everyday professional is an easy target because hackers look at them as low-hanging fruit whose accounts are usually easy to get into,” says Kon, whose clients include the Department of Defense, top financial institutions and media corporations. He is concerned that most individuals, as well as many small and midsized companies, lack adequate protection.
The good news, according to Kon, is that fixes aren’t necessarily expensive. “For those with a small budget, simple steps like installing anti-virus software, routinely changing passwords, installing firewall and intrusion-detection software, and backing up data will help minimize threats,” he says.
Kon warns meeting professionals that open network Wi-Fi at conference centers and hotels can be dangerous, and advises them to make sure the virtual private network (VPN) belongs to a reputable source.
“In a hotel lobby, for example, make sure you are actually accessing the hotel’s Wi-Fi rather than another potentially untrustworthy Wi-Fi network. When possible, create your own VPN,” he recommends.
Either way, he adds, immediately disconnect from the VPN and erase traces of the connectivity from your device when you are finished. In addition, disable file-sharing or system access rights on your laptop, computer or PDA device, and secure the browser by forcing the use of Hyper Text Transfer Protocol Secure (HTTPS). All devices should be current with the latest software updates.
For additional protection when hosting offsite events, Kon suggests meeting professionals hire an IT outsourcing firm to run penetration tests on systems to assure that firewalls and Wi-Fi networks are secure and correctly routed.
Some event professionals are not overly concerned. Shawna Suckow, CMP, a Greater Minnesota-St. Paul-based author, speaker and founder of SPIN, Senior Planners Industry Network, adopts a common sense approach.
“We don’t currently do anything to directly protect attendees using Wi-Fi at our meetings,” Suckow says. “We rely on them to use common sense, not log into sensitive sites or share private info over Wi-Fi. If I had a meeting where sensitive information or privacy was of top concern, we’d explore alternatives to public Wi-Fi.”
Kon points out that data breaches can be extremely costly for corporations. For example, when Target experienced a cyberattack that compromised the information of more than 70 million shoppers last year, it cost the organization $148 million. After cyber thieves stole 60 million debit and credit card numbers from Home Depot, it cost the company nearly $70 million.
Kon admits that today’s hackers are more worrisome than those in the 1980s. “The earliest generation of hackers was interested in showcasing their capabilities or possibly settling some personal vendettas. But in the ‘90s and early 2000s, as computer systems were growing exponentially during the dot-com era, computer hacking moved from being a sport to a weapon. Hackers saw the potential for financial gain. Today, organized hackers have more malicious intentions. They penetrate systems and compromise our security for financial gain, and even for terror,” he says.
Kon, 53, knows firsthand about fighting terror. He grew up in Israel and served five years in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), working in intelligence and operations. This has made him hyper-aware of the need for diligence.
“We live in the age of cyberspace—it touches nearly every part of our lives, including our military, hospitals, businesses, schools and personal lives,” Kon says. “Securing cyberspace is essential, but not necessarily always guaranteed. There are many elements at play when it comes to cyberterrorism and cybersecurity.”