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The Value of Human Intelligence in Phishing Defense

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By Guest Blogger, Frank Dickson, Program Vice President, Cybersecurity Products, IDC

The value of humans, our fellow employees, in phishing defense has been a hotly contested topic for quite some time. Advocates say that end users play a role, be it innocent and unintended, in just about every phishing campaign. Proper behavior modification can ultimately solve the problem. Detractors only to need point to the consistent “clickiness” of end users to question that value. Yet the reality is that responsibility lies somewhere in the middle.

The detractors are indeed correct. Users do continue to click on malicious links and participate in other unintended ways. Training helps a lot, improving the effectiveness of a user’s ability to spot malicious email. Even though the human eye improves, cyber miscreants are clever, and even the best of us get tricked on an off day. However, what the detectors fail to acknowledge is that for a user to click on a link in a phishing email, the email first had to get past our messaging defenses—our organization’s security technology.

The Additive Factor

Here lies the crux of the argument: People are not perfect; but neither is technology. When you look at phishing, that pretty well sums up the problem. There’s so much complexity associated with IT architectures that, as of right now, the existing technology is:

A) clearly not getting it done, and
B) just too immensely complex to let any single technology fully cover it.

Malicious emails are getting through. Luckily though, technology defenses and human intelligence are not mutually exclusive. They are additive; both can be used together and, in fact, complement each other.

The factor that makes human intelligence so compelling is in the way it’s applied. As we look at layering technologies atop other technologies, we often wonder if we are indeed increasing our efficacy, or would less technology stop the same malicious emails? With human intelligence, it is only applied to emails that have gotten past our messaging security technologies. By default, human intelligence can only identify new threats.

Case in point: even if you do a great job taking out spam and malware, you still have malicious messages that get through. In the case of a compromised business email account, someone can grab credentials and take control of it. An email can appear to come from the CEO with a fictitious invoice sent to accounting saying, “Please pay this invoice.” The invoice gets paid—without the use of malware or a malicious link, right?

The email comes from a legitimate email box. Everything is “legitimate,” it’s just someone compromised the credentials. Dealing with that kind of use case is incredibly difficult. The long story short here is the complexity. Technology is great for dealing with standardized problems. When the complexity increases exponentially, however, human intelligence stands a better chance at inferring malicious intent.

Additionally, humans can scale, each applying a unique intelligence. If a malicious email gets past our technology defenses and into 10 inboxes, it only takes one out of those 10 people say, “Hmm, this doesn’t look right,” and report it. Essentially, security intelligence is crowdsourced.

The Feedback Imperative

Keep in mind, however, that human intelligence is neither free nor easy. It takes a commitment to make it work. Training users on what to look for is a good start. Users need background in terms of what’s in a malicious email, what does legitimate email look like, and what are the warning signs. You must give them the rudimentary training. That’s step one. Step two requires simulations, providing pop quizzes, for example, of obvious scenarios.

Training and simulations are great, but those by themselves are not the key. The key is the feedback loop. End users want to contribute. They want to be part of the solution. Sometimes IT thinks, “Ah, those silly end users. Easier not to keep them involved.”

But users want to know they are valued. They don’t want to feel like their time’s being wasted. If no one gets back to them and tells them that, hey, their feedback is important, then the user reasonably thinks, “I’m just wasting my time.” In addition to refining an end-user’s ability to detect malicious email, feedback from IT says, “Yes, your input was both considered and important.”

And that is the most effective security you can have.


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