Why phishing attacks are nastier than ever

Roger Grimes explains “Why phishing attacks are nastier than ever.”  Here are they key reasons why many infosec professionals consider spearphishing emails the number one attack vector:

  • The attack is handcrafted by professional criminals
  • The attack appears to be sent by someone you know
  • The attack includes a project you are working on
  • Your attacker has been monitoring your company’s email
  • Your attacker can intercept and change emails as needed
  • Your attacker uses custom or built-in tools to subvert antivirus software
  • Your attacker uses military-grade encryption to tunnel your data home
  • Your attacker covers their (sic) tracks
  • Your attacker has been in your environment for years
  • Your attacker is not afraid of being caught

Roger does have some good administrative process recommendations. I would also recommend a couple of advanced technical controls.

Third era of Information Security

As I look over my experience in Information Security since 1999, I see three distinct eras with respect to the motivation driving technical control purchases:

  • Basic (mid-90’s to early 2000’s) – Organizations implemented basic host-based and network-based technical security controls, i.e. anti-virus and firewalls respectively.
  • Compliance (early 2000’s to mid 2000’s) – Compliance regulations such as Sarbanes-Oxley and PCI drove major improvements in security.
  • Breach Prevention and Incident Detection & Response (BPIDR) (late 2000’s to present) – Organizations realize that regulatory compliance represents a minimum level of security, and is not sufficient to cope with the fast changing methods used by cyber predators. Meeting compliance requirements will not effectively reduce the likelihood of a breach by more skilled and aggressive adversaries or detect their malicious activity.

I have three examples to support the shift from the Compliance era to the Breach Prevention and Incident Detection & Response (BPIDR) era. The first is the increasing popularity of Palo Alto Networks. No compliance regulation I am aware of makes the distinction between a traditional stateful inspection firewall and a Next Generation Firewall as defined by Gartner in their 2009 research report.  Yet in the last four years, 6,000 companies have selected Palo Alto Networks because their NGFWs enable organizations to regain control of traffic at points in their networks where trust levels change or ought to change.

The second example is the evolution of Log Management/SIEM. One can safely say that the driving force for most Log/SIEM purchases in the early to mid 2000s was compliance. The fastest growing vendors of that period had the best compliance reporting capabilities. However, by the late 2000s, many organizations began to realize they needed better detection controls. We began so see a shift in the SIEM market to those solutions which not only provided the necessary compliance reports, but could also function satisfactorily as the primary detection control within limited budget requirements. Hence the ascendancy of Q1 Labs, which actually passed ArcSight in number of installations prior to being acquired by IBM.

The third example is email security. From a compliance perspective, Section 5 of PCI DSS, for example, is very comprehensive regarding anti-virus software. However, it is silent regarding phishing. The popularity of products from Proofpoint and FireEye show that organizations have determined that blocking email-borne viruses is simply not adequate. Phishing and particularly spear-phishing must be addressed.

Rather than simply call the third era “Breach Prevention,” I chose to add “Incident Detection & Response” because preventing all system compromises that could lead to a breach is not possible. You must assume that Prevention controls will have failures. Therefore you must invest in Detection controls as well. Too often, I have seen budget imbalances in favor of Prevention controls.

The goal of a defense-in-depth architecture is to (1) prevent breaches by minimizing attack surfaces, controlling access to assets, and preventing threats and malicious behavior on allowed traffic, and (2) to detect malicious activity missed by prevention controls and detect compromised systems more quickly to minimize the risk of disclosure of confidential data.