Article | January 21, 2021
There is a saying, ‘you can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time.’ Given the fact that there is no such thing as 100% security and human nature being trusting, this has been the backbone of many cyber security scams over the past 20 years. Cyber-criminals know that they will always fool some of the people, so have been modifying and reusing tried and tested methods to get us to open malware ridden email attachments and click malicious web links, despite years of security awareness training.
If you search for historic security advice from pretty much any year since the internet became mainstream, you will find that most of it can be applied today. Use strong passwords, do not open attachments or click links from unknown sources. All really familiar advice. So, why are people still falling for modified versions of the same tricks and scams that have been running for over a decade or more? Then again, from the cyber-criminal’s perspective, if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it? Instead, they evolve, automate, collaborate and refine what works. Sound advice for any business!
It is possible though to be in a position where you can no longer fool people, even some of the time, because it is no longer their decision to make anymore. This can be achieved by letting technology decide whether or not to trust something, sitting in between the user and the internet. Trust becomes key, and many security improvements can be achieved by limiting what is trusted, or more importantly, defining what not to trust or the criteria of what is deemed untrustworthy.
This is nothing new, as we have been doing this for years as many systems will not trust anything that is classed as a program or executable, blocking access to exe or bat files. The list of files types that can act as a program in the Microsoft Windows operating system is quite extensive, if you don’t believe me try to memorize this list: app, arj, bas, bat, cgi, chm, cmd, com, cpl, dll, exe, hta, inf, ini, ins, iqy, jar, js, jse, lnk, mht, mhtm, mhtml, msh, msh1, msh2, msh1xml, msh2xml, msi, ocx, pcd, pif, pl, ps1, ps1xml, ps2, ps2xml, psc1, psc2, py, reg, scf, scr, sct, sh, shb, shs, url, vb, vbe, vbs, vbx, ws, wsc, wsf, and wsh. As you can see, it is beyond most people to remember, but easily blocked by technology.
We can filter and authenticate email based on domain settings, reputation scores, blacklists, DMARC (Domain-based Message Authentication Reporting and Conformance) or the components of DMARC, the SPF and DKIM protocols. Email can also be filtered at the content level based on keywords in the subject and body text, the presence of tracking pixels, links, attachments, and inappropriate images that are ‘Not Safe For Work’ (NSFW) such as sexually explicit, offensive and extremist content. More advanced systems add attachment virtual sandboxing, or look at the file integrity of attachments, removing additional content that is not part of the core of the document. Others like ‘Linkscan’ technology look at the documents at the end of a link, which may be hiding behind shortened links or multiple hops, following any links in those documents to the ultimate destination of the link and scan for malware.
Where we are let down though is in the area of compromised email accounts from people that we have a trust relationship and work with, like our suppliers. These emails easily pass through most email security and spam filters as they originate from a genuine legitimate email account (albeit one now also controlled by a cyber-criminal) and unless there is anything suspicious within the email in the form of a strange attachment or link, they go completely undetected as they are often on an allow list. This explains why Business Email Compromised (BEC) attacks are so incredibly successful, asking for payments for expected invoices to be made into a ‘new’ bank account, or urgent but plausible invoices that need to be paid ASAP. If the cyber-criminals do their homework and copy previous genuine invoice requests, and maybe add in context chat based on previous emails, there is nothing for most systems or people to pick up on. Only internal processes that flag up BACS payments, change of bank of details or alerts to verify or authenticate can help. Just remember to double-check the telephone number in the email signature before you call, in case you are just calling the criminal. Also, follow the process completely, even if the person you were just about to call has just conveniently sent you an SMS text message to confirm, as SMS can be spoofed.
Not all compromised email attacks are asking for money though, many are after user credentials, and contain phishing links or links to legitimate online file sharing services, containing files that then link to malicious websites or phishing links to grant permission to open the file. To give you an idea of the lengths cyber-criminals go to, I’ve received emails from a compromised account, containing a legitimate OneDrive link, containing a PDF with a link to an Azure hosted website, that then reached out to a phishing site. In fact, many compromised attacks are not even on email, as social media is increasingly targeted as well as messaging services or even the humble SMS text message via SIM swap fraud or spoofed mobile numbers. As a high percentage of these are received on mobile devices, many of the standard security defences are not in place, compared to desktop computers and laptops. What is available though are password managers as well as two-factor authentication (2FA) and multi-factor authentication (MFA) solutions which will help protect against phishing links, regardless of the device you use, so long as you train everyone in what to look out for and how they can be abused.
One area I believe makes even greater strides in protecting users from phishing and malicious links is to implement technology that defines what not to trust based on the age of a web domain and whether it has been seen before and classified. It really does not matter how good a clone a phishing website is for Office 365 or PayPal if you are blocked from visiting it, because the domain is only hours old or has never been seen before. The choice is taken out of your hands, you still clicked on the link, but now you are taken to a holding page that explains why you are not allowed to access that particular web domain. The system I use called Censornet, does not allow my users to visit any links where the domain is less than 24 hours old, but also blocks access to any domains or subdomains that have not been classified because no one within the global ecosystem has attempted to visit them yet. False positives are automatically classified within 24 hours, or can be released by internal IT admins, so the number of incidents rapidly drops over a short period of time.
Many phishing or malicious links are created within hours of the emails being sent, so having an effective way of easily blocking them makes sense. There is also the trend for cyber-criminals to take over the website domain hosting cPanels of small businesses, often through phishing, adding new subdomains for phishing and exploit kits, rather than using spoofed domains. I’ve seen many phishing links over the years pointing to an established brand within the subdomain text of a small hotel. Either way, as these links and subdomains are by their very nature unclassified, the protection automatically covers this scenario too.
Other technological solutions at the Domain Name System (DNS) level can also help block IP addresses and domains based on global threat intelligence. Some of these are even free for business use, like Quad9.net and because they are at the DNS level, can be applied to routers and other systems that cannot accept third party security solutions. On mobile devices both Quad9 and Cloudflare offer free apps which involve adding a Virtual Private Network (VPN) profile to your device. Users of public Wi-Fi can be made secure via a VPN, though it’s preferable to have a premium VPN solution on all your user’s mobile devices, as these can be centrally managed and can offer DNS protection as well.
Further down the chain of events are solutions like privileged admin rights management and application allow lists. Here, malware is stopped once again because it is not on a trusted list, or allowed to have admin rights. There is also the added benefit that users do not need to know any admin account passwords, so as a result cannot be phished for something they do not know the answer to. Ideally, no users are working with full administrator rights in their everyday activities, as this introduces unnecessary security risks, but can often be overlooked due to work pressures and workarounds.
Let’s not forget patch management is also key, because it doesn’t matter how good your security solutions are if they can be bypassed because of a gaping hole via an exploit or vulnerability in another piece of software, whether at the operating system or firmware level, or via an individual application. Sure, no system is perfect and remember there is no such thing as 100% security, which is where the Endpoint Detection and Response (EDR) solutions and Security Information and Event Management (SIEM) solutions come into play. These can help minimize the damage through rapid discovery and remediation, hopefully before the cyber-criminals fully achieve their goals.
By harnessing the power of technology to protect us, layering solutions to cover the myriad of ways cyber-criminals constantly attempt to deceive us, we can be confident that emotional and psychological techniques and hooks will not affect technological decisions, as it is a binary choice, either yes or no. The more that we can filter out, makes it less likely that the cyber-criminals will still be able to fool some of the people all the time. This allows security awareness training to focus on threats that technology isn’t as good at stopping, like social engineering tricks and scams. The trick is to spend your budget wisely to cover all the bases and not leave any gaps, which is no easy feat in today’s rapidly changing world.
Article | March 23, 2020
How can progress be measured when it comes to shifts in national security strategy and practice? Several assessment variables might include changes in official national guidance, legal authorities, types of campaigns or operations, lexicon used in national security discourse, and early results of the application of those changes. Since 2016, with the introduction of the construct of persistent engagement and the subsequent development of defend forward, all these variables have changed in a positive manner.
Article | April 16, 2020
It has been more than a month since businesses around the world started to implement contingencies in response to the Coronavirus. The Cyber Threat Index Report by Imperva Research Labs tracks changes in traffic and attack trends across multiple industries and countries. This month’s edition looks at how COVID-19 is affecting all industries across the globe. Our researchers have found that while some sectors are experiencing a dip in the number of attacks, on the whole they remain consistent. As the chart below shows, certain sectors have experienced a significant increase in attacks over the past few months: attacks on gaming are up seven percent, food & beverages are up six percent, and financial services are up 3 percent.
Article | August 30, 2021
As we emerge from the worst pandemic in a century, many public- and private-sector employees and employers are reassessing their options within technology and cybersecurity roles.
Are boom times coming soon for tech companies, cybersecurity professionals and others?
Marketplace.org recently posted the headline, “Are we headed for a Roaring ’20s economy?”
Here’s an excerpt: “A year ago, when most of the country was under stay-at-home orders and people were losing jobs at an unprecedented rate, we asked three people who study economic history to explain whether the recession on the horizon was going to look anything like the Great Depression.
“With the vaccine rollout well underway, weekly unemployment claims at their lowest level since the pandemic began and consumer confidence rising, we’ve asked them about a different historical comparison: the 1920s.”
Meanwhile, NBC News reported “There are now more jobs available than before the pandemic. So why aren't people signing up?”
Here’s a quote from that piece: “The number of job vacancies soared to nearly 15 million by mid-March, but discouraged, hesitant and fearful job seekers means many positions are still unfilled, according to new data from online job site ZipRecruiter.
“Online job postings plunged from 10 million before the start of the pandemic last year to just below 6 million last May, as lockdowns and shutdown orders forced businesses to close their doors and reduce or lay off workers.”
Meanwhile, according to KPMG in the U.K., tech’s job market is growing at the fastest pace in two years. “The move towards new remote and hybrid working arrangements, new spending priorities for businesses around IT infrastructure, automation and the huge shift to online retail are likely to provide a long-term boost to sales and investment in the tech sector,” said KPMG’s chair Bina Mehta.
One more — thecyberwire.com just reported that the skills gap is getting wider regarding cybersecurity jobs: “The cybersecurity industry is projected to triple year-over-year through 2022, yet the workforce shortage still stands at millions worldwide. With a 273 percent increase in large-scale data breaches in the first quarter of 2020 alone, employing more cybersecurity professionals is a pressing challenge for both companies looking to hire in-house and cybersecurity agencies alike.
“According to the International Information System Security Certification Consortium, there are now more than 4.07 million unfilled cybersecurity positions across the world. Despite high entry salaries, recession-proof job security and plentiful career opportunities, there are simply not enough trained cybersecurity professionals to fill the skills gap.”
BAD TREND — AND EVEN SOME UGLY MIXED IN
I recently posted a story from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on LinkedIn entitled “Employers are hiring again but struggling to find workers.” Here’s an excerpt: “Chris New said he has turned down $250,000 in business because he just can’t hire enough laborers and drivers at his Carrollton-based company, Barnes Van Lines.
“There are plenty of people without jobs, but unemployment benefits give them too much incentive not to work, he said. ‘We advertise and nobody comes in looking for a job. A lot of people are taking advantage of the system. It’s really killing us.’”
Although the focus on this article was not technology or cybersecurity jobs, many of the comments were tech- and cyber-related.
Marlin Brandys: So how do they explain people like me with a B.S. in networking and cybersecurity and an NCSP both from 2020 and I can’t even get an interview for a tier 1 help desk job? All these posts and stories from corporate America, universities, government agencies selling the bogus skills gap and shortage story. This platform alone has 1,000s of cyber qualified people able and willing to work in entry level positions at entry level pay and benefits. Stop the madness already. I applied for unemployment 01/08/2021. It’s now 04/19/2021 and I haven’t seen a dime of unemployment compensation. I’ll gladly take an entry-level position in cyber.
Quinn Kuzmich: Marlin Brandys - Honestly one of the unspoken truths of the security industry is age discrimination. Sad but true.
Dave Howe: Quinn Kuzmich - broadly true across all of IT though. They stand around demanding someone "do something" about the "skills shortage" but exclude 90% of candidates based on an arbitrary checklist, and 75% more based on illegal age, sex or race discrimination, disguised as "culture fit"
Joseph Crouse: Marlin Brandys you're overqualified.
Marlin Brandys: Joseph Crouse, I wish I could believe that. For some types of positions in the teaching or instructing silo maybe, for entry level information security I do not believe so.
Dave Howe: Marlin Brandys - it's difficult to tell. I have seen "entry level" roles demand a CISSP and CEH.
Gregory Wilson: 300+ applications and 4 interviews... No job yet... Overqualified, not enough experience, ghosted.... REALITY — I'm over 60 and nobody will hire me... All the BS aside, there are lots of people ready to work... Pay them what they're worth!
Dave Howe: I think there is a bigger picture. Welfare shouldn't be so generous as to encourage people to stay on it, but equally, it shouldn't be so stingy as to cause people to struggle to stay afloat (meet rent, put food on the table, however basic, keep the power on) — there is need for balance. Equally though, an entry -evel role where a worker is willing to put in a nominal 40 hours at a routine, boring but not dangerous or unpleasant job should pay sufficient after expenses so as to be able to afford some luxuries above and beyond what welfare provides — if you are no better off, then that job is underpriced and needs either automation to improve output so as to make paying more a better proposition, or automating entirely and the job eliminated. If the job is dangerous, distasteful or involves unsociable hours, then that should be reflected in the pay, above and beyond what a "basic" job should provide. The answer should never be "we need to cut welfare so that they will take my crappy, low paid job out of desperation, because adding automation means upfront costs and I don't want to pay any more"
You can join in on that LinkedIn conversation here:
This Forbes article offers some interesting perspectives on how both employers and employees can succeed in the coming post-COVID cybersecurity world, while offering a new model for our future workforce:
“Cybersecurity is a striking example of where the supply-demand gap for personnel is particularly volatile, with companies routinely lacking both the technology and available human capital needed to integrate relevant, highly skilled workers at the same speed as their unprecedented digital transformation. When the COVID-19 pandemic forcibly distributed security teams, organizations were given a new perspective as to how remote teams can de-risk innovation. Now, many are moving to industrialize the 'new normal' of cybersecurity with greater efficiencies across their internal programs and the software development life cycle by seamlessly integrating expert security talent on-demand.”
While this coming boom may not be good news for state and local governments who struggle to compete with the private sector for the most talented tech and cyber staff, there are new options opening up for public-sector employees as well.
This research finds that many retirees want to come back and work 10 to 20 hours a week, especially if they can work remotely.
Many groups are training workers for the post-pandemic job market.
I also have spoken with CISOs and other technology leaders in both the public and private sectors who are much more open to hiring out-of-state workers, even though they would never have allowed that before the pandemic.
And finally, what about those who can’t find work, despite the supposed “boom times” that are coming? Last year, I wrote this blog describing why some skilled cyber pros are still not getting jobs. Here are just a handful of the reasons I listed there:
People are living or looking in the wrong places. They want a local job and do not want to move. (Note: More remote hiring is happening now with COVID-19, but it is still unclear if many of these jobs will go “back to the office” after the pandemic. This leads to hesitancy in taking a job in another part of the country.)
Insistence on remote work. While this is easier during the pandemic, some people want 100 percent remote without travel, which can limit options. Also, some hiring managers are not clear if remote jobs will last after the pandemic restrictions are lifted, so they want to hire locally.
Company discrimination due to older worker applicants. Yes, I agree with my colleagues that this is alive and well in 2020. Other forms of discrimination exist as well, such as race and gender.
Lack of professional networking — especially true during COVID-19. They don’t have personal connections and have a hard time meeting the right people who are hiring or can help them find the right job.
Attitude, character, work ethic, humility, etc. I have written several blogs just on this topic, but some people never get the job because they come across in interviews as entitled or too angry or having a bad attitude. They scare off hiring managers. For more on this topic, see “7 reasons security pros fail (and what to do about it)” and “Problem #3 for Security Professionals: Not Enough Humble Pie” and “Problem 5: Are You An Insider Threat?”
Putting this all together, I love my brother Steve’s perspective on individual career opportunities and selling your ideas (and yourself) to those both inside and outside your organization: “It’s all about the right product at the right place at the right time at the right price — with the right person delivering the message to the right decision-maker.”
During a recent vacation to northern Arizona, I found myself working in a coffee shop surrounded by several men and women that were supporting global companies with technology projects. Conversations were all over the map regarding application enhancements and complex deliverables for some industry-leading names.
I was frankly a bit shocked that all of this work was being run out of a coffee shop — with a few video conference calls to people’s homes. The “new normal” of global workforces became more of a reality to me, and I see this trend accelerating even after the pandemic.
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