Orlando Scott-Cowley

In tennis, you never want to commit an unforced error. These are the worst kind of point-costing blunders a player can commit – the completely avoidable, self-inflicted ones that have nothing to do with the skill of the opponent or the excellence of their shot.

Losing to an exceptional opponent is not (really) something a tennis player can control, but losing because of an untimely, unforced error, or a series of them, is a different story.

If you've ever worked in information security, you can probably see the parallel.

Every day, you fight talented opponents of your own – sophisticated cyber-criminals who constantly evolve their methods to exploit any and all vulnerabilities you may have. And every day, you and your peers are losing battles to these criminals, who can exploit both your unforced errors – self-inflicted failures of your cybersecurity technology – and create clever schemes that trick your users.

These attackers have a strong track record – more than half of U.S. small businesses now say they have been victims of a cyber attack, according to the National Small Business Association (NSBA). And an overwhelming majority of these attacks – 91 percent – begin with email-based phishing and elaborate, highly targeted spear-phishing schemes.

These attacks are so effective because of the simple fact an IT department can't completely control all of its users, all the time – they're too unpredictable, and it only takes a mistake by one user for a breach to be successful. However, what an IT department can control is the technology it uses to protect its email systems from spear-phishing attacks. Failure to do so is an unforced error that could cost you.

You certainly wouldn't be alone. Secure Mentem President Ira Winkler, speaking at RSA Conference 2015 in San Francisco, said that even though users get the blame following a successful spear-phishing attack, it's usually a failure of technology that allows the socially engineered email bait to arrive in their inboxes in the first place.

Technology should be your first – and second, third and beyond – line of defense. If a malicious email is neutralized by your spear-phishing defenses long before it even reaches your employees' inboxes, they won't even have a chance to facilitate the attack unknowingly – users can't click on links or download attachments that they never see.

That's where Target Threat Protection (TTP) comes into play. With this technology in place, CIOs, CISOs and IT department heads gain the peace of mind that their users are protected against targeted spear-phishing attacks. Even if – or perhaps, when – a user clicks on the wrong link or downloads the wrong attachment, IT departments will know they have a fail-safe in place to end the attack before it spreads.

As Winkler said during his RSA session, "there is no such thing as a perfect countermeasure," and he's right. But TTP will reassure you that you have the technology you need to create a first line of defense.

To learn more, please see our new whitepaper, "The Spear-Phishing Attack Timeline" which walks through the stages before, during and after a spear-phishing attack and provides a minute-by-minute look at how these attacks can be prevented.

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It was reported earlier this month that Russian hackers accessed President Barack Obama’s email system inside the White House. When asked to comment on the attack, Deputy National Security Advisor, Ben Rhodes, said: “We do not believe that our classified systems were compromised.”

Regardless of whether or not an email system is classified, the fall-out of a cyber-attack can be dire. After the recent barrage of data breaches in the U.S. – spanning the retail, entertainment and healthcare industries, and now the government – it’s time for organizations to take action when it comes to email security, specifically, making employees aware of existing threats. Here’s why:

The White House hack was triggered when a compromised email account in the State Department was used to send a spear-phishing email to an individual in the White House and the executive office of the President. The State Department was aware of the breach and forced its network offline to try and rid themselves of the hackers.

Some are drawing the conclusion that human error was at fault – exploiting individuals in the White House allowed the hackers to pivot their network access into a more sensitive and secure network than the one they initially compromised. In complex long-con attacks like this, where threat actors are resident on a network for long periods of time, it becomes almost inevitable that someone will eventually (and unknowingly) help them reach their ultimate goal. Trust is built quickly by email, and it is likely the attackers exploited the trust of having a @state.gov email address to gain access to the White House and POTUS. This use of a trusted third-party is getting more common, and something I’ve written about previously.

What worries me about Rhodes’ statement is; he’s hinting about the security of the classified systems at the White House. No doubt checks have been made to ensure there are no obvious compromises. But just as humans were used to move from the State Department to the White House, the same could surely be true of a further attack inside the White House to gain access to the classified systems. It wouldn’t take too much effort on the part of hackers to move from the unclassified to classified systems. Exploiting the weaknesses in humans once is easy, with only a little trust to abuse, but given a lot more trust, elevating privilege internally becomes very simple.

Humor me for a moment. If I was an attacker, and had been successful, I would have made sure that Mr. Rhodes and his colleagues from the FBI and Secret Service would never detect my presence. So while Rhodes does not believe his classified systems have been compromised, I’m sure he is still hunting for intruders.

Given the complexity of this attack, against what could be one of the most protected governments in the world, it would be fair to say that there’s no amount of technology that can keep out skilful and determined hackers. Do we give up on the technology? Or perhaps revert to pen and paper or typewriters? Of course not.

Making humans aware enough to not react to the social engineering in a spear-phishing email in the first place should be a top priority of any CISO, CIO and IT manager. Deploying a new spear-phishing gateway is important but may not be enough. You need to make sure users – humans – understand the risk, the threat and how to detect the presence of an attack.

Once you achieve this understanding you’ll have deployed a key part of your security infrastructure - your own human firewall. And it’s humans who are your key protection against these new and emerging threats. 

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Half the problem with protecting your enterprise from every hacker, phisher, visher and botnet herder is the helpful part of human nature, that wants to be…helpful. We’ve known for a very long time that the vast majority of successful cyber-attacks rely on this helpfulness to achieve their goal. We know that social engineering plays a significant role in these attacks, from the most complex right down to the most ‘mundane’ phishing email; and our attackers know this too.
Senior executives and government officials often use one email address as a catch-all for personal and business email, side-stepping security risks.

I sense that enterprise cyber security has reached a turning point that will solve this problem.

For years, we’ve been talking about the de-perimeterization of the network, as end users and cloud services make the corporate firewall less relevant. CIOs and IT Managers I’ve spoken to have long been trying to shoe-horn their existing cyber-security into this new model, but have been losing the battle. The ubiquitous nature of connectivity and mobile computing was not so much the straw for this poor camel, but the entire haystack.

So, this is where I sense a pivot occurring, in the way we think about enterprise cyber-security; one that leaves those legacy ideas on the LAN and introduces a more task-orientated set of security rules. Rules that consider how the humans’ use our enterprise services and how those same humans are exploited. And importantly, rules that change the game in our favor, as opposed to the business-as-usual cyber security arms race we suffer under.

Of course, security professionals have been asking for more training for their human users since the dawn of the ILOVEYOU virus, but sadly this has always been low on the priority list for the budget controllers in businesses.

Security and IT professionals also know there is no single technology solution that will protect humans either. Sadly, until very recently, that’s about as far as the conversation went. Enough budget would be allocated for ‘reasonably regular’ (i.e. every six months, if you’re lucky) security training – and we’d all cross our fingers that no one would do anything stupid.

But they did, and they still do. Humans click links, especially in emails, and there’s no way of stopping them from doing that. So we’ve begun to learn that a new approach is needed here. An approach that is the foundation to the wider pivot I mentioned above. If technology can’t completely help us, and in isolation security training isn’t effective anymore—maybe the answer is in the last place we would have looked a few years ago? In the humans.

It’s after all our users who have become the front line for attackers looking to gain access to your network and we know this is because the humans are easier to hack than the code they write. So instead of constantly hardening our code and infrastructure why don’t we start to harden our humans?

Invoke a Human Firewall to help protect our businesses and de-fang the threats that target them. We know that our routine security training doesn’t work and we know our technology is less effective—so why not use the technology to help train users in a more real-time manner, or at the point of click in an email. Subtly warn them they might be able to experience something malicious, and block them if it does turn out to be a watering-hole or drive-by attack. But help them understand the risks, educate them constantly and in new and exciting ways, not once or twice a year in traditional training session.

It’s only when you start to get humans thinking for a fraction of a second longer than normal before performing a task, running an attachment or clicking a link, have you started to drive a behavior change in them. It’s this behavior change that we need to encourage, one that makes them a tiny bit suspicious of those emails that look ever so slightly odd, one that means they’re more aware than we could have ever hope for.

This behavior change is what invokes your human firewall, it’s the only way you’ll protect your humans from themselves, and it’s the only way we might be able to solve our cyber-security woes. 

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The political world has been making global headlines around trouble over email usage. Former U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, has been scrutinized for deleting 31,830 emails. Why?

This attitude toward using one email address as a catch-all for personal and work communication is common, especially when it comes to senior-level government officials and corporate executives. There are, no doubt, many individuals in senior positions around the world who believe their seniority gives them the ability – and sometimes right – to side-step established corporate policy and procedure. This is exaggerated by the fact that, in many cases, junior staff members are tasked with setting up this one-off functionality, and they are not likely to call out the security risks to senior-level executives and officials (or simply say “no”).

The emails were stored on a private, home-based server during her time at the U.S. State Department, and a single account was being used for both personal and government-official email communication. When asked about the controversy, Clinton said she thought it would be easier to use one email address. Former Florida Governor, Jeb Bush, was caught using his private email address to discuss confidential security and military issues. And according to a New York Times article, it took Bush more than “seven years to comply with a Florida public records statute” on email disclosure.

There’s one thing the Clinton and Bush email controversies should teach us: Seniority shouldn’t be a reason for allowing or perpetuating the breach of any corporate policies. One for all, and all for one. Everyone within an organization should adhere to the same rules, policies and standards when it comes to email usage. Otherwise, a false sense of security takes hold, and mistakes can be made. For instance, data can be easily deleted, lost or leaked without a trace when outside the control of the corporate IT team. When an email server is installed at a residence versus a secure data center, there is no clear distinction between personal and work email, nor are there the same guarantees of security and privacy. This drastically increases the likelihood of confidential documents and messages reaching the inboxes of the sender’s personal network – and there are no security and retention policies in place to track, protect and retrieve the wrongfully-transmitted data. In a post-Snowden and – NSA world, we should doubt the security of anything outside the best standards of established technology.

There’s also a compliance issue to consider. Official IT administrators likely can’t access data that resides on an at-home server in the same way they would with a server in their own data center, which will compromise e-discovery requests. This also complicates subpoenas and other legal requests for information – if the data doesn’t reside in a government or corporate data center, who rightfully has access to it? Who has the right to delete email archives? Without clearly-defined policies, the answers to these questions remain unclear.

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