The Need for Malware Protection in Your Microsoft Office 365 Environment

For many organizations, Microsoft’s industry-leading productivity suite has become mission-critical, which is why they need robust Office 365 malware protection. Consider, for example, how your business would cope if it were to lose all its data due to malicious software.

In this guide, we’ll explain why you need third-party Microsoft Office 365 malware protection and how it can help you in your fight against social engineering attacks and malware.

What are the biggest threats facing Microsoft Office 365?

Reported ransomware attacks in 2021

$ Costed global economy

Ransomware is one of the biggest threats facing businesses today. More than 623 million ransomware attacks were reported in 2021, costing the global economy over $20 billion.

On top of that are myriad other threats that can lead to serious disruption or data loss. Like other forms of malware, ransomware attacks usually start with phishing email from external senders. Accounts belonging to internal senders that have been compromised may also be used to spread malware, which is why you might need a new anti-malware policy along with continuous monitoring of your Exchange online mailboxes.

Since it’s a cloud-based solution, you might assume that Office 365 will automatically create copies of your data on a regular schedule and across multiple systems. To some extent, that’s true. However, as cyber-threats become ever more sophisticated, having an extra layer of online protection is no longer optional. It’s a business imperative.

To properly protect your Office 365 data from ransomware and other threats, you need a third-party data protection and backup solution.

Why Office 365 malware protection isn’t enough

It’s tempting to take a major global vendor like Microsoft for granted when it comes to online protection and anti-malware capabilities. After all, they have the resources needed to implement best-in-class security features and, like any business, they have a vested interest in protecting their customers.

Despite this, there’s only so much that Microsoft can do. No computing environment can ever be 100% secure. Moreover, given the rise of large-scale, state-sponsored cyber-attacks, there is a growing risk of hackers specifically targeting cloud platforms and resources.

Many of these attacks don’t even exploit the platforms themselves, but rather the way end users engage with them.

For example, threats like malware and the theft of account credentials usually involve social engineering scams. Like any one vendor, Microsoft’s ability to mitigate social engineering threats is limited, as they exploit people rather than technology. Deploying a common attachment types filter powered by machine learning can help, but they’re by no means fool-proof.

Malware prevention strategies for Office 365

The best approach to protecting your Office 365 deployment is to assume that it’s not a matter of if you’ll be targeted, but when.

That’s why you need multiple layers of protection, including malware detection and response and a robust backup solution. Your also need anti-malware solutions that operate outside the primary platform – in this case Office 365.

The native Office 365 malware protection features are fairly robust, but they’re far from perfect. While Microsoft does create redundant copies of your data split across many different servers and end user devices, it does not separately back up your data.

It’s not an all-in-one solution, and neither was it ever intended to be. Instead, it provides the infrastructure you need to run your favourite productivity apps, but it doesn’t validate nor guarantee the safety of your data.

Office 365 malware protection and insider threat management

Microsoft, like other major cloud vendors, allows customers to retain control over their data. That means they can intentionally delete it so that it can’t be recovered. When you have multiple users connecting to SharePoint Online every day, that can become quite a problem!

Although this is important from a compliance and security perspective, it’s also vulnerable to abuse or human error. For example, an employee with access to your Office 365 data might accidentally (or intentionally) delete something important. Administrators should be able to restore the data from the Recycle Bin, which only they will have access to, but it is not always convenient.

In the worst-case scenarios, you could lose Microsoft 365 data permanently, if you don’t have a third-party recovery solution. For example, a compromised administrator account could result in such a scenario. If that happens, there’s absolutely nothing that Microsoft can do. It’s not their responsibility either.

When it comes to anti-malware and protecting against cyberattacks, the focus is increasingly shifting towards the cloud. That makes sense, given that cloud computing now plays a central role in business.

Despite this, it’s important to remember that even in a cloud-first environment, companies still use their own private corporate networks. Employees still need to use either their own laptops or those provided by the company to access Office 365, even if they do so only with a browser.

The problem is, especially in the era of hybrid work, is that endpoints are more distributed than ever before, spanning a range of mobile and desktop devices in the office or at home. Even though corporate networks are themselves still well under control, visibility into specific endpoints can be limited. For example, if a device leaves the confines of the corporate network, it becomes much more difficult to protect.

Threat actors know this, which is why they routinely target end users rather than the infrastructure itself. When that happens, a ransomware or other attack targeting an individual employee can rapidly spread to the cloud. As such, you also need to protect your Office 365 deployment from compromised on-premises infrastructure.

How to protect against insider threats

As we’ve discussed, malware often spreads due to insider threats. There are various ways to mitigate threats like these. For example, you can fully isolate your Office 365 administrator accounts. Access rights should be role-based and only granted as such that each individual or device only has access to the data they need to perform their roles. No account should have elevated privileges unless it’s explicitly needed.

Technical solutions, like spam filtering technologies for external senders can reduce risk too. For example, you can customise the default notification text when configuring anti-malware policies in a malware detection response engine. These notifications inform recipients if an incoming email or attachment has been flagged as potentially malicious. Customising your anti-malware policy for your particular environment is important, since the default policy is designed with a very generalist approach in mind.

You can also use data loss prevention (DLP) and enable notifications to inform internal senders if they’re sending out potentially sensitive data across an inappropriate channel.

Why you need a third-party Office 365 backup and recovery solution

Office 365 spam and malware protection does a good job of protecting your mission-critical assets, but it’s not enough by itself. That’s because it only represents one layer of protection provided by one vendor. If an attacker were to get through that layer, either by way of malicious file types or social engineering, then they can wreak havoc for your business.

For example, Exchange online protection offers spam filtering and anti-malware capabilities, but it doesn’t keep your data backed up. Moreover, it is important to remember that backup is not the same thing as data retention.

While both backup and retention are forms of data preservation, they serve completely different purposes. Backups are regularly updated copies of data that can be readily restored in the event of data loss or corruption. Data retention, by contrast, is about storing an immutable copy of data for a specific period of time in order to meet compliance obligations.

While Microsoft 365 offers data retention to meet the demands of regulatory compliance, it does not offer a comprehensive point-in-time backup or recovery solution. In fact, Microsoft themselves recommend that businesses deploy third-party backup solutions.

In the era of hybrid work and multichannel phishing scams, relying on just one layer of security isn’t nearly enough. A third-party solution that sits outside your Office 365 deployment provides a fast, easy, and comprehensive data backup and recovery solution.

Ideally, such a solution should automatically synchronize all data so that it’s always available, even in the event of the entire Office 365 platform being compromised.

It’s never pleasant to think about the worst-case scenario. It’s always better to take a proactive approach and stop threats in their tracks, before they get anywhere near your network.

That’s not always possible, however, which is why you also need a backup and recovery solution to ensure business continuity should the worst happen. Having the right anti-malware policies and anti-malware engine is just the start.

How can Hornetsecurity help?

To properly protect your Microsoft Office 365 environment, use Hornetsecurity Microsoft 365 Total Protection, 365 Total Backup 365 Total Protection Enterprise Backup and 365 Total Protection Compliance & Awareness to securely back up and replicate your critical data in Microsoft 365.

We strive to give our customers confidence in their Spam & Malware Protection, Advanced Threat Protection, and VM backup strategies.

To keep up to date with the latest Microsoft 365 best practices, follow the Hornetsecurity blog now (it’s free).

Final words

As ransomware and other malware attacks increasingly targeting cloud resources, it’s time for businesses to level up their protective capabilities. In particular, they must be prepared for both known malware and zero day malware, malicious email attachments and file types, and the social engineering tactics used to spread them.

With a comprehensive Office 365 backup and recovery solution, you can practically guarantee you’ll meet your recovery point objectives (RPOs and recovery time objectives (RTOs) should your company fall victim to malicious software or phishing Third-party Office 365 malware protection gives you that vital safety net.