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Use a variety of cybersecurity methods, including testing and services done by outside, third-party experts, to ensure your organization's cyber defenses are strong. — Getty Images/MoMo Productions

Many merchants assume that because their business hasn’t experienced a data breach, their cybersecurity defenses are strong. In reality, 53% of information technology (IT) experts admit they aren’t sure how well the tools they’ve deployed to protect business information are working.

No security problem is a good problem to have — until you learn that your business has been the target of an attack and you were not aware that your defenses were breached. According to experts at the Ponemon Institute, it takes financial services companies an average of 98 days to detect an intrusion on their networks; retail companies take an average of 197 days.

Cybersecurity requires constant monitoring and testing to ensure your defenses are working as they should. Follow these best practices to make sure your system will immediately alert your team if there’s a security breach.

Conduct regular testing

There are a few different methods to choose from to see if your cybersecurity software and processes are working as they should. These tests are complementary and should be performed by outside, third-party experts as well as those within your organization.

  • Cybersecurity audit: Often required by regulations (such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), an audit looks holistically at your company’s cybersecurity policies, procedures, and operating effectiveness. “The purpose of the audit is to identify internal controls and regulatory weaknesses that may pose risk to the organization,” wrote AT&T.
  • Risk assessment: A risk assessment more specifically examines the effectiveness of security controls. The National Institute of Standards and Technology offers a series of tools that can be used to regularly carry out risk assessments. Likewise, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency offers free cyber hygiene vulnerability scanning for small businesses.
  • Penetration test: A “pen test” takes place when a cybersecurity expert attempts to penetrate a company’s security defenses. Generally, working with a third party who has no knowledge of your cybersecurity strategy can help expose blind spots and vulnerabilities in your defenses.
  • Red team assessment: Similar to a pen test, this strategy employs a team of experts to test your cybersecurity. These assessments are generally more comprehensive than pen testing and can result in specific action plans for updating or improving your cybersecurity.
  • Bug bounties: Large companies like Apple, Microsoft, and Google have bug bounty programs that pay public users to find and report vulnerabilities in their systems.

Mix and match these tests throughout the year to make sure you’re getting the full picture of the strength of your cybersecurity defenses. Regular risk assessments and penetration tests can inform you if any of your systems need updating or upgrading.

[Read more: 8 Best Practices for Keeping Customer Data Secure]

The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency offers free cyber hygiene vulnerability scanning for small businesses.

Integrate AI

Artificial intelligence (AI) can help monitor and alert your team to anomalies or unauthorized activity on your systems. A report from IBM found that early adopters of AI are able to monitor more devices, platforms, and software programs with fewer staff — with greater success.

“Their use of AI has helped reinforce network security by monitoring 95% of network communications and 90% of endpoint devices for malicious activity and vulnerabilities. They estimate that AI is helping them detect threats 30% faster,” wrote IBM.

There are a variety of AI tools on the market designed with small businesses in mind. For instance, Nightfall uses AI to automatically scan for data exposure and data breaches in spreadsheets, PDFs, images, screenshots, and more. Vectra AI is another tool to research.

Reduce the risk of shadow IT

Shadow IT refers to devices, apps, and software that are in use in a company without the knowledge of your IT security team.

Shadow IT is a common problem for small businesses. You can’t monitor what you can’t see. And with the rise of remote work, employees are accessing company data on more devices than ever. Today, Forrester estimates that most employees use two or more devices for work. That means a company with 50 employees has to monitor and protect more than 100 devices that access valuable information.

To manage unauthorized devices from accessing your data, most experts recommend a combination of vulnerability testing and employee policies. “[You] need to continuously monitor your network for new and unknown devices, comparing the list between scans to determine when new devices appear,” Dwayne Melancon, CTO at Tripwire said in CIO.

Finally, ask employees to follow specific guidelines around using company-approved devices.

[Read more: CO–'s Guide to Cybersecurity]

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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