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It Is Not About Security | @CloudExpo @StackIQ #AI #ML #Cybersecurity
There has certainly been no lack of punditry and controversy in the US regarding the hacking of John Podesta’s email account
By: Don MacVittie
Feb. 28, 2017 09:30 PM
There has certainly been no lack of punditry and controversy in the US regarding the hacking of John Podesta’s email account (along with the DNC email hack), with some claiming they were responsible for Mrs. Clinton’s loss in the election. I will leave the impact of these claims to those who write and talk about politics. I don’t discuss politics in a work setting, so will leave that aspect to them.
What I would like to address is the security infrastructure versus security posture that made this hack possible. For the uninitiated, Mr. Podesta received a targeted phishing email directing him to reset his password. This prompted him to contact IT support, who told him there was indeed a threat, and he should reset his password. Up to this point, it sounds like a day in the life of any enterprise. Reassured by IT support, he clicked on the link in the email to reset his password. The rest as they say is history.
At that point, it doesn’t matter what the security infrastructure of the organization was. Unless the organization is scanning outgoing connections for hazardous behavior (and even then, it would have had to be blacklisted, based on today’s user expectations), all security infrastructure was no hindrance to the attackers at all.
The IT support individual involved (his name is out there if you’re dying to know it, I will not besmirch him for the simplest – and potentially most clostly – of mistakes) has expressed regret for simply saying “Yes, this is a real threat, reset your password”, but it shows the difference in the world-view between leaders and IT. To security and support staff, “reset your password” implies “via the normal method you’ve always used”. While to the user, IT staff was implying “this is a legitimate request, please use it to reset your password”. The part that did not get communicated was “but not via the link in that email”.
It was a simple communication error. And though we will never know for certain the impact that it had, it is guaranteed that impact wasn’t good. It was at best neutral or more likely negative to the organization, it is just very difficult to gauge how negative.
The thing is, that one conversation and the resulting email – one email, one phone call, one click – bypassed whatever security infrastructure was in place. No matter how good, expensive, up-to-date, or all-encompassing it was.
In the case of Mr. Podesta, there was even another twist. This was his personal account, but as many of us do, there was a lot of work-related email on his personal account. This (gmail) account was outside of IT’s control, so any document they had telling users how to reset passwords was useless. Most organizations have these people in them, who really do work evenings at their home, and are productive doing so.
And if you are a company big enough to have IT support staff, it was your organization. You are every bit as vulnerable, and it could have happened to you. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
There are several things you can pursue to help avoid situations like this.
A political campaign is a short-term thing, and the window for potential damage was small. That is not true with your organization. Imagine someone having access to the email of a 10 or 20 year high-level employee, and having forever to use that in competitive situations against your organization. The potential for harm is large, and if there is bad enough stuff in there (I once wrote the CEO of an employer to tell him I had been commanded to fudge data, and that wasn’t the company I joined or he was running. While he fixed it, imagine that showing up competitively or in court – today I would call or wander over to his office to have that same conversation), it could cost not just business, but lawsuits to boot.
While doing all of this, remember to scale the approach so as to teach employees what is off limits, while reinforcing that email is a business tool and should be used for business goals. It is a powerful tool, but it can be a powerful tool in the hands of those who wish your organization ill also. It is important to keep the “powerful tool” part while reducing the risk.
Edit/Addendum: One of the companies I do business with has started inserting this line at the top of email coming from outside their network:
“*** Exercise caution. This is an EXTERNAL email. DO NOT open attachments or click links from unknown senders or unexpected email. ***.”
That line at the top of the phishing email may well have caused Mr. Podesta to stop and ask “Should I use the link in the email?”, thereby avoiding the entire unpleasantness. So add it to the list of things you can do to reduce risk.
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