Why contractors' home networks are a security threat

Companies should take note of a recent poll that found contractors and IT administrators were the favorite targets of hackers.

Four in 10 of a 127 self-proclaimed hackers surveyed last week at the Black Hat conference in Las Vegas listed the login credentials of contractors as a major prize. Three in 10 valued the names and passwords of IT administrators.

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In both cases, hackers sought the credentials as a quick way to get direct access to servers and systems housing valuable company data.

The informal poll, conducted by IT security vendor Thycotic, was meant to provide a sketch of hackers' thinking and motivations.

By identifying contractors as a prime target, the poll is a reminder that securing the network perimeter no longer stops at corporate offices. Instead, businesses have to consider the homes of contractors and employees, Kevin Jones, senior security architect for Thycotic, said.

"A lot of IT policies and security that are in place today don't strongly consider your work-from-home employees or contractors," Jones said.

An insecure home network could become a target for hackers, so questions that need to be asked is what kind of wireless router is being used and is the network secured with a strong password, Jones said.

Thycotic has seen the number of contractors used by companies increasing over the last couple of years, and believes that the "ever changing security perimeter is something that's going to be a big concern," Jones said.

Security measures companies can take is to enforce strict time frames on access to systems, Thycotic says. When a contract is fulfilled, credentials should be revoked immediately and system passwords should be changed.

In fact, passwords to access servers and databases should be changed regularly, especially when working with contractors or if there is a turnover in IT staff.

Also, system-level passwords should be stored in an encrypted database on the network or, in the case of high-security organizations, within a physical vault. From those locations, passwords can be doled out as needed to reduce the number available to hackers and to reduce damage from phishing attacks.

The unscientific Black Hat survey also found that slightly more than half of the hackers broke into computers for kicks, while almost 30 percent did so because of a political or social conviction. Only 18 percent hacked for financial gain.

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Hackers motivated by a cause typically mine social media extensively for information that can be used in phishing attacks against specific targets within a government organization, think tank or activist group.

To make such attacks more difficult, organizations should establish social media guidelines advising employees what is safe to post online, Jones said. For example, geotagging information should be removed from photos before they are posted.