The Importance Of Building A Secure Client Portal

Close-up dark keyboard with coding and programing conceptKeeping Your Client Portal Secure Is Life Or Death For Your Business

Client Portals are digital bridges that allow clients to utilize a web-browser (on any Internet-connected device) to access a login-based client platform or client space to carry out a series of critical tasks:

  • Collaborate on projects, documents, and files.
  • Store massive amounts of vital corporate documents in the Cloud.
  • Sign and share crucial documents with shareholders, business associates, and partners.
  • Communicate effectively and instantly within a group, with business partners, or with an individual, to increase workplace efficiency associated with projects, files, datasheets, etc.

Client portals give businesses and their partners, remote workers, offshore personnel and outsourced specialists a mutual, shared digital space for projects and workflow optimization, all via a system that is more secure than its predecessor - email. While email utilizes remote servers and sometimes encrypts communications with the Transport Layer Security (TLS) cipher during the data transfer process, client portals often use end-to-end TLS encryption for the entire data transfer process and data storage processes. Thus, the shared, client workspace (client portals) used for sharing critical files and collaborating on crucial documents must be entirely secure.

Client portals are commonplace in health industries and banking systems. For example, users may need to access a secure client space that holds their vital health records and data, or their banking records, statements, and balances. These client platforms also have optimized web apps hard-baked into them that allow specific workflows to be carried out, such as sharing health documents with a physician, or sending money to an external bank account, or even investing in shares. In the corporate world, such a client portal/space system may give partners the ability to access and collaborate on crucial project blueprints, financial reconciliations, and shareholder agreements - all via the Cloud.

The security of such portals is of the utmost importance. The essential documents, project worksheets, financial files, shareholder agreements, etc., are secure, safe, and accessible only by the pertinent clients. In the event of a data breach - via Man-in-the-Middle attacks, failed authentication mechanisms, or code injection techniques, among other attack vectors - terabytes of vital corporate data can be leaked, and the classified information of a company’s partners can also be leaked. Malware - such as ransomware - can also be installed on the cloud servers, giving malicious users a backdoor to a company’s most crucial data and IT infrastructure, potentially costing a company millions of dollars in damages and fines.

When dealing with the specifics of client portal IT security, a specific factor and sub-factor must be accounted for:

  • Network Security
    • Cloud security

Minimizing the attack surface of the cloud-based client portal/client space ecosystem by hardening the technology via security controls is one of the most important processes that a company with a client portal can ever take. Such steps to maintain data integrity not only protect the company but protect its customers and clients.

Why Is Security So Important For Client Portals?

Client Portals operate as Cloud-based, shared digital spaces for your clients to electronically “meet” and work together on projects, strategic and tactical workflows, and to primarily drive the business forward. For your business to thrive, the system used for such critical communications and collaborations must work optimally and be completely secure, not only to protect your business but also to comply with legislation and protect your clients/customers.

Many standard industries rely more and more on client portals as the central digital hub for business partners instead of email: 

  • Lawyers share vital documents and case files with clients via client portals.
  • Doctors send patients critical health documents via client portal spaces.
  • Large enterprises make essential business deals with associates via the sharing of contracts and project calendars/timelines.
  • Even essential functions carried out via such portals as paying bills and signing documents.

All of which rely on the security of their client portals. Everything associated with your brand’s integrity hangs on how secure your client portal is for streamlining communications and making collaborations more efficient.

Customers Place Their Trust In You

Customer trust is the first step to creating a loyal customer base and increasing your company’s brand ambassadors, all of which translates to a better bottom and top line. Similarly, improving client and business partner trust while increasing the convenience of completing workflows via client portal systems enhances business efficiency and ensures that your customers and clients will be loyal to your enterprise. Client/customer trust is not just an abstract concept or philosophy but a concrete tool that translates to a better business from a financial perspective. More customers mean more income for your company.

At the same time, losing your clients/customers’ trust by not taking due diligence to secure your client portal can result in costly data breaches that can expose your clients/customers’ PII (Personally Identifiable Information). When clients and customers recognize a company that does not value them enough to protect their interests and private assets, they lose trust in the brand, which can cost a company billions of dollars in lost customers and reduced sales.

Multiple Jurisdiction Now Have Strict Data Law

For companies operating in certain regions - such as the U.S. and E.U. - they must operate while being in complete compliance with those respective region’s laws and legislations. Failure to comply - which is often due to a lack of diligence in securing the private data of clients and customers - often results in harsh penalties, such as costly fines that can add up to millions of dollars. Some of the more critical regional data privacy and security laws are:

  • United States
    • Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act - Financial data privacy and security law
    • HIPAA - Private health information law
    • CCPA/California Consumer Privacy Act - Consumer privacy law, which is applicable only for businesses operating in California
  • European Union
    • GDPR/General Data Protection Regulation - Business and consumer data security law that covers the E.U.

Companies using client portals must ensure they are in full compliance with the data security and privacy laws of the pertinent region to ensure that they aren’t hit with hefty fines. 

A Breach Could Be The End Of Your Business

When companies suffer significant data breaches, the fallout and costs associated with the damages often add up to millions of dollars, which many businesses simply cannot afford. Avoiding such fines and damages by securing your company’s client portal may save your business from a business-ending data breach.

How To Keep Your Portal Secure?

Any company that houses customer PII and critical corporate data of any kind - while touching the Internet - is susceptible to a range of potential IT attack vectors, from buffer overflows, to code injection, to botnets ransomware, etc. Client portals are no exception. Malicious parties can hack web applications that house crucial business data and the vital data associated with clients, associates, and partners.

Several security best practices can be adopted and implemented to ensure complete data security, all of which revolve around the responsible management of a range of IT security controls, and the correct integration of all systems associated with the client portal solution.

Use A Managed Platform Who Share The Responsibility

External, managed platforms for the deployment of your company’s client portal are a reality in 2020. Such a solution allows skilled external admins to manage the client portal platform while aligning the portal’s configuration to your enterprise’s specific security needs. This solution enables your business to focus on carrying out critical workflows, while the client portal application itself is kept secure by the relevant professionals.

Ensure Whoever Builds It Understands Security Well

It is pivotal for the engineers who develop the client portal to understand secure coding methodologies and the OWASP Top 10 security vulnerabilities that often plague web applications and software in 2020. Developing the client portal with security in mind throughout the Software Development Life Cycle will enable the IT solution to work as intended (i.e., securely) without admins needing to refactor and patch the application due to vulnerabilities hard-baked into the app’s code.

Use A Two-Step Verification

When it comes to authenticating the pertinent users, using more than one authentication or verification step will ensure that only the correct individuals are granted access to the right sections of the client portal system. Such an extra step (dual-authentication, which often uses an email or SMS OTP code) acts as an additional layer of defense against hackers who seek to gain unauthorized access to the client space.

Set A Retention Policy

A retention policy ensures that data is managed and retained correctly, according to a strategy, which helps to ensure that unnecessary information is not stored in a way that can be accessed by hackers in the event of a data breach.

Deactivate Your Unused Portals

Suppose specific client portals are no longer needed. In that case, businesses must deactivate such portals to ensure that malicious users cannot access essential data and PII.

Set Access Limitation Within Your Portals

Using access control methodologies is essential to securely manage who has access to what within the entire client portal ecosystem. Access control and access management revolve around determining and managing how resources are accessed, and who has access to them.

Use Encryption

Enterprise-level, 256 bit, end-to-end TLS encryption (via the HTTPS protocol) ensures that clients, partners, and associates accessing the client portal via a web browser can securely access the system without any data leaks or plaintext data streams and packets being sniffed (captured) and read by malicious users. PII kept in the server’s database should also be hashed to ensure that malicious users cannot read user passwords or credit card data in the event of a data breach.

Secure Client Portal Software

There no shortage of secure client portal software systems, standards, security controls, and frameworks that can be adopted to ensure that your client portal is kept entirely secure include:

  • WAF (Web Application Firewall) software
  • Anti-Malware software (i.e., to protect against trojans, worms, ransomware, viruses, etc.)
  • Robust Access Control mechanisms
  • Authentication and Authorization functions
  • Correctly configured IT security systems
  • Updated systems from Legacy systems
  • Hashing of PII in the server database
  • Audits and Logs (of all access and processes carried out by users)
  • Automated Alerts (allowing Admins to know when users access or update anything in the system)

It is essential for security personnel to work in tandem with IT support admins, and for all such teams supporting and maintaining the systems to be trained in security best practices. Doing so will help ensure that human error doesn’t occur in a way that could result in a costly data breach.

Adhering to the ISO-27001 standard will ensure complete IT security, while risk management frameworks, such as NIST 800-37, will help keep any company safe.

The use of on-site, privately hosted data-warehouses and cloud servers may give IT professionals an extra layer of physical security and direct management of the database (cloud) servers. 

Software Security Is Not a Straightforward Topic

Hardening software systems of a business is a broad topic that requires extensive skills in a variety of IT security disciplines. Due to the unique needs of a specific business, and different integrations and systems within any given company’s IT infrastructure, it is essential to note that software can always be secure or insecure based on how it is developed, used, and deployed. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to IT security.

Any Software Can Be Built To Be Secure

Developing a custom client portal solution using secure coding methodologies (i.e., input validation) will help a business engineer a customized and secure client portal from the ground up.

Using off-the-shelf client portals and third-party integrations with client portal solutions may save a company time. However, a solution that is devoid of common security flaws that often plague one-size-fits-all off-the-shelf client portal applications and systems should be prioritized above expediency.

Different Products Of Providers Will Use Different Tools

Different vendors offering client portal solutions will use various tools and will be developed differently. It is crucial for companies who seek to use third-party solutions to ensure that the proprietary products that they use not only offer the correct and most relevant functions and tools but also were designed and developed with security in mind.

As Long As Security Is Planned For, The Software Can Be Secure

Before beginning any software development project, the product/solution in question should be planned from the beginning with security in mind. Within the secure software development life cycle (SSDLC), the most important aspects of a secure portal in development include:

  • Secure coding
    • Input validation
    • Robust authentication portal
    • Data sanitization
  • Implementing security controls and software

Using the OWASP Top 10 is one of the most critical steps to mitigate popular attack vectors, in which engineers should proactively reduce:

  • Code Injection
  • XSS (Cross-Site Scripting)
  • SQL Injection
  • Broken Access Control
  • Broken Authentication
  • Password Brute Forcing and Dictionary Attacks
  • Botnets/Malware

Engineers should also utilize defense-in-depth while using:

  • Risk Management Framework: A system for managing, prioritizing, evaluating, and identifying risks to IT systems.
  • Threat Modeling System: The identification of threats as the foundation of the system’s design and development.

Identifying and minimizing threats and risks before they happen helps ensure that most attack vectors against a company’s client portal and IT systems fail.

Ultimately, all IT systems and applications should be based on a robust, comprehensive IT security strategy that precedes the secure SDLC associated with the development of the client portal enterprise system and application.

There Is More To Security Than Just Software

Ultimately, the most potent attack vector is, and always will be, social engineering and human error exploitation. People, not software systems, pose the most significant factor when it comes to software security. Since human error plays a large part in the security posture of a company, it is vital for all team members who work with a company’s client portal systems to be trained on the solutions in place and to recognize threats and risks to the security posture of the IT infrastructure. 

Can You Build Your Own Secure Client Portal? 

Because of the solution’s complexity and risks associated with data breaches, companies are not usually advised to engineer their client portal solution from scratch. If, however, the idea of doing so seems plausible, there are advantages to doing so, such as using your internal engineers to create a proprietary solution. The new portal can be strategy-driven and fully-customizable that perfectly aligns with the overarching business strategy and Information Security Management Strategy of the enterprise. However, creating a genuinely secure client portal solution, with the best security posture, is not easy. Any potential security hole in the application can allow for mighty exploits to be executed on the portal servers, resulting in costly damages.

Security Is Not An Easy Process To Learn

Securely developing a robust client portal solution is a difficult task requiring extensive knowledge in IT security best practices and a myriad of skills and expertise. Such a massive undertaking also involves the use of secure coding methodologies, such as:

  • Input Validation
  • Secure Architecture Design
  • Defense in Depth Engineering
  • Privilege Management
  • Data Sanitization

Using thread modeling, risk management, and defining a specific IT security standard and company strategy is also required. Building such an app may be feasible, but any mistakes in the code can result in costly data breaches.

Using Managed Apps And Products May Allow Customization Of An Existing Secure Portal

One method of deploying an internally-customized client portal for your business is by using managed apps that are made to be aligned with the company security strategy and standard, a set of tasks that are typically carried out by the company CIO or CISO. Managed apps are applications that are managed by an admin or the vendor that can be customized to align with the security standard of the company, which frees the company to use and deploy the application without having to worry about application management. Such highly-customizable applications are an easy way for a company to create a customized client portal solution that already exists as an enterprise solution.   

If Necessary, You Can Always Hire Security Experts to Check Your Code

Code reviews and vulnerability analyses are two significant ways for companies to check and double-check their applications’ security posture. Usually, automated programs carry out the initial code reviews, leaving IT security experts to further review the code to ensure that no security vulnerabilities exist.

For instance, if a company decides to engineer their client portal solution from scratch but lacks IT secure coding experts, then the company’s engineers may make a functional client portal but may produce a solution that is flawed due to security holes. In such a situation, it is highly beneficial for such a company to hire secure coding reviewers to thoroughly review the code to ensure that the application is a securely engineered enterprise solution.

Building A Client Portal Could Be Called Easy, Securing One Could Not Be

While developing a custom client portal is feasible, ensuring that it is entirely secure, devoid of security vulnerabilities, and configured correctly and consistently managed well, is not easy. Such multifaceted tasks require:

  1. Multiple IT professionals
  2. Security specialists
  3. Code reviews
  4. Infrastructure specialists

It is often better to go with off-the-shelf solutions customized to meet your company’s specific needs.

Client Portals Have The Power To Change “Business As Usual”

Client portals are valuable business assets that can radically change how you engage with your customers and clients. While client portals can significantly impact your company’s operations by increasing efficiency and operational productivity, ultimately, your portal is only as useful as it is secure. Securing your client portal systems saves your company from fines and costly lawsuits and protects your clients/customers and brand. It is crucial to ensure complete data security and to protect your entire client portal with a wide range of security controls and IT security best practices, which ultimately protect your intellectual property and improve your clients’ experience.

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