The Human Vulnerability

The Human Vulnerability

Cybersecurity Human Performance

It seems to us that one of the biggest threats that businesses face today is socially augmented malware attacks. These attacks have an extremely high degree of success because they target and exploit the human element. Specifically, it doesn’t matter how many protective technology layers you have in place if the people that you’ve hired are putting you at risk, and they are.

Case in point, the “here you have” worm that propagates predominantly via e-mail and promises the recipient access to PDF documents or even pornographic material. This specific worm compromised major organizations such as NASA, ABC/Disney, Comcast, Google Coca-Cola, etc. How much money do you think that those companies spend on security technology over a one-year period? How much good did it do at protecting them from the risks introduced by the human element? (Hint: none)

Here at Netragard we have a unique perspective on the issue of malware attacks because we offer pseudo-malware testing services. Our pseudo-malware module, when activated, authorizes us to test our clients with highly customized, safe, controlled, and homegrown pseudo-malware variants. To the best of our knowledge we are the only penetration testing company to offer such a service (and no, we’re not talking about the meterpreter).

Attack delivery usually involves attaching our pseudo-malware to emails or binding the pseudo-malware to PDF documents or other similar file types. In all cases we make it a point to pack (or crypt) our pseudo-malware so that it doesn’t get detected by antivirus technology (see this blog entry on bypassing antivirus). Once the malware is activated, it establishes an encrypted connection back to our offices and provides us with full control over the victim computer. Full control means access to the software and hardware including but not limited to keyboard, mouse, microphone and even the camera. (Sometimes we even deliver our attacks via websites like this one by embedding attacks into links).

So how easy is it to penetrate a business using pseudo-malware? Well in truth its really easy. Just last month we finished delivering an advanced external penetration test for one of our more secure customers. We began crafting an email that contained our pseudo-malware attachment and accidentally hit the send button without any message content. Within 45 seconds of clicking the send button and sending our otherwise blank email, we had 15 inbound connections from 15 newly infected client computer systems. That means that at least 15 employees tried to open our pseudo-malware attachment despite the fact that the email was blank! Imagine the degree of success that is possible with a well-crafted email?

One of the computer systems that we were able to compromise was running a service with domain admin privileges. We were able to use that computer system (impersonation attack involved) to create an account for ourselves on the domain (which happened to be the root domain). From there we were able to compromise the client’s core infrastructure (switches, firewalls, etc) due to a password file that we found sitting on someone’s desktop (thank you for that). Once that was done, there really wasn’t much more that we had left to do, it was game over.

The fact of the matter is that there’s nothing new about taking advantage of people that are willing to do stupid things. But is it really stupidity or is it just that employees don’t have a sense of accountability? Our experience tells us that in most cases its a lack of accountability that’s the culprit.

When we compromise a customer using pseudo-malware, one of the recommendations that we make to them is that they enforce policies by holding employees accountable for violations. We think that the best way to do that is to require employees to read a well-crafted policy and then to take a quiz based on that policy. When they pass the quiz they should be required to sign a simple agreement that states that they have read the policy, understood the policy, and agree to be held accountable for any violations that they make against the policy.

In our experience there is no better security technology than a paranoid human that is afraid of being held accountable for doing anything irresponsible (aka: violating the policy). When people are held accountable for something like security they tend to change their overall attitude towards anything that might negatively affect it. The result is a significantly reduced attack surface. If all organizations took this strict approach to policy enforcement then worms like the “here you have” worm wouldn’t be such a big success.

Compare the cost and benefit of enforcing a strict and carefully designed security policy to the cost and benefit of expensive (and largely ineffective) security technologies. Which do you think will do a better job at protecting your business from real threats? Its much more difficult to hack a network when that network is managed by people that are held accountable for its security than it is to hack a network that is protected technology alone.

So in the end there’s really nothing special about the “here you have” worm. It’s just another example of how malicious hackers are exploiting the same human vulnerability using an ever so slightly different malware variant. Antivirus technology certainly won’t save you and neither will other expensive technology solutions, but a well-crafted, cost-effective security policy just might do the trick.

It’s important to remember that well written security policies don’t only impact human behavior, but generally result in better management of systems, which translates to better technological security. The benefits are significant and the overall cost isn’t in comparison.

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Karen Huggins

Chief Financial, HR and Admin Officer
Karen joined the Netragard team in 2017 and oversees Netragard’s financial, human resources as well as administration functions. She also provides project management support to the operations and overall strategy of Netragard.
 
Prior to joining Netragard, she worked at RBC Investor Services Bank in Luxembourg in the role of Financial Advisor to the Global CIO of Investor Services, as well as several years managing the Financial Risk team to develop and implement new processes in line with regulatory requirements around their supplier services/cost and to minimize the residual risk to the organization.
 
With over 20 years of experience in finance with global organizations, she brings new perspective that will help the organization become more efficient as a team. She received her Bachelor of Finance from The Florida State University in the US and her Master of Business Administration at ESSEC Business School in Paris, France.

Philippe Caturegli

Chief Hacking Officer
Philippe has over 20 years of experience in information security. Prior to joining Netragard, Philippe was a Senior Manager within the Information & Technology Risk practice at Deloitte Luxembourg where he led a team in charge of Security & Privacy engagements.

Philippe has over 10 years of experience in the banking and financial sector that includes security assessment of large and complex infrastructures and penetration testing of data & voice networks, operating systems, middleware and web applications in Europe, US and Middle East.

Previously, Philippe held roles within the information system security department of a global pharmaceutical company in London. While working with a heterogeneous network of over 100,000 users across the world and strict regulatory requirements, Philippe gained hands-on experience with various security technologies (VPN, Network and Application Firewalls, IDS, IPS, Host Intrusion Prevention, etc.)

Philippe actively participates in the Information Security community. He has discovered and published several security vulnerabilities in leading products such as Cisco, Symantec and Hewlett-Packard.

He is a Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP), Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH), PCI Qualified Security Assessors (PCI-QSA), OSSTMM Professional Security Analyst (OPSA), OSSTMM Professional Security Tester (OPST), Certified in Risk and Information Systems Control (CRISC)and Associate Member of the Business Continuity Institute (AMBCI).

Adriel Desautels

Chief Technology Officer
Adriel T. Desautels, has over 20 years of professional experience in information security. In 1998, Adriel founded Secure Network Operations, Inc. which was home to the SNOsoft Research Team. SNOsoft gained worldwide recognition for its vulnerability research work which played a pivotal role in helping to establish today’s best practices for responsible disclosure. While running SNOsoft, Adriel created the zeroday Exploit Acquisition Program (“EAP”), which was transferred to, and continued to operate under Netragard.
 
In 2006, Adriel founded Netragard on the premise of delivering high-quality Realistic Threat Penetration Testing services, known today as Red Teaming. Adriel continues to act as a primary architect behind Netragard’s services, created and manages Netragard’s 0-day Exploit Acquisition Program and continues to be an advocate for ethical 0-day research, use and sales.
 
Adriel is frequently interviewed as a subject matter expert by media outlets that include, Forbes, The Economist, Bloomberg, Ars Technica, Gizmodo, and The Register. Adriel is often an invited keynote or panelist at events such as Blackhat USA, InfoSec World, VICELAND Cyberwar, BSides, and NAW Billion Dollar CIO Roundtable.