Launching a new website is an exciting project filled with important steps and decisions. As you get close to the end of the process, it can be tempting to push ahead and open the site to public access, leaving some tasks to worry about later.
However, you should never roll out a personal or business website without properly securing it first. Not only is the fallout from being hacked a headache, as the owner of the website, you are responsible for its content as well as the mechanisms that people will use to interact with it.
If you plan to store user information, such as passwords or phone numbers, it is critical that you safeguard that data appropriately. In fact, you could be subject to data breach fines under certain legislation.
Here are the five most important steps that you need to take to secure your new website.
1. Choose a reliable host.
In the early days of the World Wide Web, individuals and companies would obtain and maintain their own servers in a localized data center or office. The cloud computing movement radically shifted that model, and the majority of websites are now hosted through a third-party provider.
Cloud computing reduces overhead costs and responsibilities for website owners, but it brings some security concerns along with it. Essentially, you have to trust an outside organization with the data on your website as well as with its overall stability and reliability.
If you choose the wrong cloud hosting provider, it could expose your website to an array of vulnerabilities. The provider could suffer a data breach, or its entire data center could go down, in which case your website might lose critical information.
Not to scare you off of cloud computing, but it's not risk-free.
2. Obtain an SSL certificate.
If you plan to transmit any sensitive user data on your web servers, then a secure sockets layer (SSL) certificate is a necessity. SSL is an encryption protocol that occurs at the browser level and ensures that all incoming and outgoing web requests are masked from outsiders.
As a website owner, you are responsible for acquiring a valid SSL certificate from an authority organization and keeping it up to date. Once it's configured with your domain name, users will see the padlock symbol next to the URL in the browser. This is the universal indicator of a safe website.
Without an SSL certificate, there is a high chance that users could have their private information stolen. Consider a scenario in which your website accepts credit card transactions over an unsecured HTTP connection. Any hacker on the network would be able to spy on the web traffic and see the credit card numbers being sent.
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3. Use a content delivery network.
Although internet speeds have increased dramatically across the globe in recent years, users will still experience latency when connecting to websites on different continents. If you need to support a worldwide audience, one popular solution is to invest in a content delivery network (CDN).
A CDN functions like a highway for your website traffic. The CDN provider maintains a set of servers in different regions that cache certain portions of your content. When a user loads your website, their browser automatically reads data from the CDN servers to make it appear as quickly as possible.
When researching the best CDN providers for your new site, pay attention to the number of servers and where they're located. The biggest security benefit from this technology is that a larger network can more properly load balance and handle large spikes in traffic without succumbing to a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack.
4. Add a software firewall.
Traditionally, firewalls have operated as hardware devices that connect to the edge of an Ethernet network to help protect the systems inside of it. However, that definition has evolved over time, and now firewall technology can exist solely at the software level.
This means that you can acquire and configure a web-based firewall solution to help protect your data and users. The basic concept of a firewall is to monitor incoming connections and block those that are potentially threatening, with the ultimate goal of preventing a DDoS attack.
Managing a firewall is an ongoing activity. First, you have to ensure that the proper ports are open to allow the website to operate on the open internet. Then, you need to continuously monitor the traffic being received by the web servers and tweak firewall policies according to the threat level.
5. Maintain a backup policy.
When following best practices for IT maintenance, running backups for critical systems is a fundamental activity. Obviously, the goal is to prevent data loss or corruption, but server backups are also vital to keeping a website secure. You need your users to consider your online environment to be trustworthy and reliable.
At the code level, your website data should be managed through a configuration system that tracks each change and stores version history over time. This means you can quickly revert to an older piece of code if a security gap is found and needs to be patched right away.
At the database layer, full snapshot backups should be logged on a daily basis if not more often, depending on the types of changes and additions occurring. It's critical to keep backup copies secure, because if a hacker gains access to a snapshot, it can result in a damaging data breach. Best practice is to keep one set of backups in your cloud environment and another on hardware in your local office.
Gone are the days when you could throw a website online and then think about how to secure it against hackers. One estimate claims that every website comes under attack 22 times daily, which is why it is so important to have your cybersecurity plan in place before you go live. Otherwise, there's a chance you could find yourself a victim of cryptojacking, ransomware, DDoS, phishing or worse before you even have a chance to hang up the welcome sign.