Growth of the gig economy comes with a cybersecurity threat

15 October 2018 5 min. read
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The UK currently has around 2 million freelancers, and in the coming years the number of gig economy workers is forecasted to continue its meteoric rise. The growth of freelancing however comes with a threat to cybersecurity, warns an IT security expert.

Global digitalisation and widening opportunities to work independently fuel growth of the gig economy. Research carried out by the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed (IPSE) revealed that in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and France, the growth of freelancers had surpassed the growth of overall employment. The trend indicates that traditional businesses are losing control over their employees’ workplace security status, while the safety of sensitive corporate data is being laid into freelancer’s hands.

The expansion of the gig economy is also stimulated not only by freedom-seeking professionals but also lean-thinking businesses. Outsourcing tasks and responsibilities to freelance workers provides companies with more flexibility to control costs, working hours, and more. However, this also means that they become clients, and must open part of their internal resources to those who have limited or no direct liability to their business.

“Internally, companies develop strict security procedures for their employees and invest in expensive security systems. However, when it comes to outsourcing, companies lose control of any data they share with the outsiders,” says Naomi Hodges, Cybersecurity Advisor at Surfshark. “Generally, it is the same as leaving the backdoors unlocked in a fort.”

Growth of the gig economy comes with a cybersecurity threat

She says that when outsourcing business functions, most companies rely on confidentiality agreements. However, the increasing occurrences of data breaches demonstrate that potential financial and reputational losses are, in most cases, much higher than any agreement can cover. Even in an office setting, employees remain the weak link. Phishing attacks are incredibly frequent and, as practice shows, not even the big corporations are entirely safe from determined hackers. For a phishing scam to work, one leak is enough. However, the information security assurance gets even more complicated to maintain in case of freelancers.

The disregarded data security risk

A vast majority of freelancers choose to work remotely – in coworking spaces, cafes, or anywhere where there is decent Wi-Fi. They invest in getting the necessary tools for work, such as computers, software, and other devices. However, security of those devices is often omitted from their to-do lists.

“Almost anyone with some basic technical knowledge can crack the connection of public Wi-Fi after watching a step-by-step tutorial on YouTube. The hackers can see anything that is being sent to or coming from the computer using the network. If a freelancer does not encrypt its traffic, all their documents and files are put on public display,” explains Naomi Hodges.

The growth of the gig economy means that the number of vulnerable individuals is also growing. Freelancers who do not protect their devices are putting themselves and their clients at risk of data breaches, leaks of confidential information, and more.

How to secure freelancers

Companies usually enforce security and privacy on a network level. Since it gets complicated to replicate it when working with freelancers, business should require them to have security implemented at least on the device level, as even one vulnerable device can easily allow accessing confidential files and accounts. Naomi Hodges says, that although there are several solutions to encrypt any device’s data traffic, virtual private network (VPN) software is one of the most advanced and easiest to use. In addition to protecting from online snooping, VPN shields from malware attacks and surveillance.

“It does not matter if a freelancer is a business consultant, an engineer, or a photographer. They all work with information which can be classified as sensitive to their clients,” explains Naomi Hodges. “Usually, it’s not too difficult to indicate their clients simply by looking at their portfolios. They all count on luck that nobody is interested in his or her files, but that is why data breaches happen.”

A reliable VPN service can benefit both the freelancer and their employer. As an inexpensive tool, it can offer secure browsing while on public or home Wi-Fi, as well as ensure the user’s digital privacy. Connecting to a specific country’s service allows the user to work seamlessly while traveling abroad, especially if they need information which is only available in their home country.

If business managers who work with outside suppliers, such as freelancers or agencies, do not require them to have any security assurance apart from confidentiality agreements, it should be a responsibility of a reliable freelancer to ensure that their client’s data is safe.

Related: UK has 2 million freelancers and the number will continue to rise.