Last week, a Washington Post article by Robert O’Harrow offered an interesting look at the most common attack vector used by cybercriminals to penetrate enterprises today: spear phishing. While we applaud (loudly) the thrust of the article – that enterprises need to educate users on the dangers of spear phishing – there are some very real challenges in user education that the article does not address.
I read Aitel’s article right before leaving for BlackHat: “Why you shouldn’t train employees for security awareness”
Popcorn in hand, this should be a fun read. After all, we agree that traditional awareness methods don’t seem to be sticking.
Spoiler: LinkedIn password leak: What it means for phishing? Answer: Not Much!
When people talk to us about phishing, they often want to know “What’s next in phishing? What else are you seeing?”
This gets asked a lot, and is one of my least favorite questions because the truth is, email based spear phishing works as-is It has no reason to evolve right now.
Anatomy of a vulnerability based phishing attack
This week SC Magazine named the Chrome vulnerabilities the Threat of the month. So, how would an attacker use this vulnerability in a spear phishing scam you ask?
They know their audience
Advanced threats know who they want to target, it doesn’t matter that your Skype handle is @kukubunga998 – they know you work for the organization they are targeting. They also deduce (the same way a marketer does) that you are a Chrome user, or that you have it installed for some reason or another. They know that your organization is big on BYOD but still has IE 9 as it’s default browser (ie. they may not be paying attention to Chrome).
They set the trap
It could be “Critical Chrome Update required”, or “Click here to view the best new twitter app” or “best new home brew formulas” – again they know you, the email will be crafted to you, not to the person in the cube next to you.
You follow the link, phew you are using IE! Do you really think they didn’t think about this already? The page says “We’re sorry, our application only works with Google Chrome, please reopen this page in Google Chrome or click here to download it”. You do as instructed because it is Google Chrome, the best and most secure browser on the interwebs, right? Poof – you’re owned, best part is that you don’t know it – they follow through on the promise that the email made, you are none the wiser and now you, your personal data, and your organization’s data are at risk.
Seems a bit too easy, right? Protect yourself, protect your customers and protect your organization – knowledge is power (Sir Francis Bacon).
An odd title for a blog post but something that has been on my mind for a while now. We get a fair amount media requests for comments or perspective on phishing stories. This is a good thing. It’s nice to have recognition in your field. Of course 2011 was no shortage of phishing related news. (What’s up RSA, I’m looking at you. I’ve noticed you frequent our website a lot. How about a demo. Couldn’t hurt?)
What is it about? Simple, the poison ivy trojan wrapped in a password protected ZIP file so it can get past filtering. Symantec has an excellent analysis of these attacks in a paper titled: The Nitro Attacks: Stealing Secrets from the Chemical Industry by Eric Chien and Gavin O’Gorman. You can read the entire paper here.
“The most recent attacks focusing on the chemical industry are using password-protected 7zip files which, when extracted, contain a self-extracting executable. The password to extract the 7zip file is included in the email. This extra stage is used to prevent automated systems from extracting the self-extracting archive.”
Packing malicious code into ZIP file and including the password in the body of the email is fairly common spear phishing technique that has been going on for quite some time. In fact, we have specific training about this tactic available at PhishMe. Here is a small snip from our training about password protected ZIP files:
Future customers: You could be using our award winning solution right now to train people about this exact tactic.
Like many high-profile events, the passing of Apple’s co-founder and former CEO, Steve Jobs, has initiated a slew of new phishing attacks that are designed to play on recipients’ emotions about the event. Steve Jobs and Apple themed phishing campaigns are in the wild but more concerning are the spear phishing attacks targeting iPhone users. PhishMe understands how these events can adversely affect our customers therefore we have released a new phishing simulation theme designed to train susceptible users on how to identify and avoid current event based attacks.
There is a common spear phishing tactic that we help our PhishMe customers combat, and that is attackers using familiar names with fake free webmail accounts.
The attacker wants to break into Widget, Inc. The first thing they do is research Widget, Inc., looking business units who may have access to the information assets they are targeting. Once they have picked their target, they need familiar names to make their spear phish more enticing to the eventual victim.
They will pick a real name inside of Widget, Inc, that will serve as the From: line of the spear phishing email. Sometimes the attacker is smart enough to choose a name in a different office or time zone. This increases the likelihood that the victim won’t pop their head over the cubical wall and ask “did you just send me an email from your Gmail account?”
Once the phisher is satisfied they have a good name to impersonate, (e.g. Bob Dobolina) they will register email@example.com, (or hotmail, yahoo, etc…)
Armed with a new free email account that uses a familiar name, the phisher will send out their spear phish to the intended targets who may know or have heard of “Bob Dobolina.” This increases the chance that the victim will fall for the phish.
How does the attacker find the names needed to carry on this charade? Social networks and tools like Jigsaw and LinkedIn provide a wealth of information. (Head over to jigsaw.com right now and put your company name in.) You will see that piecing together the necessary information to effectively impersonate someone is quite easy.
Besides making your organization aware of this threat, what else can you do to protect yourself? How about creating fake personas? Ann Smith, Executive Assistant to the Director of Legal. But in this case, Ann Smith isn’t an executive assistant, instead, Ann Smith is an email alias that goes directly to your incident response and network monitoring team.
With all of the media coverage on the recent flurry of successful phishing attacks targeting RSA, Epsilon’s clients and their customers, and Oak Ridge, it’s come to our attention that the fire hose of terms might leave some people confused. We thought it might be a good opportunity to explain what some of these terms are (and aren’t).
Phishing essentially boils down to an adversary tricking a victim into doing something. Email is, by far, the most common medium used but others are certainly possible (snail mail, telephone calls, etc.).
A traditional consumer email phish is what most of us are familiar with. It will try to get the recipient to give-up their login credentials by displaying a fake login form that looks like a legitimate site. But sometimes the attacker only wants the user to click a link to exploit a security vulnerability in the recipient’s web browser or email client. And in the case of the attack on Oak Ridge, recipients were asked to open a specially crafted attachment which exploited a security vulnerability in the program used to open it. If you’re not familiar with these, go check out PhishTank.
Many people think that “spear-phishing” and “phishing” are interchangeable; not true!
A spear-phisher has done their homework to create a targeted attack. They’re sending baited emails to specific individuals (or, a very small group of individuals — like the accounting department, for example).
This could be as simple as including the targeted company’s logo in the email and fake login page. Or it could be as sophisticated as sending an email that appears to come from an individual who actually works at the company about a topical subject (“Hi John – Please complete and return this form to enroll you and your family in the new health care program that President Smith talked about at last month’s all-hands. Thanks! –Sally Jones”).
The spear-phishing label had been mostly reserved for enterprises. But now with the Epsilon breach, consumers will likely start receiving more tailored and targeted phishing scams. So we won’t cringe as much when people confuse phishing and spear-phishing because the line is getting blurred.
Advanced Persistent Threat (APT)
This term is getting thrown around a lot lately. A lot.
There is quite a bit of disagreement in the information security community as to the “correct” definition of an APT. Some people feel it is a “who” (for example, China and/or Russia), some think it’s a “what” (a hacking incident that meets certain, sometimes subjective, criterion), while other people believe it’s a marketing gimmick or an excuse as to why an adversary was successful. When we think of APT at PhishMe, we focus on the “persistent” part: the realization that an organization now has to do business despite the fact they have bad guys inside of their network, and there is a good chance they will NEVER be able to fully rid themselves of this threat. Since the attackers are, by definition “advanced”, they are able to maintain a persistent foothold in an organization.
Unfortunately the misuse of the term APT presents a marketing challenge for us. When people talk about APT, spear-phishing naturally enters into the conversation. The reason is simple, attackers need to break in first before they can become a ” persistent threat”. And it’s no surprise that they are getting in via well-crafted spear-phishing emails. So while spear-phishing is the attack vector that leads to APT, APT is the ugly fact that you may never find a cure to get rid of your persistent threat. People seem to agree with this part of the APT definition, but it seems most technology vendors have successfully been able to re-write the definition of APT to be a convenient scapegoat for anything that circumvented their “bullet proof” technology.
Post Sales Engineer: “Did you have it configured in super-duper-malware analyze mode? .. You did? and you still got owned? Well, it was an APT, what do you expect from us!@# – click”
If our message gets lost in the APT marketing noise, then accept our humble apology in advance for “can’t-beat-em-join-em” regarding the misuse of the term APT in future marketing initiatives.
Fortunately, it’s possible to thwart a spear phishing attack …before it gets Advanced or Persistent.