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FTC Report Highlights Low DMARC Adoption

New Federal Trade Commission research discovers most online businesses employ email authentication, but few use DMARC to combat phishing.

A new Federal Trade Commission Office of Technology Research and Investigation (OTech) report shows most organizations aren't fully utilizing the latest technology available to combat phishing, which is contributing to a growing distrust in email.

Email is a top attack vector for cybercriminals targeting the enterprise. Most major online businesses use email authentication to fight threats, but they could do more, experts say, by automatically telling servers to reject unauthenticated emails.

"One of the main concerns around email is it's very effective -- if it's trusted," says Alexander García-Tobar, CEO at ValiMail. "Trust has become a very large issue recently," amid the increase in impersonation attacks.

OTech evaluated more than 500 businesses with "a significant online presence" and discovered most (86%) employ Sender Policy Framework (SPF), a domain-level authentication they can use to determine an IP address to send email, and DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM), which lets them use digital signatures to verify message authenticity.

Only one-third employ Domain Message Authentication Reporting & Conformance (DMARC), a standard technology that verifies whether an email is truly from the domain it claims to be from. It instructs receiving servers to delete fraudulent messages upon arrival so users don’t see them, and only lets in authenticated emails. Part of the benefit is creating a whitelist of verified senders.

Organizations can also use DMARC to gather feedback on how scammers are misusing their information in phishing attacks. "The owner of a domain will be able to say, 'these are all the people, all the servers across the world who try to send something as me,'" explains García-Tobar.

Of the businesses that have implemented DMARC, OTech discovered less than 10% are using the strongest available setting, which tells recipients to reject unauthenticated messages.

There are several reasons why adoption is lagging, García-Tobar says. First off, DMARC is not broadly known.

"There's very low awareness of the DMARC standard," which was compiled by technical committees and hasn't had a strong marketing drive behind it. Awareness is on the uptick, however, thanks to adoption by tech giants like Google and Microsoft. The FTC recognizing DMARC's importance is another sign awareness is starting to spread, he continues.

Companies aware of DMARC often struggle to propery deploy it. Yes, there are technical difficulties, but many problems stem from disagreement over what the corporate whitelist should include.

"It sounds easy to say, 'I'm going to declare which servers are allowed to send [emails] as me, but it's not actually that easy," García-Tobar says. "This requires internal investigations and discussions about who is allowed to send as you."

Because of this, it's often difficult for large global organizations to define the whitelist. Until they have their technical details in place, many businesses end up with a DMARC record but no enforcement.

García-Tobar expects DMARC adoption to grow at a faster clip this year. As more businesses begin to use it, awareness will continue to spread, as will the desire to correctly implement the standard and use it well.

"People are starting to acknowledge that the way email is functioning today cannot continue if email is going to be an effective communication platform," he explains. "The fact that we have a federal agency supporting DMARC is very encouraging."

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Kelly Sheridan is the Staff Editor at Dark Reading, where she focuses on cybersecurity news and analysis. She is a business technology journalist who previously reported for InformationWeek, where she covered Microsoft, and Insurance & Technology, where she covered financial ... View Full Bio

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