Data Protection & Integration in M&A: The Key to a Successful Deal

By Dr. Jerry Craig | March 5, 2024
Jerry is Ntiva’s Sr. Director of Security and CISO, offering more than 20 years in the IT and cybersecurity industry. Certified CISO, CISSP and CCSP, Jerry also serves part-time as Adjunct Professor in the University of Maryland Global Campus.

Is your company considering a merger or acquisition? Well, buckle up and get ready for a challenging journey through one of the most complex tasks your company may encounter.

The M&A process is not just about merging cultures or analyzing numbers; it's a high-stakes cybersecurity puzzle where overlooking even one piece could derail a significant deal into a cautionary tale of compliance issues and regulatory hurdles. 

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Consider the potential impact of uncovering hidden vulnerabilities within a recently acquired company that cybercriminals could exploit to access sensitive data. In addition to breaches, the merger process may expose organizations to legal risks such as lawsuits, regulatory scrutiny, and significant expenses to address security flaws.

That's why it's critical to address these risks identified during due diligence to avoid turning a promising opportunity into a liability.

Get ready to unravel the cybersecurity challenges that come with mergers and acquisitions. With the right strategy, you'll not only protect but also boost your company's cybersecurity defenses through the merger or acquisition process.

6 Hidden Cyber Risks in the M&A Process

M&A cybersecurity risks

Mergers and Acquisitions (M&A) may sound like a high-stakes game of blending two organizations into one, but they also come with a hidden side of cybersecurity risks that can sneak past the spotlight. Here are six critical, yet often overlooked, cyber risks that businesses face during the M&A process:

1. White Glove Services Overreach

These bespoke premium services, common in smaller growth-focused companies, can pose risks if delivered beyond agreed terms. While aiming to impress and differentiate, they may overlook security measures, especially as they struggle to maintain high service levels amidst growth. It's essential to balance innovation and security to prevent compromising cybersecurity integrity as these companies expand.

2. Scope Creep in Service Delivery

This phenomenon, known as scope creep in service delivery, can be a silent but potent threat lurking within the M&A process. As services gradually extend beyond the initial boundaries set forth in the contract, new vulnerabilities may arise, unbeknownst to both parties involved.

This unchecked expansion not only muddies the waters of cybersecurity risk assessment but also opens the door to potential breaches and data exposure. It's crucial for companies maneuvering through the intricacies of mergers and acquisitions to stay sharp in overseeing and controlling the scope of services. This helps steer clear of any unexpected detours from the agreed terms and shields against unforeseen cybersecurity risks.

3. Undocumented Configurations and Privileged Access

As services expand during mergers, managing configurations, and access controls is crucial to prevent unauthorized access and data breaches. Prioritizing meticulous control and documentation helps uphold cybersecurity posture and mitigate security risks throughout the M&A process.

4. Legacy Service Billing Irregularities 

Realizing that services from vendors who are no longer in operation are still being billed, or even worse, finding out that services assumed to be active have been discontinued without prior notice, can pose financial and compliance challenges for organizations, especially those prioritizing audits and compliance.

These discrepancies not only result in audit failures but also expose organizations to potential regulatory penalties and legal issues. This concern is amplified for larger organizations under heightened scrutiny and accountability. It is crucial for businesses navigating mergers and acquisitions to conduct thorough due diligence to steer clear of these costly pitfalls and ensure a seamless transition without unexpected financial or compliance obstacles.

5. Sunsetting Services

When decommissioning services without fully grasping their interconnectedness, the impacts extend beyond just losing access to functionalities. This can disrupt operations and compromise security frameworks, potentially creating vulnerabilities that cybercriminals could exploit. Conducting a thorough analysis of service connections is essential to prevent any unintended consequences and safeguard digital assets.

6. Parent-Child Service Misalignment

Noticing discrepancies in service descriptions, benchmarks, and SLAs between the acquiring (parent) and acquired (child) companies during an acquisition can create potential cybersecurity vulnerabilities. Neglecting to address these differences promptly might lead to overlooking crucial security measures, resulting in compliance gaps that could snowball into non-compliance issues. This unexpected twist exposes organizations to regulatory penalties, legal hurdles, and the risk of data breaches, underscoring the vital importance of thorough due diligence and alignment of security protocols throughout the M&A process.

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These hidden risks, if not proactively addressed, can surface unexpectedly during the post-merger phase, creating a cascade of security challenges. The key to mitigation is to unearth these risks early on, meticulously document all service parameters, and maintain a stringent cybersecurity posture throughout the M&A journey.

Key Strategies for Secure IT System Integration

Securing M&A data integration

Mergers and acquisitions bring about a pivotal moment for IT systems: the integration phase. It’s a critical step where organizations align, consolidate, and enhance the digital backbones of both companies.  A successful integration not only merges systems efficiently but also strengthens cybersecurity defenses. 

Up next, we’ll walk through the essential steps to a secure and seamless IT integration process.

Step #1: Integrate with an Eye Toward an Improved Security Posture

When diving into system integration, don't forget to level up your security game. Ensure that your integration process is designed to meet current security standards, anticipate future threats, and comply with regulations. Kick things off by integrating strong security protocols from the get-go, rather than tacking them on as an afterthought.

Consider implementing advanced security technologies such as data encryption for secure data transmission and storage, multifactor authentication for system access, and zero-trust frameworks that authenticate every user and device, regardless of location.

Step #2: Perform an Access Review to Remove Unnecessary Permissions

Make sure to keep an eye on user permissions to ensure they're only accessing what they need for their roles. Over time, people might end up with more access than necessary, which could lead to security risks.

Conduct thorough checks on user permissions, using RBAC (Role-Based Access Control) or least privilege principles to limit exposure. Automated tools can help make this process smoother, giving you a clear view of permissions and suggesting changes to tighten security.

Step #3: Perform a Review of Open Firewall Ports and Protocols

Make sure to keep those firewall ports and protocols in check – they can be sneaky gateways for unwanted visitors. Stay on top of auditing your firewall settings to make sure only the necessary ports and protocols are open while securely blocking the rest. Take a close look at both inbound and outbound rules to stop any data leaks and shrink the target for potential attacks.

And don't forget to bring in those stateful inspection firewalls and intrusion detection/prevention systems (IDPS) to dive deep into traffic analysis and catch any shady business.

Step #4: Review Open Vulnerabilities and Perform Remediation

Vulnerability management is a continuous process that involves identifying, assessing, and mitigating security weaknesses. Use automated vulnerability scanning tools to regularly scan your IT environment for known vulnerabilities. Prioritize remediation efforts based on the severity of vulnerabilities and their potential impact on your organization. Patch management processes should be in place to ensure timely application of security patches and updates to software and systems.

Step #5: Purge Inaccurate Data Before Integrating

Make sure your data is top-notch before diving into system integration. Clean up those databases and data repositories to get rid of any old, redundant, or inaccurate info.

Not only will this boost the performance and efficiency of your new integrated system, but it'll also lower the risk of security breaches from dodgy data. Implement data validation and sanitation measures to keep your data in tip-top shape throughout the integration process.

Step #6: Ensure a Transfer of All Relevant, Important, and Required Data

Ensure meticulous planning of the data migration phase to ensure that all essential, critical, and legally required data seamlessly transitions to the new system. This involves bridging the gap between the old and new systems, adjusting data formats as necessary, and thoroughly verifying the accuracy of transferred data.

Additionally, incorporate Data Loss Prevention (DLP) strategies to safeguard sensitive information throughout the transfer process, maintaining its integrity and security.

Step #7: Be Cognizant of Data Retention Requirements

Make sure to stay on top of data retention policies when integrating systems. These rules determine how long different types of data should stick around for legal, regulatory, or business purposes. Ensure your new system can handle these demands, offering secure storage, easy access, and proper disposal when data is no longer needed. Opt for automated retention policies to minimize errors and stay compliant.

By addressing these points in greater detail, organizations can achieve a more secure and efficient integration process, enhancing their overall security posture and ensuring the protection of critical assets and data.

Post-Merger Integration and Lessons Learned

Merger cyberescurity threats

In a world where data holds immense value in M&A valuations, it's crucial to prioritize cybersecurity risks as a top consideration in deal negotiations. The intricate merger process can present unforeseen security hurdles if not managed with utmost care.

Here are some essential steps for your company to navigate past any obstacles post-merger:

  • Regularly review and adjust your vendor portfolio to ensure it matches your security needs and business scale.

  • Audit and validate both your and your newly acquired entity's cybersecurity measures against stated policies and due diligence data.

  • Stay ahead of regulatory compliance, understanding that your merged entity may now fall under new or additional regulations. Implement a compliance roadmap that addresses these expanded obligations.

By tackling these post-merger cybersecurity challenges head-on, organizations can fortify their operations, safeguard sensitive data, and cultivate a compliance-minded culture. The secret? Stay sharp, stay flexible, and always stay one step ahead in your cybersecurity game plan.


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Tags: Cybersecurity