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Staying safe in the cloud: with online solutions and cloud-based systems becoming increasingly common for accountancy practitioners, what steps can you take to ensure that your clients' data is secure?

"The cloud isn't niche. It's coming for everyone." This was the verdict of Chris Hall, director of finance at transformation consultancy Gibbs Marshall, at a recent panel debate on the subject of online solutions and security, hosted by CIMA and accountancy solutions provider Sage. However, for Hall and many other professionals within the finance function, the advent of these systems raises one critical and increasingly pertinent question: "How can accountancy professionals reconcile the duty of care they have over clients' data with this new technology?"

The debate, which took place at the Barbican in London, featured speakers from the world of online security who offered their perspective on this issue, as well as the challenges and opportunities in the area.

The benefits of cloud-based solutions are clear. According to a survey commissioned by Sage and CIMA, eight out of 10 accountancy professionals recognise the potential benefits of cloud-based accountancy software.

But what does this mean for your organisation? As well as reducing overheads, the adoption of these systems can allow accountants to focus on tasks that have the potential to add greater value to the business.

For panellist Peter Simons, technical specialist, research and development, CIMA, cloud solutions can also empower smaller organisations.

"When we talk to smaller businesses or members in practice working with smaller businesses, they tell us that they are losing out on some of the benefits of scale that larger organisations have," he said. "The cloud gives smaller businesses access to the sort of software that previously only the larger companies had."

But are businesses currently benefiting from these types of solutions? According to the research, 68 per cent of survey respondents do not use cloud-based accountancy software. Following media coverage of recent high-profile cases of leaked celebrity photos and breaches at financial institutions, it's little surprise that security was one of the most discussed topics for the panellists and event delegates.

Information security is especially relevant for accountancy professionals obligated to safeguard their clients' information. But what steps can you take to protect your clients' privacy when using cloud-based and online solutions?

Undertaking a thorough risk assessment by analysing your business's place in the market and the likelihood of it being the target of a hack is essential. Would a hacker be interested in your client's invoices and purchases? More than likely, the answer is no. However, you should still gauge your susceptibility, which will involve an analysis of your business's size, the type of clients you have and whether or not you use mobile data.

Based on this assessment, you can then make a judgment over which information is vulnerable and which pieces of data should be stored within the cloud. In addition, you'll be in a position to select a trusted partner offering the right calibre of products.

It is also essential to know exactly where your data is held and the attendant legal issues.

Software engineer and former computer hacker turned consultant Cal Leeming advised attendees that those in the finance function should seek the advice of a professional with complete knowledge of the system--as well as the potential risks.

While the technology behind the cloud has the potential to be innovative for accountancy professionals, the rationale behind online security will not necessarily come as a surprise to many in the profession.

As Matt White, senior manager, information protection and business resilience, KPMG, put it: "Information is the oldest of the security issues. Back in the days when you had drawbridges and moats, you weren't allowed into the castle if you weren't recognised. Several hundred years later, the technology has moved on, but the principle hasn't. The same principles that keep your house and valuables safe can also keep your data safe."

To view a video of the event, visit
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Publication:Financial Management (UK)
Date:Feb 1, 2015
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