Featured Article – Email Security (Part 2)

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Following on from last month’s featured article about email security (part 1), in part 2 we focus on many of the email security and threat predictions for this year and for the near, foreseeable future.

Looking Forward

In part 1 of this ‘Email Security’ snapshot, we looked at how most breaches involve email, the different types of email attacks, and how businesses can defend themselves against a variety of known email-based threats. Unfortunately, businesses and organisations now operate in an environment where cyber-attackers are using more sophisticated methods across multi-vectors and where threats are constantly evolving.

With this in mind, and with businesses seeking to be as secure as possible against the latest threats, here are some of the prevailing predictions based around email security for the coming year.

Ransomware Still a Danger

As highlighted by a recent Malwarebytes report, and a report by Forbes, the ransomware threat is by no means over and since showing an increase in the first quarter of 2019 of 195 per cent on the previous year’s figures it is still predicted to be a major threat in 2020. Tech and security commentators have noted that although ransomware attacks on consumers have declined by 33 per cent since last year, attacks against organisations have worsened.  In December, for example, a ransomware attack was reported to have taken a US Coast Guard (USCG) maritime base offline for more than 30 hours. 

At the time of writing this article, it has been reported that following an attack discovered on New Year’s Day, hackers using ransomware are holding Travelex’s computers for ransom to such a degree that company staff have been forced to use pen and paper to record transactions!

Information Age, for example, predicts that softer targets (outdated software, inadequate cybersecurity resources, and a motivation to pay the ransom) such as the healthcare services will be targeted more in the coming year with ransomware that is carried by email.

Phishing

The already prevalent email phishing threat looks likely to continue and evolve this year with cybercriminals set to try new methods in addition to sending phishing emails e.g. using SMS and even spear phishing (highly targeted phishing) using deepfake videos to pose as company authority figures.

As mentioned in part 1 of the email security articles, big tech companies are responding to help combat phishing with new services e.g. the “campaign views” tool in Office 365 and Google’s advanced security settings for G Suite administrators.

BEC & VEC

Whereas Business Email Compromise (BEC) attacks have been successful at using email fraud combined with social engineering to bait one staff member at-a-time to extract money from a targeted organisation, security experts say that this kind of attack is morphing into a much wider threat of ‘VEC’ (Vendor Email Compromise). This is a larger and more sophisticated version which, using email as a key component, seeks to leverage organisations against their own suppliers.

Remote Access Trojans

Remote Access Trojans (RATs) are malicious programs that can arrive as email attachments.  RATs provide cybercriminals with a back door for administrative control over the target computer, and they can be adapted to help them to avoid detection and to carry out a number of different malicious activities including disabling anti-malware solutions and enabling man-in-the-middle attacks.  Security experts predict that more sophisticated versions of these malware programs will be coming our way via email this year.

The AI Threat

Many technology and security experts agree that AI is likely to be used in cyberattacks in the near future and its ability to learn and to keep trying to reach its target e.g. in the form of malware, make it a formidable threat. Email is the most likely means by which malware can reach and attack networks and systems, so there has never been a better time to step up email security, train and educate staff about malicious email threats, how to spot them and how to deal with them. The addition of AI to the mix may make it more difficult for malicious emails to be spotted.

The good news for businesses, however, is that AI and machine learning is already used in some anti-virus software e.g. Avast, and this trend of using AI in security solutions to counter AI security threats is a trend that is likely to continue.

One Vision of the Email Security Future

The evolving nature of email threats means that businesses and organisations may need to look at their email security differently in the future.

One example of an envisaged approach to email security comes from Mimecast’s CEO Peter Bauer.  He suggests that in order to truly eliminate the threats that can abuse the trust in their brands “out in the wild” companies need to “move from perimeter to pervasive email security.  This will mean focusing on the threats:

– To the Perimeter (which he calls Zone1).  This involves protecting users’ email and data from spam and viruses, malware and impersonation attempts, data leaks – in fact, protecting the whole customer, partner and vendor ecosystem.

– From inside the perimeter (Zone 2).  This involves being prepared to be able to effectively tackle internal threats like compromised user accounts, lateral movement from credential harvesting links, social engineering, and employee error threats.

– From beyond the perimeter (Zone 3).  These could be threats to brands and domains from spoofed or hijacked sites that could be used to defraud customers and partners.

As well as recognising and looking to deal with threats in these 3 zones, Bauer also suggests an API-led approach to help deliver pervasive security throughout all zones.  This could involve businesses monitoring and observing email attacks with e.g. SOARs, SIEMs, endpoints, firewalls and broader threat intelligence platforms, feeding this information and intelligence to security teams to help keep email security as up to date and as tight as possible.

Into 2020 and Beyond

Looking ahead to email security in 2020 and beyond, companies will be facing plenty more of the same threats (phishing, ransomware, RATs) which rely on email combined with human error and social engineering to find their way into company systems and networks. Tech companies are responding with updated anti-phishing and other solutions.

SME’s (rather than just bigger companies) are also likely to find themselves being targeted with more attacks involving email, and companies will need to, at the very least, make sure they have the basic automated, tech and human elements in place (training, education, policies and procedures) to help provide adequate protection (see the end of part 1 for a list of email security suggestions).

The threat of AI-powered attacks, however, is causing some concern and the race is on to make sure that AI-powered protection is up to the level of any AI-powered attacks.

Taking a leaf out of companies like Mimecast’s book, and looking at email security in much wider scope and context (outside the perimeter, inside the perimeter, and beyond) may bring a more comprehensive kind of email security that can keep up with the many threats that are now arriving across a much wider attack surface. 

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