Negative reinforcement: How NOT to improve user behavior

One of the interesting aspects of security awareness training is the intersection of information security with human resources. We know from experience that security practitioners are not always experts in the latter, but what we recently saw from Dave Clemente was a real doozy.

Clemente suggested that employees who engage in unsafe IT security behavior (such as clicking on phishing links) be reprimanded and that unsafe behavior should even negatively affect their performance review. To the security part of your mind, it might feel good to punish people for their security sins. We need to remember, however, that the ultimate goal of security is to protect a network, not give users a reason to DDoS it.

For effective security awareness, keep it focused

Switch book coverIn their book, “Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard” authors Chip and Dan Heath examine how influencing humans to change requires appealing to two parts of the brain: the rational and the emotional. Since the emotional part of our brain often gets frustrated when asked to make huge changes, Chip and Dan recommend that we “shrink the change” to change behavior in the face of resistance.

The Heaths cite financial guru Dave Ramsey’s “Debt Snowball” strategy as an effective example of shrinking the change. For people mired in a mountain of debt, this strategy advocates paying off their smallest debts first – regardless of interest rates. Although this flies in the face of conventional financial wisdom, it is a lot easier for people to remain focused by paying off a $200 debt than it is to pay off $200 of a $20k debt. It’s easier for our brains to process manageable changes, and when we feel like change is manageable, we’re more likely to implement it.

Cost of Phishing for Businesses

We’re always talking about the cost of phishing for businesses, but why? Well, you might be surprised to learn that the true costs of phishing aren’t as obvious as you may suspect.

Phishing, of course, is not a new problem. It’s in fact a very old problem that has its roots 20 years ago when people used floppy disks and moved from computer to computer in the good old days of the “sneakernet.”

While phishing is not a new problem, it remains a very viable threat to many organizations – particularly financial institutions, e-commerce companies and government organizations. Rarely a day goes by without a significant attack being reported in the news.

Despite existing layers of security, such as education and training, IDS/IPS, web gateway/web filtering, takedown vendors, etc., there is still a high success rate. It has been estimated that one of every 200 phishing attacks is successful. The average cost of a phishing attack is $150,00 to the organization. That is a significant amount of money.

Now, what may surprise you is that the smallest portion of that cost is the actual fraud. Damage to the reputation and cost of remediation actually account for almost ⅔ of the cost of phishing. Phishing is incredibly costly, and worse, the problem is growing at an alarming rate.

Top Phishing Concerns of DNS Providers

Twitter and the New York Times were hacked this week, which means that they have officially joined the ranks of other major news organizations, including the Financial Times and Washington Post who have been targeted by hackers over the past few months.

So, how’d it happen?

Three things: hacker groups, DNS providers and spear phishing.

The Syrian Electronic Army (SEA) appears to be taking credit for this attack, as their logo was prominently displayed at NYTimes.com when the site was compromised. The SEA, a hacker group, protesting Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, launched the attack in order to generate high profile awareness of their political agenda.

Why DNS Providers Are Targeted by Cybercriminals

The nature of this attack is consistent with several other cyberattacks that have recently taken place, in that the DNS Provider was targeted in order to carry out the attack. Melbourne IT, the New York Times’ registrar, was the victim of a spear phishing attack that successfully provided members of the SEA with access to the Times’ DNS Manager. DNS providers are among the most targeted businesses by cybercriminals, ranking alongside large financial institutions and major retailers as lucrative targets. There are two primary reasons for this:

  1. By gaining access to a customer account, DNS records can be changed to whatever the cybercriminal wants them to be.
  2. Gaining access to the DNS Provider’s employee accounts gives the cybercriminal access to several different domains, creating an opportunity to launch a large-scale attack.

Top Phishing Concerns of DNS Providers

  • Spear Phishing is increasing in frequency. A spear phishing attack happens when cybercriminals launch a targeted attack against specific individuals who they feel can give them access to the information, credentials or infrastructure that they need to carry out their attack. In the instance of the New York Times attack this week, a spear phishing attack was launched against employees of a reseller of Melbourne IT.
  • Hacktivism is becoming part of the “new normal” when it comes to the cybersecurity landscape. In attacks such as this, the goal is not to obtain customer credentials and access account information to procure funds. Instead, the goal is exposure. As Sun Tzu states, know your enemy.
  • Brand Loyalty/Customer Relationships suffer even if just one attack is successful. If a DNS provider fails to protect customer accounts from being accessed by cybercriminals, customer loyalty will be damaged and brand integrity will suffer long-term consequences.

What DNS Providers Can Do

The most important thing that DNS providers can do is focus on email.

When it comes to launching these attacks, cybercriminals almost always launch a phishing attack via email. That’s why email-based threat intelligence is so important. If you are using security intelligence appropriately, you can identify the source of a threat and even stop an attack before it happens.

Additionally, it’s important to take a look at which players in your organization have access to information that could be appealing to cybercriminals. There is another word for these employees: targets. Adjust the security level for these folks to provide additional protection against these kinds of attacks.

Share your thoughts. How can DNS providers protect themselves against phishing?

To make training stick, immerse employees

When aspiring pilots go through flight school, they learn both in a conventional ground setting and using a flight simulator. On the simulator, new pilots are immersed in the experience of flying, and receive real-time feedback about their decision making. Not surprisingly, the simulator is seen as a more effective training tool than conventional classroom training.

One of the greatest challenges facing security awareness initiatives is providing employees with an experience they will actually remember and retain. Training users to avoid risky security behavior is not nearly as complicated as teaching someone to fly a plane, but just like with pilots, immersive training that simulates the kind of attack methods employees face is a more effective way to conduct security awareness.

Syrian Electronic Army continues to carry out successful data-entry phishing attacks

When the Syrian Electronic Army nailed a number of prominent media outlets earlier this year, we were pleased to see a number of open and honest responses from those that were breached, notably from The Onion and The Financial Times.

Last week, the SEA was at it again, successfully hacking content recommendation service Outbrain, an attack which provided a foothold to compromise media behemoths The Washington Post, Time, and CNN. The SEA attacked Outbrain with largely the same tactics it has used so successfully in the past few months, by eliciting log-in credentials through a phishing email, the same tactics PhishMe simulates in our data entry scenarios.

To improve security awareness, think marketing

Security awareness is a term that often makes IT security pros cringe. It brings to mind images of mind-numbing training or of ineffectual posters and stress balls urging employees to change their passwords frequently.

Based on years of experience working with enterprises and other large organizations, we are launching a new blog series, “7 Principles Critical to Security Awareness Programs”, that will offer some insight in concepts we have incorporated in our solution to demonstrably improve security awareness for our customers.

The first topic we will address is marketing.

Changing behavior is one of the greatest challenges security officers face when implementing security awareness programs. Convincing people to change is hard in any arena, but when it comes to security – an area which most users neither know nor care much about – it’s especially difficult. We can learn a lot about changing behavior from a source security pros are often wary of: marketers.