Top SME Cybersecurity Challenges and How to Overcome Them

Written by Kate Lake on October 20, 2022

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October is Cybersecurity Awareness Month, and this year’s theme is See Yourself in Cyber, which focuses on the individual’s role in cybersecurity. While cybersecurity can feel complex and inaccessible to the average person, the reality is that everyone has a role to play in security, from executives to the IT team to end users. This month, the JumpCloud blog will focus on helping you empower everyone in your organization to do their part regarding cybersecurity. Tune in throughout the month for more cybersecurity content written specifically for IT professionals and MSPs.

Cybersecurity isn’t easy for anyone. Cybercriminals are smart, strategic, and quick, which makes it impossible for even the largest, most equipped organizations to achieve 100% security, 100% of the time. But small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) face additional challenges that make cybersecurity an even bigger threat. These challenges often compound upon one another, weakening security and generating vulnerabilities that adversaries have learned to spot and exploit.

It can feel difficult to guard against these threats as an SME. But fortunately, there are cost-effective, simple, and actually achievable ways for SMEs to build a viable security program. This blog will detail the top cybersecurity challenges SMEs face, their side effects, and how SMEs can combat them realistically and affordably.

Top Cybersecurity Challenges for SMEs

SMEs are nimble, adaptable, and innovative. It’s what allows them to keep pace with (and often, outstrip) larger competitors. These compact, agile environments make SMEs a consumer favorite: 91% of consumers prefer to buy from a small business when convenient.

But in terms of cybersecurity, SMEs generally have steeper hills to climb than enterprises. There are three foundational barriers to cybersecurity that are specific to SMEs: resource limitations, lack of cybersecurity experience, and IT sprawl. Let’s dive into each.

Challenge #1: Resource Limitations

In general, SMEs don’t typically have the same abundance of resources that large enterprises do — in fact, it’s sometimes quite the opposite. New, small, and quickly growing SMEs often have limited budgets and lean teams with lots to do. This makes for environments where SMEs have to prioritize carefully to ensure money, talent, and time are optimized.

However, security isn’t an SME’s only priority — not by a long shot. SMEs must balance these limited resources among many critical initiatives. And because available security solutions are often geared toward enterprises (expensive, complex, and requiring deep in-house expertise to manage), security sometimes falls behind on the priority list. 

Challenge #2: Lack of Familiarity with the Security Landscape

One of the most critical and pervasive security issues in SMEs is the widespread misconception that cybersecurity doesn’t concern SMEs. Many SME leaders believe that cybercriminals are not interested in going after SMEs, and that minimal, baseline security is sufficient protection. 

But in reality, SMEs are highly susceptible to cybersecurity attacks. In fact, 50-70% of ransomware attacks target SMEs, and a 2021 survey found that 42% of the small businesses respondents had experienced a cyberattack within the last year. That means that many SMEs underestimate their vulnerability and overestimate their defenses. For example, 62% of small business owners feel confident they could quickly respond to a cybersecurity attack, but only 34% have an incident response plan in place.

In addition, this false sense of security sometimes influences an SME’s decision not to invest in in-house security expertise. It’s rare for an SME to have multiple roles dedicated to security management and operations, and most companies with fewer than 5,000 employees do not have a CISO. 

Overall, underestimating risk while choosing not to hire in-house expertise can leave SMEs out of their depths and drive misguided decision-making when it comes to security. 

Challenge #3: IT Sprawl

IT sprawl is common in SMEs. Pressured to solve problems and make decisions quickly, teams often have to make tooling decisions with immediate solutions in mind rather than big-picture strategy. While this ad hoc approach is easy to fall into, it removes architecture strategy from the purchasing process, which can create environments where tools don’t work well together. As this effect grows, integrations become weaker and dependencies become more complex. Over time, this can create a disjointed IT environment that doesn’t effectively report on security. 

Side Effects: How Challenges Affect SME Security

Together, these challenges can create environments with many vulnerabilities and insufficient means of protection. 

SMEs Rely Too Heavily on Basic Security

Underestimating risk and a lack of available security expertise can lead SMEs to feel overconfident in baseline security measures. However, baseline security isn’t enough on its own. For example, nearly three-quarters of hackers say traditional firewalls and antivirus software are obsolete.

Compliance can also play a role in this. While compliance typically strengthens security, it can actually do the opposite when used as the only guiding light for a security program. Compliance regulations may only define minimum acceptable requirements and are not tailored to specific businesses or threats. While meeting compliance standards is an important baseline, it should be treated as such: a baseline. 

Overloaded IT Teams Lead to Oversights

SME IT teams usually have fairly heavy workloads, and most IT professionals are responsible for a range of functions. While this creates efficiency, it can also lead to oversights. 

For example, overloaded IT teams may not have the time to communicate effectively with one another or document their processes, leading to confusion, lack of transparency, and tasks falling through the cracks. With IT sprawl already complicating the environment, overloaded teams tend to lose comprehensive visibility, which opens up security gaps. 

In addition, alert fatigue tends to hit hard in sprawled IT environments, and doubly so for strained teams. When IT and security tools are sprawled and poorly integrated, they create noise rather than meaningful alerts. Often, they generate an overwhelming number of false positive alerts for activity like basic user logins or routine software updates. IT teams naturally learn to tune these out, which can cause real alerts to slip by unnoticed. 

Security Becomes Fragmented

Cloud security is often treated as a separate function from endpoint security: SMEs might invest in endpoint detection that applies to devices but doesn’t extend to cloud servers and workloads, for example. But servers and appliances can be managed as endpoints as well, and they need just as much protection as computers and mobile devices (see CrowdStrike’s list of endpoint types). Securing endpoints with separate solutions creates visibility and control gaps among the security tools, which can cause a failure to detect suspicious activity or alert to critical threats.

In addition, Windows usually gets the majority of security treatment at the expense of Mac and Linux. Windows has been the primary workplace OS for decades, and many legacy vendors tend to cater to this trend by tailoring their security products more heavily toward Windows. SMEs’ limited resources available to invest in security, combined with macOS and Linux’s reputation for superior security, have only exacerbated this trend. 

However, workplace devices are diversifying, and now Windows devices make up only 68% of the devices at the average SME, with Macs accounting for about 21%. While Mac and Linux devices do have some viable security protections built-in, they are not enough to stop the frequent and sophisticated attacks SMEs face today. 

Overall, tools and solutions that don’t integrate well with one another can’t effectively report on things as a whole. Disjointed security fails to provide comprehensive accounts of infrastructure activity — which, in turn, hampers an SME’s ability to detect and react to intrusions. 

Overcoming Challenges with IT-Security Unification

Adversaries are familiar with common vulnerabilities in SMEs, and they seek them out as easy targets. For example, adversaries know that many SMEs don’t invest in 24/7 monitoring, so cybercriminal groups often strike after-hours, when they’re more likely to get through an SME’s defenses undetected. 

It can be hard to envision a means to reduce these risks when facing significant challenges. How can SMEs stay secure without the resources, expertise, and IT environment of an enterprise-level organization?

Fortunately, enterprise-level security isn’t the only option — and there are realistic ways for SMEs to overcome these challenges and form viable security programs. Better yet, it’s possible to do so affordably, where you don’t have to siphon money and resources away from other business priorities to make security happen. The key lies in IT and security unification. 

Unifying your IT and security environment reduces sprawl, increases interoperability, and consolidates tools — which translates into stronger security and higher savings. To learn about IT unification and how it can help you power in your SME without detracting from other initiatives, download the whitepaper JumpCloud co-published with CrowdStrike, Combining Business Priorities and Security: Choose Your Own Adventure.

Kate Lake

Kate Lake is a Senior Content Writer at JumpCloud, where she writes about JumpCloud’s cloud directory platform and trends in IT, technology, and security. She holds a Bachelors in Linguistics from the University of Virginia and is driven by a lifelong passion for writing and learning. When she isn't writing for JumpCloud, Kate can be found traveling, exploring the outdoors, or quoting a sci-fi movie (often all at once).

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