It had all the trappings of a Hollywood blockbuster: a massive data breach, hackers hired by Russian spies, and a secret operation that went on for years undetected. Except for one rather pedestrian and crucial element. According to indictments handed down by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, the hackers penetrated Yahoo’s security not through some sophisticated cyber-tango of caffeine-fueled hacker artistry. There weren’t any high-tech micro computers covertly implanted into neon-lit server racks following a series of cleverly choreographed hi-jinks. No, the largest single leak of Personally Identifying Information was enabled by a Yahoo employee falling for a spear phishing attack.
Here comes the email security soapbox again!
What’s a spear phishing attack and what makes it different from the rest of the spam you get in your email? Typical spam and phishing emails are sent to as many people as possible in the hopes that a small percentage will click the link or open the attachment, whereas spear phishing is designed to target a very specific audience or even a particular individual. They are typically several levels more sophisticated than the usual garbage clogging our email as the content is custom-tailored to appear believable to the target. While I’m sure many of you are scratching your heads at how a single click on a fake email could lead to the largest breach in history against a storied dot-com darling, keep in mind that in the ongoing plate-spinning war of internet security, the good guys only win if they can keep all the plates spinning, and the bad guys win if even a single plate falls.
There are many lessons to be learned from this incident, but perhaps the most important one of all still remains: all security systems are only as strong as the weakest link, and many times that weakest link is a human. Given enough resources, time and determination, any security system can be hacked, and any company or organization can be breached. What’s a business owner to do in light of a seemingly unstoppable force? Just like preparing for two other famously unavoidable eventualities, planning for security breach will prepare you to react properly and deliberately rather than a mad scramble for recovery. Not sure how to get started? Pick up the phone and let C2 give you a leg up on getting ready.
Adobe Flash can’t seem to catch a break. Their most current black eye has arrived in the form of yet another zero-day exploit of a vulnerability in the latest versions (220.127.116.11 and 18.104.22.168) of the browser plug-in. According to Trend Micro’s blog, the hacking group Pawn Storm is targeting government workers via spear-phishing emails that contain links to news about current events. Instead of taking them to a legitimate news story, the links lead to compromised websites that can install malware onto the victim’s computer via the aforementioned exploit. Rather than the usual identity theft, this group seems to have a more politicized agenda and bears similarities to attacks on NATO from last year.
What this means for you:
If you are new to this blog, you may not have been briefed on the #1 Rule of Personal Technology Security: “Don’t click strange email links.” Even clients who have weathered years of me saying this sometimes let their guard down, so Rule #2 is “Be prepared for the worst,” which you should interpret as (1) having a strong firewall, (2) trusted anti-malware installed, and (3) a contingency straegy that includes backups and plans for operating without core infrastructure when things do go wrong. The sad matter of fact is that cyberattacks will get past anyone’s mental guard – we are only human after all – at which point properly installed and configured technology can act as a safety net. Note the emphasis – poorly implemented security is worse than nothing at all in some cases. When you have nothing, at least you aren’t lulled into a false sense of security. And don’t count on the (perhaps prematurely reported) death of Flash as means to improve everyone’s overall security profile. We haven’t quite seen the end of Flash just yet, and there are plenty of other platforms (Java anyone?) that could easily take its place if and when Adobe finally puts this software out to pasture for good.http://arstechnica.com/security/2015/10/new-zero-day-exploit-hits-fully-patched-adobe-flash/
While analyzing the data trail of the recent, highly-publicized Adobe security breach and data theft, researchers also discovered data that appears to have been stolen from a prominent online broker of limousine and towncar services. Among the some 850,000 customer records discovered were such illustrious names as Donald Trump, LeBron James and Tom Hanks as well numerous other wealthy and/or famous individuals. The data also included credit card information, pickup times and locations and even ID numbers of private airplanes used by this company’s customers. The records also included notes on customer behaviors and activities including a number of tidbits that could prove embarrassing or even potentially incriminating. Even if the data were to somehow avoid falling into the hands of police or tabloids, it’s highly likely that cybercriminals will have already cherry-picked many of the customer records for their potential use to fuel spear-phishing attacks and other focused cyber-espionage attempts on corporate and government targets.
What this means for you:
You may have enforced rigor and discipline in your own technology, to the point where you feel fairly confident that you can avoid most attempts to compromise your technology security, but the above points out an uncomfortable reality: you cannot control what information is being gathered about you whenever you interact with the rest of the world. You have two choices here: acceptance and vigilance – be watchful and cautious, and come to grips with the fact that 100% security is impossible, or move to a bunker in the wilderness, off the grid and completely isolated from society. However distasteful and infuriating the former may feel some days, the latter is just not a practical choice (or even possible) for most people.
Security analysts are uncovering a troubling rise in sophistication and cunning in targeted phishing attempts – also known as “spear phishing” – where attackers are actually adapting their tactics to exploit weaknesses revealed in common business worker behavior. Most obvious and easy to exploit is the fact that many businesses “shut down” on Fridays, and most workers, including corporate IT, disengage from the job and stop reading emails. Attackers savvy to this behavior trend send out the usual phishing emails with URL’s that are actually clean at the time of delivery, allowing them to arrive in user inboxes unmolested by corporate malware detection platforms. The attacker bides his time and waits to compromise the websites that were linked in the phishing emails until the last moment, say early Monday morning, hopefully just before users start to read the email that arrived over the weekend. Because the email managed to make it past corporate filters, the user wrongly assumes it’s safe, clicks the URL and his or her computer is then compromised through the usual malware attacks.
What this means for you:
Phishing emails are becoming increasingly harder to distinguish from the real thing, and it takes a trained eye to spot the best fakes. The most common phishing tactics are to email you about the following:
- Your account has been accessed by a third party
- (Bank Name) Internet Banking Customer Service Message
- Security Measures
- Verify your activity
- Account security Notification
When you receive an email like the above, and it appears to have come from a company or institution with which you work, examine the source of the email carefully to make sure the links actually go where they say they go. (See our previous news item Ransomware Targets Skype Users for more tips on how to tell if an email is legitimate or not.) If there’s any doubt at all, don’t use the links provided, but type them in or use a bookmark you created to ensure you are going to the proper website, or call a known, publicly-available phone number for the company to verify the request with a real human.
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici / FreeDigitalPhotos.net