Hacks, lean IT teams push SMEs towards next-gen cybersecurity tools

Hacks, lean IT teams push SMEs towards next-gen cybersecurity tools

Phoon Huat, a homegrown baking supplies company, was hit by ransomware last August, which prompted the SME to deploy a cybersecurity tool with machine learning built into it.

SINGAPORE: Homegrown baking supplies company Phoon Huat is looking to go digital and had plans to roll out an e-commerce platform last December as part of its digitalisation plans.

Then a ransomware attack hit.

Mr Erick Chng, head of IT at Phoon Huat, told Channel NewsAsia in a recent interview that malicious software infiltrated its systems last August. There were no financial losses, as the attackers appeared to be “just playing around” to see what kind of data they could access, he said. But Phoon Huat's systems were sufficiently compromised for the company to decide to delay the launch of the e-commerce site, he revealed.

He said the attackers had access to image files, which included the company’s invoices as these were scanned into the system as JPEG documents.

“The previous IT security systems were outdated and had not been patched since their licenses lapsed,” Mr Chng, who joined Phoon Huat in October 2015, shared.

Additionally, as Phoon Huat's IT department only had two other people, Mr Chng did not have the resources or bandwidth at his disposal to deal with the security breach, despite having suspicions of something lurking in the company's network two months before.

Following the incident, Phoon Huat decided to beef up its IT security including a recent decision to sign on with Darktrace, a UK-based security vendor that integrates machine learning into its cybersecurity tool, after learning about Darktrace's capabilities from a technology exhibition last year, Mr Chng said.

"Their cybersecurity system has the ability to learn by itself and provide insights to help us tackle real-time threats,” the IT chief said. “This means less manpower is needed and (the system) also contributes to staff learning (as they see how the machine works).”

To date, the business with the iconic Red Man logo has yet to launch its e-commerce site. Instead, it is “ringfencing” the site with adequate security measures first, to be ready to address any further security breaches, said Mr Chng.

Phoon Huat is just one of a few small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to have been hacked in recent years. Karaoke chain K Box Entertainment Group experienced a high-profile attack in 2014 after a group calling itself The Knowns breached its systems and leaked personal details of more than 317,000 members.

And the stakes are increasing for SMEs who must secure their online presence and customer information. The Personal Data Protection Commission took K Box and 10 other companies, to task for breaching the Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA) last April. In January this year, it fined both JP Pepperdine Group and PropNex Realty S$10,000 for failing to secure their customers' personal details on their IT systems.


The high usage of Web-enabled mobile phones in Singapore has also lent greater urgency to the issue of cybersecurity.

The international school United World College (UWC) South East Asia told Channel NewsAsia in an interview that as more people use devices to log on to its networks, there is increasing pressure on its lean IT team responsible for keeping the infrastructure of its two campuses here secure.

There is currently one person overseeing each of our Dover and East campuses, said Mr Ben Morgan, Director of IT at UWC.

At its peak, 20,000 connected devices can log on to the school’s networks, he noted, and the amount of data going in and out of the network is a challenge to keep track of in real time.

Furthermore, the school is a high-profile organisation with parents of its students working in the top companies in Singapore, so UWC is “very conscious” of the potential harm that could be done, should its systems be breached and personal details of these parents and their children are leaked, Mr Morgan added.

The international school is equipped with conventional IT security tools such as firewalls, whitelists and antivirus, but the IT director said it also signed up with Darktrace for its proactive detection capabilities, high visibility into its network and pool of skilled professionals available on hand should it need further assistance.

For example, Mr Morgan shared that one of its students decided to test Google’s claim of unlimited storage for Gmail, which led to a spike in its network traffic. The student created a file that automatically replicated itself to see what the ceiling of Gmail’s storage claim was, and consumed about 120 terabytes on the school’s network before being detected, he said.

He said it was through Darktrace’s tool that his team was able to understand the context of the data traffic and find out who was responsible for the spike. "This (episode) provided us a teachable moment” with the student to explain what responsible use of the Internet entailed, he said.


Phoon Huat's Mr Chng pointed out that while there are cybersecurity tools out there for SMEs to tap on, awareness among such firms about the importance of securing their digital presence is "still not there".

"Many business owners don't understand why IT exists until they feel the pain," he said, adding that it was up to the IT professionals in these companies to advise the owners.

Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat had earlier highlighted the importance of growing local SMEs’ capabilities regarding data and cybersecurity in his Budget speech on Monday. He noted that as the country pushed forward with helping SMEs go digital, data will become an important asset for firms, and strong cybersecurity capabilities will be needed for networks to function smoothly.

Source: CNA/kk