Cyber security: Understanding spear phishing and defense techniques
Spear phishing is a social engineering tactic used to prey upon individuals who have access to resources that a hacker has targeted. It has a high success rate and has become a preferred method where the hacker entices a victim to click on a link, open a spreadsheet, or access some other document. This simple click opens the electronic door to the attacker after he has already mapped out your internal vulnerabilities. He can now reach the vulnerabilities because you just let him in, and he can begin mining for information and authorized access. How do hackers do this, and how can you defend yourself against this tactic?
The U.S. ICS-CERT has become aware of and notified the public regarding a recent rash of spear phishing campaigns targeting a variety of personnel and industrial control system sectors. Ultimately the attacking entity wants to gain a foothold in the facility—the closer the foothold is to the target the better, but often any foothold will do. Therefore, no one can be considered immune from a targeted spear phishing campaign:
- A process engineer receives an e-mailed notice from an automation partner or vendor that appears legitimate
- A financial analyst receives e-mailed spreadsheets pertaining to a current project’s analytical data, or
- An executive receives a link to a website containing information about a competitor’s recent acquisition.
The goal of the attacker is to lure the victim to an untrusted cyber location, typically by opening a malicious PDF, text document, spreadsheet, Java application, or website. The process engineer’s, financial analyst’s, and executive’s data request transits outbound from the protected networks to the untrusted zones of the Internet allowing the intruder to get in. The attacker chooses his victims by using resources like LinkedIn and Facebook to understand social relationships; job and message board websites to understand vendor relationships, roles, and responsibilities; and even technical tools to scrub authorized files located on public websites to understand what versions and security patch levels of Microsoft Office, Adobe Acrobat, and Java are used in the targeted organization.
Other open-source intelligence (OSINT) sources and topics can include:
- PR and media releases
- Business M&A, stock, and financial statements
- Natural disasters
- Government and industry events and conferences
- Government databases
- International or political events
- Vendor success stories and awarded contracts
- Social media websites, and
- Job and message boards.
If you realize you have been targeted, make certain you retain the e-mails. Also monitor your e-mail and network activity. Don’t assume that the thing you have identified is an isolated incident—it is most likely only one instance of a much broader campaign within your organization. Recently PhishMe and Critical Intelligence teamed up for a study and released their results at the annual S4 conference in January 2013. You can watch the presentation of their results, but the point is spear phishing works.
The only practical defense is training your people to recognize when it’s happening. You can’t keep such messages out, so you must jump ahead and attempt to target your own workforce before real attacks commence. You must attempt to fool your own people and see who falls victim. Individuals who open the bogus attachments need to be trained on what they did wrong. This exercise will provide active security awareness for your personnel. Someone or many will fall victim, and then it will be up to you to ensure that the real education process begins. Immediately you have a choice: Do you outsource the process to an organization like PhishMe or do it internally?
If you choose to keep it in-house, here are a few tools you can try:
- Maltego – OSINT and forensics
- Social Engineering Toolkit – Commonly used social engineering attacks and data collector
- Metagoofil – Information gathering tool to extract document metadata
- Foca – Online document metadata extractor
- USB Rubber Ducky – Covert data extracting USB flash drive
Of course, don’t just start using these tools without the appropriate training and authority—it may even be simpler to contract an outside consulting company to perform the more targeted campaign.
Security vendors such as PhishMe provide a structured mechanism to target organizational e-mails and produce result reports. You can then couple this activity with security awareness initiatives such as the SANS Institute’s Securing the Human.
Matt Luallen is the founder of Cybati, a security training and consulting organization.
Go to Control Engineering’s media library to see a cyber security training series with Matt Luallen.