Thursday 1 August 2019

The Power of Social Engineering Part Three; First Line of Defence

Written by Stuart Peck

In the previous two articles, we covered the fundamentals of social engineering and techniques used by attackers to great effect to gain unauthorised access to sensitive information. In this post, we are going to outline some of the defensive techniques you can develop to reduce your exposure to social engineering. Note that I did not say mitigate or remove risk, because the reality is that even the most hardened security professional can be social engineered; it’s a matter of timing and a well-researched and crafted pretext, that could lead to an attacker striking gold.

What this article aims to provide is a range of tactics that reduce the exposure from simplistic to advanced techniques used by attackers on a regular basis.

People-Centric Attack Vector Requires People-Centric Defence

If you are reading this then you may have spent years learning about infosec, attended a few training courses, maybe you hold a few certificates, and consider yourself adept at dealing with phishing and other social engineering attacks. Now let’s talk about compliance based “Security Awareness” training; on average, this is an annual or biannual exercise, usually online or through a Learning Management System, and derives little engagement from the employees. The key here is that infosec professionals spend many years learning their tradecraft, and yet we expect users to change behaviours, become adept at spotting and reporting phishing emails and other attacks in a 1-2-hour CBT (Computer Based Training) course.

Changing behaviours takes time; on average, over 3 months before new habits form and become normal working procedures. The key to affect change is to get user buy-in, which usually is very difficult unless your training is highly engaging and preferably face to face. It’s made even more difficult given security departments are typically small in comparison to the rest of the IT team and verses the actual headcount of the business. This is where developing programs that encourage champions is vital, where the security team can increase their footprint within each of the business units with a person who takes an active interest in promoting information security, training, and is essentially the human sensor for the infosec team.

Defence is Much More Than Just Training

Specifically identifying your high-risk groups of people in your organisation that are likely to be targeted by social engineers, and providing targeted training is a quick win, but it’s also important to provide a wider and longer term strategy that does not just involve annual Computer Based Training activity. Social engineering defence is the balance between Education, well enforced Policies and Technology. Here are a few ideas:

1)      Know who your targets are and invest in regular face to face training. Everyone is a potential target for social engineering, however, here are some high-risk groups:

·         Executive Assistants
·         Customer facing employees
·         IT / Developers
·         Marketing / social media
·         Finance / Payroll

2)      Understand the risks of oversharing; are your employees making themselves an easy target?

·         Monitor social media, especially Instagram / Facebook and provide guidance on what could expose the employees and the company to risk of being targeted
·         Make employees aware of the exposure and provide regular training on the risks of oversharing

3)      Specific and regular training on the risks of social engineering is vital, but in addition:

·         Provide policies that do not penalise those who report, but actively encourage engagement. Buy-in is a must!
·         Principles of trust but verify destabilise social engineering and can be highly effective
·         Segregation of duties for high-risk targets is vital!

4)      Technology, people, and process need to work in harmony; without this, social engineering will always be a risk

·         Ensure everyone has multi-factor or U2F to reduce risks from phishing and credentials stuffing
·         Put in place processes and technology that allows employees to easily report potential phishing scams
·         Gamification and simulated attacks work but naming and shaming does not

5)      Understand the risks and exposures

·         Policy and procedure review - does everyone know their responsibilities? How can you prove this?
·         Data Risk Assessment and Discovery - where is the critical data? How well protected is it? Who has access?
·         Incident Response – how effectively can you detect, react and respond to a social engineering attack?

6)      Attackers Don’t Care About Compliance

·         Prevent social engineering attacks by conducting risk assessments to spot & remediate potential weaknesses
·         Regularly test for weaknesses in people, process and technology. Test, remediate, repeat
·         Compliance training does not drive lasting change! Make training fun, engaging, and about the employee; give them the skills and tools to improve their own personal security posture, therefore massively reducing risk

In Summary

Social engineering has been around for an extremely long time, but technology has enabled it to scale at a rate never seen before. Existing strategies of annual training, unclear policies and reliance solely on technology to fix what is a very human problem, are clearly not working.

What’s required is a long term strategy where regular face to face training is invested in; safe behaviours are championed; reporting is encouraged; policies are clear, well defined, and presented in a way that normal employees can understand; and technology is used in a way to help deter, detect, react and respond to attacks that target the human.

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