The Human Element of IT Security

by Brent Zomerlei

Information Technology (IT) security is a never-ending race to keep pace with defending against what the “Bad Guys” are trying to exploit. Your IT needs to be vigilant for all kinds of threats. Some of the most common include:

  • Malware – Software intended to cause havoc or harm systems, such as viruses.
  • Ransomware – Also known as “crypto locker” software, it is malware that intentionally locks an organization’s files and makes them useless until you pay an extortion fee to unlock them. It can be weeks or months from initial infection to the date that the files lock rendering your infected backups useless. (Note: We advise that you never pay a ransom to get your files unlocked as this just encourages more attacks globally.)
  • Faked (or “Spoofed”) Websites/Emails – Financial fraud like bogus invoices made to appear like internal emails asking Accounting to pay them to a false vendor – or emails and websites designed to fool you into thinking a legit action is needed to gather your information (a.k.a., “phishing”).

Most of us will be familiar with the standard ways to protect your organization from these attacks. The strongest protection will include layers of technology like firewalls, anti-virus solutions, or newer classes of comprehensive endpoint threat analysis. It is wise to include DNS filtering as well as email filter rules in this set of protection tools.

However, just relying on the technology will not completely protect you. Despite the technology available to protect our systems, alone it is not enough to stop all exploits. This is because the “Bad Guys” know how to manipulate human behavior and get people to do things that they might not normally do. Therefore, any mitigation strategy must account for the greatest vulnerability:

The Human Element.

It starts with creating skeptics at your workplace. Train your users to spot these scams and distrust all unsolicited incoming messaging regardless of the method. Scammers will use email (phishing), text messages, voice calls (vishing), even social media for their exploits; no communication method is safe. Here are common traits that could indicate a scam:

  • They arrive unexpectedly. A sudden request for payment for a company or service you are not familiar with.
  • They ask the receiver to do something unusual or outside of normal procedure.
  • Sense of urgency to act often to avoid penalties by acting immediately.

While I have been discussing this in the context of your organization, these traits also apply to scams that are directed at individuals in their homes. Your training regimen should make sure the people are using these skills in all aspects of their life, not just at work.

For training, I would recommend using a service. There are many companies out there that offer training for users, including some innovated firms that first evaluate your users and then provide an adapted training based on the results. The best practice in this area is to both evaluate your users regularly and to offer recurring training often. If your organization performs third party security audits (as is required of HIPAA covered entities and companies that must comply with SOC or SOX), you should also ask the vendor to test your users with phishing and/or vishing attempts.

The last thing I want to discuss is how to best protect your firm if, despite all the efforts above, your company becomes a victim of one of these scams.

Number One: Invest in cyber and fraud insurance to protect your company. Most companies are aware of this insurance and have an active policy. However, given the huge rise in ransomware and crypto-locker style attacks, these premiums are rising fast to account for the new threats. It would be wise to review this with your accounting or finance department.

Number Two: Make sure your Disaster Recovery (DR) plan is up to the job. Are your backups immutable, meaning that they cannot change after saving? Having true offline and offsite tape storage is one way to do this. However, this can be done with some backup software and appliances that use AWS or Azure storage for cloud backup. Testing and validating the restoration process must be something that your IT Department practices. This validation goes beyond the simple occasional file recovery that the IT department will manage. Has your IT Team tested their ability to perform a “bare metal” restore of major systems? If not, ask them to!

Number Three: Imbed a Communications Plan in your Disaster Recovery/Business Continuity Plan. It is important to plan how to communicate any breach internally as well as externally. Depending on the industry, there may be disclosure requirements that need to be followed. Engage with legal and communication departments during your planning and testing sessions.

Disaster Recovery and Business Continuity Planning is a subject that your IT Team must be able to articulate to your organization’s leadership, as well as have a planned process that is tested annually for recovering and continuing normal business operations. Ideally, they will have a playbook or some other sort of documented process that they can follow in case of a major incident.  While the IT Team cannot account for every type of contingency, you want to minimize the need to problem-solve during the incident.

By approaching IT Security as a collection of systems and understanding how scammers exploit ‘The Human Element’, you can build resilient and recoverable systems to protect your organization.