Security Program Controls/Technologies

Why Email Security Isn’t Commoditized

With business email compromise racking up some of the largest financial theft associated with cyber-crime, and the relentless use of phishing as a means to trick users into handing over user credentials and other personal and sensitive data to bad actors, security organizations need to take a hard look at how their email security solutions are protecting against these issues.

Between the move to cloud-delivered email solutions and the general belief that email security has become commoditized, few are prioritizing email security as a top investment priority for the coming year. Yet there’s a ton of innovation happening in email security to help fight phishing, business email compromise (BEC) attacks, and leakage of the sensitive data that lives within the vast array of email mailboxes.

Email Continues as the Lifeblood of Communications

As much as I’d like to say that email plays less of a role in today’s business communications, it continues to be the lifeblood of daily communications for most workers. In addition to communication, most workers use email as their “uber-filing-system,” packing away emails received and sent, with little regard for any sensitive data that exists within them. Further, email addresses often act as core identifiers that get reused to access multiple applications, with 63% of ESG research respondents reporting that they use the same password to access multiple work devices and/or applications.

Traditional Email Security

For a long time, email security was about preventing the transport of malware, as attackers leveraged email to trick users into executing various types of malware attachments to compromise an endpoint. While secure email gateways (SEGs) are commonplace to prevent these kinds of attacks, SEGs often lack the ability to protect against more advanced, modern, email-borne attacks.

Email-borne Threats

Over the past few years, new types of harder-to-identify threats have emerged, continuing to leverage techniques that fool workers, convincing them to open malicious attachments, click on malicious links, and carry out malicious actions as instructed by impersonated senders. These activities facilitate credential theft, PII theft, and the fraudulent transfer of money into the hands of criminals.

Modern email-borne threats are facilitated by:

  1. Malware payloads/attachments - leading to ransomware delivery and botnet drone delivery, and used as an entry for more complex attacks that start with simple reconnaissance and lateral movement.
  2. Phishing attacks - leading to credential theft, PII theft, and business email compromise. Most include spoofed urls leading to fake copycat sites that capture credentials and other sensitive data (especially popular with Microsoft O365, Exchange, and OneDrive). Once stolen, credentials are often used in botnet-driven credential stuffing/replay attacks, counting on the reuse of the same username and password for multiple applications or websites.
  3. Impersonation attacks (sender spoofing)
    • Impersonation of third-party, popular services like Dropbox, Office365, and others often catch people off guard. These attacks can involve multiple, related emails, in the form of a campaign, used to establish trust, but ultimately are used for phishing, BEC, or other fraudulent activities.
  4. Business email compromise
    • BEC is often comprised of highly targeted, multi-step deceit, beginning with credential theft to provide context for criminals as they orchestrate believable conversations that ultimately lead to the fraudulent transfer of money and/or assets. Impersonating supply chain vendors is common here, as the transfer of large sums of money are commonplace.
  5. Sensitive data leakage (intentional and unintentional)
    • Intentional – Typically includes the theft of intellectual property and other sensitive data. Email is often used as the transport, forwarding company emails to personal email accounts.
    • Unintentional – Email clients make it easy to misaddress emails that result in sending sensitive data to the wrong person. Also commonplace is accidentally sending the wrong attachment that may include sensitive data.
    • Credential theft – When credentials are stolen, impostors gain access to email accounts where they can search for and easily exfiltrate sensitive data by forwarding or auto-forwarding emails to other locations.

New Email Security Options

Fortunately, new security solutions are rapidly becoming available that monitor for behaviors that align with these modern attacks. The use of natural language processing is enabling security solutions to track expected communications and content behaviors, warning or stopping malicious activities. Email sender verification using DMARC, DKIM, and SPF are helping organizations limit impersonation attacks.

Next-gen email solutions from emerging security vendors like Valimail, Greathorn, Armorblox, and Abnormal Security together with market leaders like Mimecast, Proofpoint, Fortinet, Cisco, Symantec, and Trend Micro are leveraging these approaches to strengthen email security to protect against these plaguing email threats.

The threat landscape associated with email is rapidly changing, so security teams need to pay close attention to ensure that their email security solutions can keep up. Don’t assume that your current SEG has you covered. Help is out there but focus and attention to this evolving threat vector is required.

Dave Gruber is a senior analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG). Read more ESG blogs here.