Posts Tagged ‘security awareness


Meaningful Security Awareness Training

Is there really such a thing or am I dreaming?

For any of you that are involved in security awareness efforts, you know what I am talking about.  Security awareness training efforts just do not seem to catch fire or interest anyone, even yourself.  So what is one to do?  The reason I bring this topic up is that I attended an FS-ISAC Webinar where Lance Spitzner of SANS offered a very interesting idea in regards to security awareness training.

Before I get too deep into security awareness training, a bit of background.  Mr. Spitzner pointed out in his presentation that human beings are very bad at judging risk.  Worse yet, since most people have a poor understanding of the Internet and technology, that risk judgment gets even worse as most people, even IT professionals, just do not seem to get the risks presented by the Internet.  He presented numerous examples of just how bad people are at risk evaluation without information or a frame of reference.

If you think this is a fallacy, go and read peoples’ Facebook and LinkedIn pages.  The amount of proprietary and sensitive information that can be gleaned off of social media pages is terrifying.  But it is not just social media that creates problems.  Organizations do it to themselves all of the time with their own Web sites.  In the name of openness and marketing savvy, organizations post amazing amounts of proprietary and sensitive information on their own Web sites.  The ready availability of all of this proprietary and sensitive information lends itself to making a successful social engineering attack a foregone conclusion.

As I like to point out in my social engineering presentations, no one walks down the street indiscriminately handing out their business cards to everyone they encounter.  The looks I get from that statement are truly amazing.  Most of the people in the room do not get it and, unfortunately, probably never will get it until they are breached.  However those that do get it usually turn pale as it is usually the first time they realized the seriousness of the situation and the amount of risk to their organization all of that information presents.  When you are on the Web, organizations and people post their life stories for anyone and everyone to see.  Is it any wonder why the DEF CON “How Strong Is Your Schmooze” social engineering contest is so successful?

I have thought about this situation a lot lately as social engineering becomes more and more one of the tools used to initiate a breach.  I keep coming back to what can we do to minimize this disaster?  Security awareness training just does not seem to be working and then I run across Lance Spitzner’s presentation to FS-ISAC.  Mr. Spitzner states that people are just like any other device in the mix.  He points out that Microsoft patches Windows every month on ‘Patch Tuesday’, so why are we not “patching” people at least monthly.  What an idea.

Mr. Spitzer stated me to thinking about people as running the human operating system, or hOS as I prefer to now call it (my apologies to Apple).  And all of a sudden, viewing people as devices running hOS clarifies security awareness training.  Now, I know there are some that will chastise me for dehumanizing people.  But I justify my doing that in the fact that it needed to happen so that we can better understand and educate people so they are less at risk.

If you accept the premise that people should be treated no differently than any other device, then you know that security awareness training on hiring or an annual basis is just not often enough.  Microsoft issues patches to their software monthly if not more often in emergencies.  Since human beings are terrible at judging risk, then how can only annual security awareness training address the issues in hOS?  And that is just it, annual training cannot.  hOS needs to be regularly “patched” just like every other operating system.  That means at least a monthly patching cycle.  But doing monthly “patching” is not just all you have to do for hOS, you also need to make the “patching” relevant to hOS.

This is where subscribing to news and information security RSS feeds or listservs to track what the hot issues are for hOS.  Just like Microsoft focuses their patching of Windows on the most dangerous vulnerabilities, hOS vulnerabilities also need to be tracked the same as technological vulnerabilities.

By decoupling people from the equation and looking at the security awareness problem as patching another OS, it liberates you to think in new ways.  So, what are the steps in patching an OS?

  1. Identify the vulnerability.
  2. Determine the risk of the vulnerability.
  3. Determine what can be done to mitigate or remediate the vulnerability.
  4. Develop a program to mitigate or remediate the vulnerability.
  5. Test the mitigation or remediation of the vulnerability.
  6. Implement the mitigation or remediation of the vulnerability.

Now apply those principles to hOS on a monthly basis.  Taking the results of your research you can surely come up with a vulnerability or two that has occurred whether it is a suspicious email with a PDF or spreadsheet attachment or a drive-by attack.  Take those as examples, explain their risk, explain how to recognize these attacks, and then put your marketing department to work on developing a message that trains people.  There is a reason I recommend the marketing department and that is because you can share this information with your customers as well as your employees.

Send out these messages on a regular basis, preferably monthly but definitely more often than annually.  Follow up those messages with ‘lunch and learn’ or similar sessions to further discuss those messages and to ask attendees if they have any security questions or have encountered any threats at work or even at home.  These steps should show your customers and fellow employees that security does not require knowledge of technology so much as just using common sense and being skeptical.

Security awareness does not need to be conducted like a TV sitcom, but it can work if you take the approach that you are patching another device and you make that training relevant.


Security Awareness Training

With the growth in social engineering used to breach organizations, there has been a growing chorus of security professionals that are pushing for more and better security awareness programs.  However, Dave Aitel of Immunity, Inc. recently published an article that basically states that employee security awareness training is worthless and should not be done.  While I understand Mr. Aitel’s frustration with employees’ being a security issue, to stop security awareness training is extremely foolish.

“The clients we typically consult with are large enterprises in financial services or manufacturing.  All of them have sophisticated employee awareness and security training programs in place – and yet even with these programs, they still have an average click-through rate on client-side attacks of at least 5 to 10 percent.”

As someone in a consulting firm that also does social engineering assessments, I can confirm Mr. Aitel’s observation of 5 to 10 percent.  However, I can also tell you that organizations we test that do not have a security awareness program or have limited security awareness training are averaging in the 20 to 30 percent failure rate.  Based on our work in social engineering and discussions with other professionals that do social engineering, the 5 to 10 percent click through rate is unfortunately about the best you will get out of people.  People are fallible, some more than others.  So to just drop security awareness training is not a good idea unless you think doubling or tripling your risk is a good idea.

“Because they’re going to do so anyway, so you might as well plan for it.”

This statement is why Forrester recommends the “Zero Trust” security approach and why I developed the Ultra Secure Network.  But while I whole heartedly agree with Mr. Aitel’s statement, I differ with Mr. Aitel on what that statement means.

Mr. Aitel implies that by improving all of your other security measures you can eliminate the potential that employees will screw up.  Mr. Aitel naively believes that by auditing your periphery, improving monitoring, isolating and protecting critical data, segmenting your network, auditing employee access, improving incident response and instituting strong security leadership, organizations can prevent network threats and limit their potential range.  As I always like to say, “In theory, theory works.”

Yes, there is no doubt that organizations need to improve their security posture.  But Mr. Aitel seems to forget that employees are part and parcel of that security posture.  Ultimately, employees, as well as contractors, business partners and others, need to interact with an organization’s information.  Even if you significantly improve all of your other security controls, people still need to access and interact with an organization’s information assets.  The bad news for Mr. Aitel is that people are fallible.  To ignore that fact is foolish and to bury your head in the sand in the belief that you can prevent every social engineering attack with your other controls is sheer folly.

Security awareness training has its place, but it is not a silver bullet nor is any other security control or approach.  The world is full of risks and a security professional’s job is to minimize those risks and manage the remaining residual risk.  Any security professional that believes they can eliminate risk and sells management on that fact is not going to have a career for very long.

The ugly fact of life is that every security control only minimizes security risk and sometimes you get very lucky and the risk is minimized to zero.  In the vast majority of cases there is some amount of residual risk even when a security control is in place.  If your organization is unwilling to accept the remaining residual risk, then the business function causing that risk needs to be not performed.  As I like to tell people that complain about the PCI DSS, “If you don’t want to comply with the PCI DSS and want to totally avoid a card breach, then don’t accept credit/debit cards for payment.”

So continue to conduct security awareness training, but do not mistakenly believe that it will stop people from creating an incident.  Security awareness training only minimizes the risk that people will make a mistake, not eliminate that risk.  This is why security is done in layers, so that when people make that mistake, your other security controls catch the mistake quickly and minimize the impact.


The Reinvigoration Of Social Engineering

Social engineering did not go away, but it seems to have taken a backseat to other attack techniques over the last few years.  With the publication of the results of the social engineering contest at Defcon this year, the participants in the contest have shown that social engineering is still alive and well and a very successful attack technique.  The following quote from the report on the contest says it all.

“Targeting people has become the most cost efficient attack vector in many situations, and all indications point to this trend continuing to increase.”

Social engineering is one of the most insidious attack techniques around.  Unfortunately, organizations do little to address social engineering and have only made social engineering easier over the years.  Customer service methodologies and training over the last 30+ years have done a great disservice to organizations.  For example, organizations trip all over themselves to be the JD Power customer service leader.  Employees are assessed on their ability to solve a problem on the first customer contact.  Yet in my experience, these sorts of activities typically focus organizations on blindly providing customer service at the expense of the organization’s security.

The organizers of the contest defined 32 objectives or flags that contestants could obtain over a 25 minute call to the target.  These flags were assigned point values based on the perceived difficulty in obtaining them.  While the flags were not considered to be highly sensitive information, the flags were such that one as to wonder if even more sensitive information would have easily been obtained had the contestants been allowed to go after it.

Prior to the contest, contestants were required to develop dossiers and attack scenarios on their targets that were also graded and given a value that became part of their score.  In the 25 minutes, contestants could call their target once or multiple times.

The statistics gathered as a result of the contest bear out the effectiveness of social engineering.  Of the 15 organizations targeted, 14 of them did give up at least one flag.  More troubling is the fact that if a contestant encountered difficulty in obtaining information all it took to get the information was to hang up and call back and get a different employee.

Another area that provides concern is the amount of information the contestants were able to obtain through their dossier development.  The use of Google, Google Earth and Google StreetView provided an amazing amount of information for the contestants.  Also used were social media sites such as Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn.  While Facebook, MySpace and similar sites have garnered the most attention by the media, it was LinkedIn that provided the most information, in a few cases providing the contestants with the ability to develop an organization chart for the target.

Security is only as good as the weakest link.  As this contest points out, an organization’s weakest link is probably their employees – the likely cause of which is a lack of or only cursory focus on security awareness.  The contest just magnifies the fact that organizations have done little or nothing to protect their organizations from information leakage by employees.  As I constantly like to remind everyone, security is not perfect.  While you may have a fairly good security awareness program, you are still at risk from social engineering.  As PT Barnum liked to say, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”  Humans are fallible and as much as we try, everyone has their moments, but some people have a lot more moments than others.

If you think this is all just a nice exercise and it really does not present a strong enough threat, then go back over the last six months and read all of the news clippings about data breaches and other exploits.  The majority of these attacks are all social engineering based or had a very strong social engineering component.

I highly recommend that you visit the Web site and obtain a copy of their report.  Share the report with your executives, particularly the leader of your customer service area.  Hopefully they will get a clue regarding the amount of information that is inadvertently leaving your organization.

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March 2023