The world of work has changed significantly in the last few years. Though telecommuting did not begin with the COVID-19 pandemic, the practice assumed new significance and urgency in the face of protracted global lockdowns.
Today, however, as the world learns to adjust to the new post-pandemic normal, it appears as if the transformations that occurred in response to the pandemic are here to stay. It’s estimated, for example, that nearly 20% of workers in the US now work primarily remotely, up from nearly 6% in 2019.
This suggests the virtual office space is here to stay, which raises critical questions regarding data privacy. Cybersecurity best practices are particularly challenging to maintain in remote work environments, but they are by no means impossible.
Indeed, when it comes to protecting the privacy of remote teams, it may well be that biometrics is the answer employers and employees alike have been looking for. This article examines the myriad ways biometrics can enhance the security of remote teams.
The challenges of cybersecurity
No matter what your industry, cybersecurity is always already a critical concern because it links directly to the safety, privacy, and financial security of your company, your staff, your partners, and your customers. Indeed, in recent years, some of the world’s wealthiest, most powerful, and most technologically advanced organizations have been rocked by cybercrime. This includes numerous cyberattacks on and security breaches of defense ministries, federal governments, and international governing bodies worldwide.
In addition to cybercrimes committed by or against state actors, there have also been innumerable hacking incidents perpetrated by individual agents, primarily those seeking nothing more than their own entertainment. This has included security breaches against major entities across industries, from Big Box retailers, such as Target and Home Depot, financial institutions, including Experian and Wells Fargo, to tech giants, including Yahoo and Facebook.
The vulnerability of remote work devices
As vulnerable as traditional brick-and-mortar enterprises may be to cybercrime, the risk is often exponentially increased when business operations move into a virtual space. Remote work involves a host of potential threats, many of which are unique and specific to the digital office environment.
For example, remote employees often find themselves completing most if not all of their work from home. Even those who have a dedicated home office are likely to leave their work devices, from cell phones to laptops, lying about that house. This means that anyone in the home could potentially access work devices and any sensitive company data stored there.
If a remote employee were to take their work devices with them when they left the house or traveled the risk that an unauthorized person might gain access only increases, as work devices may be more easily lost or stolen when devices are taken out of a single, secure location, such as a gated office building or a locked home office.
Hackers can also utilize a tactic known as Man-in-the-Middle (MITM) attacks, which involves them hacking into public Wi-Fi sources as a way to gain access to other devices connected to the network. This ultimately leaves remote workers and their data exposed if they happen to use their work devices while traveling or any other time they would utilize public Wi-Fi.
Risks to home networks
Unfortunately, it’s not only the risk of a potential bad actor gaining physical access to a work device that’s a matter of concern. It may be that the greatest threat of all is in the relative dearth of security measures integrated into most home networks.
Despite all that is already known about the prevalence of cybercrime and the importance of vigilance when it comes to protecting sensitive data, the threat of hackers penetrating unsecured or poorly secured home-based devices remains high.
For example, if a remote worker’s home network is open, that means it’s not protected by a password, firewall, or virtual private network (VPN). And that means that nearly anyone on that network can gain access to the device and read and even download its contents.
Open networks, as the name implies, are easily accessible to pretty much anyone. In other words, you don’t have to have an advanced degree from MIT or years of experience in black hat hacking to penetrate the system. However, that doesn’t mean that your remote office is safe once you secure your network.
Even the most up-to-date firewalls have security gaps that a diligent hacker can find and exploit, and even the most complex of passwords may be cracked if you have the right software. Similarly, though VPNs can offer a very high level of security, they are by no means infallible. Indeed, the litany of high-profile and costly breaches referred to above attest to the inherent vulnerabilities of even the most secure and sophisticated systems.
The power of biometrics
Given the immense challenges of securing enterprise systems, particularly in remote business environments, it may seem that true cybersecurity is more a myth and a hope than an achievable reality.
There is increasing evidence, however, that security is, indeed, within reach. The promise lies in biometrics, or the use of unique physiological markers to secure enterprise systems. To be sure, biometrics are nothing new. The science has been known and used for more than a century, with the advent of fingerprinting.
Today, however, biometric technologies are more advanced and more diverse than ever before. This includes the use of digital fingerprint and retinal scanners, facial recognition software, and palm and voice print analyzers to control access to sensitive locales and technologies. These biometrics, for instance, are now routinely used to activate door locks and secure mobile devices.
What sets biometrics apart from other security strategies is its uniqueness. Physiological markers are unique and specific to every individual, meaning that they can neither be predicted nor duplicated by bad cybercriminals. To fraudulently use biometrics, a hacker would need to have access to the individual’s unique scans as well as the ability to capture and use that print — a process far beyond the skill set and technological capabilities of most cyber criminals, even the most sophisticated.
What this means is that, for business owners and decision-makers, the implementation of biometric technologies may well be one of the most important and effective risk management strategies feasible. Not only do biometrics help mitigate the risk of a security breach but they can also support employee productivity while enabling employees to work securely from their own homes. For many employees, including those who are caregivers or who have particular physical or mental health needs, remote or hybrid work opportunities can be the key to loyalty, retention, and overall job satisfaction.
Biometrics and the virtual office
As important as biometrics may be in securing a physical workplace, their promise and potential may be even greater when it comes to protecting the virtual office space. With biometrics, for example, remote workers no longer have to worry about a work device being lost or stolen because only the authorized user will be able to unlock the device using their unique biomarkers, such as a voice print or retinal scan.
In addition to eliminating the concern that a work device may be lost or stolen, biometrics can also enable remote workers to secure both their work tech and their workspaces. Facial biometrics, for instance, can help keep home offices, as well as the equipment stored there, secure by allowing access only to the worker.
For employees dealing with highly sensitive data, such as HIPAA-protected medical records, this may well mean the difference between being able to work from home or being compelled to commute to the physical office. With the assurance of consistent and rigorous security in the home office space, employees can enjoy the physical and mental health benefits of avoiding a long work commute, which means not only that they have more time to devote to their work (and to family outside of working hours), but also that they will be healthier, happier, and more productive in their work.
Biometric protections are also highly beneficial in the remote work environment because it reduces the risk of lost productivity associated with more traditional cybersecurity measures. For example, standard approaches to securing work devices have relied on passwords and pins, which must be changed frequently to avoid their being compromised.
The difficulty with this process, of course, is that passwords and pins are easy to forget, often requiring workers to waste inordinate amounts of work time in the effort to retrieve or reset a lost pin or password. Biometrics eliminates the need for pins and passwords because the worker’s unique identifier is their own body.
Biometrics may well be the most important advance in cybersecurity in the modern workplace to date. However, for all its advantages in securing the physical workspace, the benefits of the virtual office may be greater still. Indeed, for remote teams, the promise of biometrics as a security technology seems nearly endless.
Biometrics free remote workers of the fear that family members, friends, or house guests may access work devices containing sensitive information. They all but eliminate the risk of a security breach should a device be lost or stolen, and they free workers from the hassle and the time suck of trying to retrieve or reset a lost or expired pin or password. And what this means, ultimately, is that the possibility of safe and secure remote work is now open to more employees and teams than ever before.