Work at Home: Israeli Startups Offer Host of Solutions

The sudden spurt in remote working due to the coronavirus creates many challenges, not least cyberhacking

Before the coronavirus epidemic, only 4% of Israelis worked from home.
Peter Muller / Cultura Creative

Working from home is becoming the norm for people in developed economies, as the novel coronavirus spurs governments and employers to enforce social distancing.

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control has hinted that social distancing will soon be enforced and big companies such as IBM, Goldman Sachs, PwC and Twitter have instructed employees to work at home as much as possible.

In Israel, the move to working from home is a particularly great challenge. Before the pandemic, only about 4% of the workforce worked at home, a low rate compared to other developed economies.

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Some job categories don’t present a problem in making the transition from cubicle to den. In high-tech, for instance, most people work on laptops to begin with. Startups have used dispersed workforces, partly due to their workplace culture and partly due to the fact that they rely on the cloud for network access. That means staff can access it anywhere.

But only around 9% of Israelis work in high-tech, and even in that sector some companies don’t have that kind of flexibility.

In some job categories, working from home simply isn’t an option, for example, in manufacturing, construction and agriculture. Those sectors account for 15% of Israel’s workforce, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics. Also companies in the defense industry, including high-tech companies, can’t allow employees to work from home for security reasons.

In between are many professions where it might be difficult to work from home, but it is possible. It’s worth it for businesses in these areas to attempt now to get used to the new situation, and to begin having at least some of their employees work from home. It’s not only to get through the coronavirus crisis, it’s an investment n the future of work.

“This is a process that began before the onset of the coronavirus crisis – a digital transformation and the move to mobile work based on the cloud,” said Sagi Gidali, co-founder of the startup Perimeter 81, which helps businesses with employees working from remote sites.

“Look at us – a small startup, 70 people, about half of whom work remotely. The coronavirus is speeding up the transition like crazy. We’re seeing insane growth in requests and number of customers. They’re saying quite explicitly that they need the service because of the coronavirus – banks, health care providers, insurance companies and small businesses.”

Perimeter 81 offers an app that enables an enterprise’s employees to connect to its cloud-based and internal network resources – an alternative to the virtual private networks, or VPNs, that have traditionally been used to connect remotely. Because of the coronavirus crisis, Perimeter 81 says it is offering its solution at cost.

Another problem sector for work at home is sales and service, which according to the Central Bureau of Statistics account for about 19% of the Israeli workforce. Call centers with scores, if not hundreds, of workers in close quarters are potential coronavirus hothouses.

Golan Ashtan, the CEO of Voicecenter, has the answer with technology that allows call centers to operate on a dispersed model. It provides a call-routing system, management interfaces, screens and report generators. “We do this with softphone software installed on the employee’s computer,” he said.

Voicecenter is providing service to a customer in Cyprus forced to shut its call center and send all its employees home due to the pandemic.

One of the biggest problems facing employers whose staffs are working from home is cybersecurity. There have already been several cases of hackers exploiting the opportunity created by the coronavirus to launch attacks.

”Because many workers are using their own PCs and private networks when working at home to connect remotely with enterprise networks, it creates an opening for gaining control of an enterprise’s computer system via an employee’s personal account,” said Ronen Lago, chief technology officer of the cybersecurity startup CYE.

It’s been a busy time for the company. “Personally, I haven’t slept a full night for weeks,” he said. “We believe that because of the growing number of [social-distancing] directives in the wake the spread of the coronavirus and in light of what we’re seeing in the hacker community and the gaps in the level of readiness of many big enterprises for working from home, we expect a significant increase in the number and intensity of [hacking] attempts as well as the number of enterprises whose work continuity is impacted.”

To help businesses, another Israeli cybersecurity startup, SentinelOne, has issued a guide for remote work.

“First of all, it’s important to note that just because employees won’t be working in the office doesn’t mean they won’t travel or work in public places,” it warns. “When doing so, employees are exposing themselves to a greater risk of losing their laptops and all the data that resides locally.”

Therefore, SentinelOne suggests ensuring that all devices used by employees employ full disk encryption. That means that if a device is lost, the data on it won’t be accessible to thieves. Enterprises should implement “robust password management” for laptop access. “All accounts on the device should require unique login credentials, and where practical user accounts should be restricted to non-Admin privileges,” it says.

SentinelOne also recommends that employees never leave devices in a public place unattended. “Remind your employees not to be that Starbucks customer who goes to the counter for a refill while leaving an open laptop on the table. When working on the laptop in a public place, staff always need to be aware of those around them.”

The guide also warns that employees working from home will inevitably use their company laptop for personal uses and may even let other family members do so, too. Using an employee’s home Wi-Fi creates another opportunity for hackers.

“The challenge presented by the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak is that your organization could have to support a rapid, large-scale shift to remote work, involving employees who are typically office-based and not used to the different demands that working from home can bring. When routines get upset, security is often an early casualty,” concludes SentinelOne.

VPNs need to be used properly

The most common way for home workers to connect to an enterprise’s network is through VPNs, said Doriya Galam, offensive security team Leader at 2BSecure, a provider of cybersecurity services that is part of the Marix Group. They allow an employee to work in the environment he or she is already familiar with.

However, VPNs need to be operated properly. “Last August we discovered a weakness in a widely used VPN program, so the first thing you need to do is make sure your software is updated with the latest security patches,” said Galam.

“Another important thing not to give your employees access to the entire enterprise system. Rather you should give limited access for work. So, if I work in the finance department, I don’t need access to legal,” he explained. “The third thing, which is today quite standard, is to have a dual-authentication gateway for VPN software.”

Odo.io offers an alternative with its Zero Trust Network. Noa Shafir, co-founder and chief product officer, describes the solution as the simplest and most secure alternative. “The model is access to certain servers inside the enterprise. What we’re doing now is relevant for the current challenge,” she said.

“A lot [of companies] have turned to us, mainly companies that are using VPN and they are worried about relying on it to handle the huge amount of work. In addition, on a VPN you connect an employee to the entire corporate network and there’s no way to block it or monitor what it does on the network,” she said. “The most important reason for moving to Zero Trust is the problematic user experience familiar to anyone using VPN. ... People simply won’t be able to cope with work from home.”