Cybersecurity: Employees Are the First Line of Defense Image

Cybersecurity: Employees Are the First Line of Defense

Cybercriminals are becoming more focused on users of company networks as a weak link in the security infrastructure chain. Secure web gateways, anti-virus tools, malware scanners, spam quarantines, and other technologies help filter out malicious content and defend against a growing variety of threats, but technology alone cannot stop humans from clicking on the wrong links.

Gone are the days when cybersecurity was the sole responsibility of the corporate IT department. Cyber safety programs are a best human resources practice and should be included in new employee onboarding and ongoing training awareness programs. HR might even consider incentive plans for helping keep networks safe.

Why? Employees are vulnerable to malware through their use of company email, the web, social media, instant messaging, and other communication and network software. Employees must be able to spot the types of attacks that may compromise company networks and be ready to use best practices against data breaches and malware infiltration as part of the organization’s overall risk prevention program.

How Pervasive is the Threat?

According to Michael Osterman of Osterman Research, Inc., there is more than a one-in-four chance that a user will mistakenly click on a phishing email and infect a corporate network. Costs to affected companies are steep. A recent example is the city of Atlanta, where a single ransomware infection cost the city more than $2.6 million. Trend Micro predicts worldwide losses from business email compromise (BEC) attacks at more than $9 billion in 2018.

Osterman Research conducted a study of organizations that had been victims of security incidents between March 2017 and March 2018 and found:

  • 9% were victims of phishing attacks that successfully infected systems with malware.
  • 25% had targeted email attacks launched from a compromised account that infected a network endpoint with malware.
  • 25% had sensitive/confidential information accidentally leaked through email.
  • 1% suffered targeted email attacks launched from a compromised account that successfully stole a user’s account credentials.
  • 1% had files encrypted because of a successful ransomware attack.
  • 2% saw malware infiltrate internal systems without being able to pinpoint the source of attack.
  • 2% had one or more systems successfully infiltrated through a “drive-by” malware attack from employee web surfing.
  • 3% had a CEO fraud/BEC email attack that successfully tricked one or more employees in the organization.
  • 7% had sensitive/confidential information accidentally or maliciously leaked through a cloud-based file sharing tool like Dropbox.
  • 8% were victims of sensitive/confidential information accidentally or maliciously leaked through a social media or cloud application.

One reason we are seeing increased vulnerability to cyberattacks stems from a growing attack “surface,” or possible entry points for malware and other malicious attacks. Most employees use multiple company-provided hardware and software products that widen that attack surface. These represent ingress points for various types of threats and often are a more serious problem because their use is not as well controlled by IT, if they’re controlled at all.

Cyberthreats Aimed at Employees

What types of threats should your employees be trained to spot so that they think before they click? Here are the most common ones:

Phishing emails. These are relatively unfocused email messages designed to collect sensitive information, such as login credentials, credit card information, Social Security numbers, and other valuable data. Phishing emails pretend to come from trustworthy sources like banks, credit card companies, shippers, and other sources with which potential victims have established relationships. More sophisticated phishing attempts use corporate logos and other identifiers to fool potential victims into believing the emails are genuine.

Spearphishing emails. These are targeted phishing attacks typically focused on one company or affinity group (such as an industry organization), reflecting the fact that a cybercriminal has studied the target and crafted a message designed to have a high degree of believability and a potentially high open rate.

Consumer file sync and share tools. Productivity tools like Dropbox, Microsoft OneDrive, and Google Drive, which let users make files available on all desktop, laptop, and mobile platforms, generally are safe but can be targeted by sophisticated criminals as an entry point. For example, when an employee accesses corporate files on a home computer that doesn’t have current anti-virus software, the employee can inadvertently infect these files with malware. When files are synced back to the employee’s work computer, malware can infect the network because it may have bypassed corporate email, web gateway, and other defenses.

Watering holes. In these social engineering attacks, cybercriminals identify websites they would like to infiltrate and that employees might visit on a regular basis. They infect these sites with malware.

Malicious Internet advertising (malvertising). This is designed to distribute malware through advertising impressions on websites.

User errors. Users sometimes inadvertently install malware or compromised code on their computers. This can occur if they install ActiveX controls, download a codec, install various applications intended to address some perceived need (such as a capability that IT does not support), or respond to scareware attempts that prey on users who are trying to protect their platforms from viruses and other malware.

Mobile malware. The growing use of smartphones and tablets is increasingly being exploited by cybercriminals. Most infections impact Android devices.

Compromised search engine queries. Valid queries can be hijacked by cybercriminals to distribute malware when employees perform web searches. This type of attack relies on poisoning results, leading to the display of malware-laden sites during these searches. This is particularly effective for popular search terms, such as information on celebrities, airline crashes, natural disasters, and other “newsy” items.

Mobile copycat apps. Some mobile applications are distributed through vendor-based and third-party stores that offer varying levels of security. If the store lacks stringent standards, serious security risks like distribution of copycat apps and malware that can cause infections when downloaded can occur.

Botnets. These are the source of many successful hacking and phishing attacks against high-profile targets. A CenturyLink Threat Research Labs study for a 2018 threat report tracked an average of 195,000 threats per day from botnets impacting an average of 104 million unique targets, from large servers to handheld devices, that steal sensitive data and launch network attacks impacting businesses worldwide.

Ransomware. In this particularly malicious form of attack, a cybercriminal can encrypt all files on a hard disk and then demand ransom for access to a decryption key. Victims who choose not to pay the ransom quickly will have their files remain encrypted permanently. Cryptolocker, a common variant of ransomware, typically extorts a few hundred dollars per incident and normally is delivered through email with a PDF or .zip file disguised as a shipping invoice or some other business document.

Hacking. With this form of cyberattack, cybercriminals use many techniques to breach corporate defenses.

Think Before You Click

Train employees to become the first line of defense in the network security risk prevention infrastructure. First, remind them to physically protect devices by not leaving them unattended or in unsecure areas, including locked cars. Focus training on identifying the types of malware they may encounter and how to escalate attempts to the IT professionals for resolution. Use a catchy slogan, like “think before you click,” to create engagement and promote awareness.

Here are some simple training tips:

  • Be skeptical of any email, web page, or social media post that appears to be even remotely suspicious, makes an offer that is too good to be true, or contains strange information.
  • Ask questions. Michael Osterman recommends asking these questions when viewing emails:
    • Do you recognize the sender’s email address?
    • Do you recognize anyone else copied on the email?
    • Are others in the email seemingly from a random group of people or do their last names all begin with the same letter?
    • Is the domain in the email address spelled correctly or is it simply close to the actual URL (e.g., vs.
    • Would you normally receive an email from this individual or organization?
    • Does the subject line make sense?
    • Is the email a “response” to an email you never sent (e.g., does it begin with “re:”)?
    • Does the email contain an attachment that does not make sense in the context of the email or sender?
    • Does the attachment end in “.exe,” “.zip,” or some other possibly dangerous attachment type?
    • Did you receive an email at an unusual time, such as 3 a.m. on a Sunday?
    • Is the sender asking you to keep the contents of this email or requests within it a secret?
    • Does the email contain spelling or grammatical errors?
    • Is there even a hint of extortion in the email, such as a request to look at compromising or embarrassing photos of you or someone else?
  • Review quarantined messages carefully before bringing them out of quarantine. Most anti-spam solutions capture phishing emails correctly.
  • Don’t click on a link in an email or open an attachment until you are certain it is valid.
  • Never use USB flash drives from unknown sources.
  • Set strong passwords. Change passwords regularly.
  • Use password protection on every electronic and mobile device.
  • Intentionally use wrong information for security questions.
  • Keep security software up to date on personal devices.
  • For mobile devices:
    • Disable auto usernames and passwords. This reduces the risk of having personal data accessed if the device is lost or stolen.
    • Know how to wipe your data if your device is lost or stolen.
    • Be careful when using public Wi-Fi networks, especially with insecure networks that do not require a password.
    • Use safe stores for downloading mobile applications.
  • For social media:
    • Don’t overshare personal information on social media.
    • Turn off location services.
    • Be careful clicking on links, liking, and sharing them.

Cyber Risk Prevention is Everyone’s Job

Don’t put it off — take the time to implement or enhance security awareness training for employees, contractors, and others who interact with corporate systems and data sources. Create a stronger line of defense against increasingly sophisticated cyber threats now. Preventing even one employee from making an honest mistake and clicking on the wrong link could save the business from reputational and financial losses. Clients will appreciate having the information to protect their home computers and personal devices, too!

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