Phishing for User Awareness

A recent survey of over 279 IT Executives indicated that the greatest security challenge they faced was building an effective security awareness program and encouraging their employees to embrace it.  Employees, albeit unaware, oblivious or unconcerned, continue to fall prey to conniving social engineers compromising sensitive data protected by millions of dollars worth of technology. The return on investment on building user awareness is apparent and no longer a hard sell for IT security staff. The real problem lies in building an effective program that actually changes the mindset of the employees.  In a society where 90% of recovering coronary bypass patients do not change their dietary and lifestyle habits, will an awareness program really change their attitude towards information security?

This year we conducted numerous social engineering exercises for Fortune 500 companies, whose success relies heavily on the protection of intellectual property. These exercises involved scripted telephone calls to the organization’s customer service departments and mass phishing emails targeting a randomly selected set of employees. The objective was to collect sensitive data; the results were astounding. At one organization, 627 of the 1000 people targeted by phishing emails (aimed at pilfering the employees’ corporate VPN credentials) succumbed to the attack and only 4 of the 373 that did not respond reported the issue to information security staff. It’s not so much those statistics that made the results astounding, but the fact that the organization had recently conducted user awareness workshops that addressed the threats posed by social engineers. So where did they go wrong? Are the information security personnel to blame for developing ineffective programs or the employees for their lack of following direction? I believe it’s a combination of both; but the information security staff must assume the onus of taking the initiative of developing innovative user awareness programs that make a lasting impression. The majority of the security awareness sessions I’ve attended whave been unstimulating affairs couching the do’s and don’ts of security. Another approach used involves mandatory computer based training (CBT) programs for employees.  At the end of the CBT session the employees had only improved their mouse-click speed. On the other hand, an approach I’ve found to be very successful entails sending out email to all employees (or to a representative sample of them) that mimics a true phishing attack aimed at garnering personal information. If the employees yield, they are immediately presented an informative message explaining the attack and redirected to the corporate awareness materials. This approach has proven to be very effective as the people who are most vulnerable are educated right away, and the next time a real phishing attack comes through, the emulation exercise will probably be the first thing that comes to the employee’s mind. One of our clients experienced a drop in the “hit rate” for such attacks from 67% to 4% over the course of three such phishing exercises!

-Rohyt