Technology Or Education? Tackling Phishing Requires BothNeither technology nor awareness services can solve the phishing threat, but using both can significantly reduce attackers' success
Cybercriminals typically steal data using a triad of techniques--malware, hacking, and tampering with hardware.
The arguably more serious espionage attacks aimed at robbing companies of their intellectual property, however, have a slightly different triumvirate of threats, dropping the physical theft of hardware in favor of socially engineering the human side of the business, according to Verizon's 2013 Data Breach Investigations Report. In fact, 95 percent of all state-affiliated espionage attacks include a phishing component, the report's review of 47,000 data-security incidents found.
For companies, the data highlights a weakness in their network security: Even with near-ubiquitous anti-spam technologies guarding most inboxes, spearphishing attacks get delivered. And that puts the workers on the front lines, because every user could be put in a position of defending, or infecting, the business's network, says Trevor Hawthorn, chief technology officer of phishing-awareness service provider ThreatSim.
"Our customers are doing a lot of the right things that they are supposed to be doing [to filter out phishing], but they are still getting a high number of phishing messages," he says. "At that point, the end user becomes the last element of defense."
Phishing awareness allows companies to regularly test employees, raise the awareness of those employees who fail the test, and teach workers proper incident response, such as reporting phishing attempts. Phishing service firms give companies regular reports on how their employees performed in the tests and offer other metrics, such as how quickly employees reported a phishing e-mail.
[From fully undetectable malware to low-volume targeted trojans, digital threats frequently do not have a signature, but companies can still prepare. See 3 Steps To Secure Your Business In A Post-Signature World.]
Yet, while having more security-conscious users is a laudable goal, some security experts question whether it will make a difference as to whether a business suffers a breach. Finding a user who will click on a link in a well-crafted e-mail is a numbers game: Eventually, the attackers will succeed, says Kenneth Geers, senior global threat analyst with anti-malware provider FireEye.
"The thing with social engineering is, that if the attackers have done their homework, everyone is going to click," he says.
While current data suggests that a technology-only and an education-only approach both have flaws, they both reduce risk as well. With regular phishing-awareness campaigns, companies have generally reduced the success of the attacks to the single-digit percentiles, according to ThreatSim. Another phishing-education service, PhishMe, has seen similar results.
Another hopeful trend: Companies are starting to see their employees reporting the phishing attacks before their less security-conscious colleague click on the link, says Aaron Higbee, chief technology officer of PhishMe. Lengthening the time between report and click give the company's incident response team more time to find and eliminae similar attacks.
"It gives their incident response team a head start of 20 or 30 minutes," he says.
On the technology side, sandboxing and virtual analysis environments are improving and are better able to jail potentially malicious files and protect systems from attack. So, adopting both approaches can deepen defenses and result in a cumulative reduction in risk, says ThreatSim's Hawthorn.
"Security not about zero percent risk," he says. "I don't think there is a security control out there that guarantees anyone to have a zero percent chance of compromise. But by focusing on your biggest risks, and using defense in depth, you can have the most impact."
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Robert Lemos is a veteran technology journalist of more than 16 years and a former research engineer, writing articles that have appeared in Business Week, CIO Magazine, CNET News.com, Computing Japan, CSO Magazine, Dark Reading, eWEEK, InfoWorld, MIT's Technology Review, ... View Full Bio