Technology For Business Podcast Season 1 Episode 1: Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA): The basics and why does my business need it?

Join Todd Sorg (COO and CISO) and Nate Schmitt (Director of Cybersecurity) from CIT as they chat about all things MFA. Whether it’s examples of MFA/2FA or addressing employee concerns when implementing MFA they’ve got advice for your small to medium-sized business.

Want to connect with our speakers? Email info@cit-net.com or call 651.255.5780.

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Transcript 

00:00:01 Kelsey Welcome to the first CIT tech for business podcasts. Today we’re sitting down with Nate and Todd and we’re going to talk about multi factor authentication, our first acronym, we’re kicking off strong MFA leading in you guys. First off, let us a little bit about you and what is MFA

00:00:18 Todd Thanks, Kelsey, I am Todd. I am Cit’s chief operations officer. I am also our chief Information Security Officer. I’ll let Nate introduce himself and he can kick off the MFA overview as well. 

00:00:31 Nate Yeah, and my name is Nate. I’m our director of cyber security here at CIT. Just help oversee the operational components of our department.

So multi-factor authentication, also known as two factor authentication, is really the core is basically another form of authentication and there’s multiple variants to this, but essentially it’s a mix of something that you have something you know and something that you are and as long as you have two of the three of those to log into a system that’s what multi factor or two factor authentication is. 

00:01:13 Nate 

So what does that look like for something that you know is something likely going to be like a password or something like a PIN code? 

Then there’s something that you are. That’s something that’s going to be like biometrics. So for example, in order to log into some computers, you need to touch your fingerprint or you know you see things on you know some of those crime shows where they’re doing the iris scanning to get into the secure facilities. That’s something that you are. 

Then there’s something that you have, and this is where this is most common in business.  Uhm, due to you know, privacy concerns with the biometrics and everything, but something you have is something that’s going to look like either your cell phone and, you know, in order to do like a push notification to it, it’s going to be something that could be a USB that you have to plug in. 

So I have in front of me. A hardware token that, in order to log in after I put in my password, I plug this into my computer.  I touch it and it just activates and sends off another code, so that’s another form. Then they even have ones, I have another little hardware token in front of me which looks like a little credit card. This is something where it has little battery in it. I click on it, it generates A6 digit code and then from there I enter in that code as well. 

So I put in both my password and a code from something that is in my possession, so that’s what multi-factor is in general. 

00:02:51 Nate 

Where is it used is a whole different discussion, and I’ll let Todd take that over. 

00:02:58 Todd 

But I wanted to back up just to hear before we went too far where we use it. 

It’s been around for for decades.  It’s not a new technology.

People have been using it for banking where you get a text message. Or something along those lines, and that’s typically referred to as 2FA, but the reason why? 

What reason why I interrupted Nate is I just kind of wanted to kind of back up and say why do we use it, right? And the biggest reason that typically comes up and everybody that’s here can kind of expand on it. But what ends up happening is that people typically have issues with passwords. 

Passwords are painful, they’re difficult to remember, so people tend to make them easy to remember, and that’s, you know, your phone number, your childhood best friend, whatever it is your pet and what makes matters worse is that people then use that password everywhere. And if you’re looking at social media or LinkedIn, your work, your work, email and accounts, etc.  More often than not, most people tend to reuse it over and over and over. 

00:03:52 Todd 

Again, inherently what ends up happening is if something ever happens and it could be anything from if you’re in the Twin Cities, there was a Star Tribune hack, there was also a hack that happened on the the meters downtown Minneapolis where they were able to take account names and passwords and post that on through what’s referred to the dark web, and once that’s been out there, if you’ve ever had that information harvested from you, it’s now out in the wild.

So how do you protect it? 

That’s where multi factor comes in. 

So I just wanted to make sure we covered that piece real briefly, so we’ve got that whole picture of what it is, where it came from, why we’re worried about? 

But the answer is, passwords are bad. People hate them, and we could get into that a little bit later on. You know, what can we do about it?  Can we rely more on biometrics at some point in the future? But it’s a little bit off topic of where we’re at at the moment. 

Uhm, where most people will try to implement a multi-factor authentication tool set.  Is anything that’s quote-on-quote “Internet facing” more often than not, one of the larger threats that we’re seeing in our business, and this has been true for for years we’ve we’ve been kind of banging the drum on multi factor for about five years at least. And that’s how I bet that’s the idea. So you could kind of see a correlation there, but email is probably the biggest, so Microsoft has done a really nice job of pushing everybody in the cloud. Google is doing the same. They’re huge providers. 

Once people move their email to the cloud, some of the inherent security that was in having email inside an organization started to be exposed to the Internet. 

And typically most people were signing in with the email address. Which is more often than not, first name, last name, first letter, last name or vice versa, and and then at the company, so that part is super easy to figure out and then you just start going down the list, right? It’s winter, 2022 exclamation point and so on. Then I’m in. 

So in order to protect that that’s where multi factor is coming along. 

00:05:47 Nate 

Yeah, a quick stat that comes to mind. So this was all the way back in 2019, but Microsoft did push out an article, and I’m sure that the numbers have only increased since then, just given the nature that people continue to move to the cloud. But back in 2019 Microsoft put out an article that said their login services for this or their cloud services have attempted logins over 300,000,000 times a day that were fraudulent, and so the article is saying if you implement multi-factor authentication on the accounts it reduces the risk of account compromise by 99.9% right it it’s. 

Everyone, there’s a couple different attacks that people are going to take to try and get to your account fishing. You know, we’ve talked about fishing here at CIT many, many times, but fishing for those that don’t have the full understanding on (phishing) that is an attacker will send you a fraudulent email attempt to elicit your username and password, and then they’ll use that to then log into your account so it’s a fraudulent way of capturing your credential. 

That’s one method, one of the other common methods which for example Todd had mentioned is password reuse. 

If you’re compromising one account, you reuse the same password and it’s leaked out on the dark web you take that and go attempt to log into other services with that and then the last one is just what they call password spraying so you just or password stuffing. You just attempt to push as many passwords as possible for a particular user until one is successful, right, and by having the multi factor, all of those methods are defeated. 

Uhm, there is some considerations to take into play at which we can get into a little bit later too, but, for the majority, if you just implement multi-factor, you reduce about 99.9% of all attempts to log into the system fraudulently. 

00:07:54 Todd 

But you kind of mentioned that already about the statistics. Do you have a rough idea of what number of attacks are coming from email so we can use our own examples of what we’re seeing most of our customers suffer? Does it typically end up being in the the world of cyber security? They refer to it as business email compromise. 

Do you have a sense on how many attacks we see coming in through email specifically? 

00:08:22 Nate 

Even if we take a look at CIT systems, if I pull up any given day, there’s hundreds of them, right? It’s it’s just the simple fact of the password.  Spraying is real, right? Everyone has our email addresses. It’s entered in someone’s database dump, right? Because for example, if we continue to push on things like the Star Tribune or the Minneapolis, the parking that was compromised, right? And they had the email addresses. If you have ever used your work account for that it’s floating out there. t’s on a list. People are just going to attempt it with all the common passwords. There’s some big password lists out there that are known to be highly effective because people tend to just pick bad passwords across the board so, yeah..

…it’s hundreds of times a day for any organization, even if you’re small. 

00:09:18 Todd 

Yeah, yeah, I think that’s great. It’s a great key.

Once Upon a time we were used to talk about organization sites and people used to say hey, I’m way too small to be attacked and and that really isn’t the case anymore. 

Statistically, it’s something along the lines of 5660% of all attacks happen against small businesses, and the reason is because it’s easy, they don’t always have the wherewithal, the technical, technical ability to understand what they should be doing, and so on and so forth so the attacks are real and it does impact everybody. 

I’m sure people see it even happening at home. I get stuff from PayPal and Apple and you name it, I get attacked all the time that I need to click on something or reset something all the time. Uhm, staying on statistics. The reason why I ask Nate about the percent of attacks is I think it’s still somewhere in the high 90s of all attacks that are coming in tend to be fishing and that’s somewhere in the high 90s. 

And as he mentioned, if you can protect correct services and your identity with 99.9%. I mean that’s significant, right? And and the number one tool being MFA. 

There are some statistics we can share this out to, you know, you probably for those that are listening, won’t be able to see this, but we can share it in the channel. And if you’re interested, we can find ways to get you the information as well, but there was the United National Cyber Security chief said that 80 to 90% of all attacks, not just email. All attacks can be circumvented by having multi-factor in. So how we started out? This meeting is what is, but what’s the threat and what are you doing about it? 

Ultimately, that’s why we keep talking about multi-factor authentication. One last statistic, in case you’re wondering, well, sure this has been something we’ve talked about for years. We’ve got it statistically, there was 55% of all organizations have multi-factor enabled only 55% so only half and even in those cases a lot of times people are. Very picky and choosy on how they do it, so they may only do it with their tech team. Or they may only do it with their administrators and so small number of organizations. I shouldn’t say small ’cause half US is a significant number…

…but half (of businesses) still don’t have it, so it’s a major problem and it is still where we see most attacks coming from and can be circumvented by putting multi factor in place. 

00:11:31 Tara

So Todd, maybe I have a question about that – You mentioned that there’s over half organizations that don’t have that. Why do you think that is? What barriers are they looking at (in order) to be like I I don’t have time to do MFA talk a little bit more as to why that’s the case. 

00:11:50 Nate 

I think that right your question answered one of them. They don’t see that they have time to implement it, right is. Often these are slightly lengthier engagements. You know, it doesn’t need to be complicated, but the more time you put into ensuring that it’s a smooth process, the smoother the adoption is going to be.It’s easy to just to go into a system and say everyone has it on. 

That’s where your user friction is going to come into play, and absolutely everyone is going to be upset that day as they are trying to sign into things. 

So user adoption is. One of those items that you need to be pretty cognizant of when you’re implementing it. There’s also some additional strategies that you need to take in order to actually implement it successfully. 

So for example, if the user friction is, “I don’t want to put this code in every single time I’m logging in.”

You can do things to say well, maybe let’s bypass multi-factor from within the office right there is. (There is) some residual risk there that maybe the organization is willing to accept because, for the most part, if someone does have the password and they are attempting to log in, it will likely come from outside of the office. That doesn’t mean that maybe that user’s computer is compromised and there’s a some type of script that calls in from internally, but again, the likelihood is significantly. 

So if your employees are constantly working from the office, you could still bypass multi-factor. 

The larger you put that bypass you know, maybe it’s the the state the the country, right? The bigger the risk becomes, but there are strategies that you can implement without. 

I’d say the other (user friction) one is cost.

there’s a lot of different multi factor solutions out on the market, so if you’re only looking at doing something like email, all of the major email providers now are implementing it or offering it for free, right? You can implement it in Office 365 G suite. There’s no additional cost. 

If you’re looking to use some type of third party service. Then you’re going to start seeing those licensing costs for you know more of a per user cost there. The the other component that I would say is – how far do you want to implement multi-factor across the organization, right? 

You know Todd mentioned that the most common one that’s going to be abused is going to be your email system, so start there. Then you can start looking at other services as well, such as your VPN critical business applications. Once you start wanting to implement multi-factor on those additional systems, that’s where some of the paid services come into play, because they do extend out to additional services and different protocols. User friction cost. 

I think the other big (user friction) one that I’ll let Todd maybe expand on a little bit more is executive buy in. 

Yeah I I would say the two things that I would say by far are the biggest thing that I see as resistance is more often than not when you go through it you are going to put a little bit of friction in between your employees and and them getting work done. 

00:15:21 Todd 

Uhm, the typical pushback that you will get back from that employee is (action description – I’m holding up my phone This is my phone.) The company doesn’t pay for it. I am not putting your business application on my phone. 

The reality is, there are ways to start to build up the the adoption right? So you can be a little forceful with it and you say, OK, great, well we’re just going to give you a token. We’re going to give you a business phone and bear with me when I walk through some of this because I’m not actually encouraging you to go out and buy 100 phones. But when you start to go hey employee, I’m going to give you 2. I’m going to give you a phone and they’ve got their own person. 

They’re going to think, “I don’t want two phones just to avoid putting in the six digit code”, and they’ll usually adopt it. Or you give them a token and they’re like, “This is inconvenient. I have to make sure I have it with me when I’m logging in from home. I gotta go grab my keys ’cause it’s on my keychain.” Whatever the case may be, that’s usually where they’re kind of pushing back and then inevitably what ends up happening is you go OK, well, here’s a solution, here’s a solution, here’s a solution (action descriptionholding up fingers to count all three items).

They’re (the user is) like, “The reality is, it’s it’s so convenient to just have it on my phone that I carry with me everywhere anyway. I’ll just go ahead and do it and the reality is, it’s not really all that complex.”

It’s not a heavyweight thing, it’s not dipping into any of your personal information. It’s just an app and it’s only doing a couple of things. It’s either generating A6 digit code or longer or it’s pushing you with content that says is this you.

When it comes to Executive adoption (the thought is that) it is inconvenient. 

A lot of people don’t want to be bothered. I’ll give a good example. And as I said, multi-factor’s been around for ages. Back many, many years ago in the early 2000s I had joined in organization and the very first thing I did was (our remote connections is really insecure.) (say) “Let’s implement multi-factor”, and I implemented it. It probably lasted about a month before the CEO said, ” I can’t stand it. Turn it off.” uhm now? 

The security threats weren’t nearly what they are today, but I learned a lot during that time too, so one of those strategies, or several of the strategies Nate covered already is you start small

It starts (with) going well, let’s start with a small group that are my power users. Maybe that’s it and then you get a few other people that go OK. It’s working. It really isn’t that bad and you start to expand it or you. Less than some of the security requirements, as Nate said, you can make an area trusted it’s work, work as trusted I’ve got the adoption in. People are getting used to the fact that when I’m at work I don’t get prompted when I’m at home. I do OK. It’s not a big deal and then you go OK, we’re going to ratchet it up a little bit. We’re going to add another location. We’re going to add another application. We’re going to whatever, and so you can continue to build on the security and you can get that buy in just naturally. 

You know, probably many people have heard the term, and I don’t mean this in a derogatory way is, It’s a bit of a boiled frog scenario as as you start to do what they realize you know really isn’t that bad. Not that we’re trying to boil our employees, but you know conceptually is you just do it a little bit at a time and you’re improving your security as you go. 

00:18:23 Nate 

So one last user friction that I I wanted to call out that’s not as common, but it does come up from time to time is Union policies.

So if you want to have an employee start downloading an application on their phone or start carrying around, you know, a phone just for phone calls and stuff. Sometimes Union policies will say, well, you need to start reimbursing the employees for that. There is a cost associated with that, and so that definitely feeds into some of the other considerations.

That’s sometimes where hardware tokens come into play. You know it’s maybe a $20 hardware token, right, or that’s one time cost.  It’s not reoccurring, so you can still implement multi-factor without having to, you know, start reimbursing for cell phones or paying for the phones outright. 

It’s one that I don’t commonly hear, but on more of the the production environments you know, and I I’m not going to get deep into compliance here, but things like CMMC, right? It’s starting to ask for multi factor.  CMMC tends to be a lot of the manufacturing firms where there’s a lot of union employees so. 

00:19:40 Todd 

Yeah, I’ll expand on the compliance piece too. I mean, there’s a lot coming up. If you’re in any compliance industry, health care, finance, you name it. As Nate mentioned, manufacturing, it’s going to be something that you’re probably already experiencing. As I mentioned, you know you’ve been being prompted for an additional code from your bank for days for weeks, months, years, whatever the case may be, it is coming in. 

This is just me expanding a little bit, in my opinion…

…Compliance is coming and it’s going to be expanding over the next five years, so there are going to be reasons why you’re going to have to adopt something like this. 

So if the threat of cyber attacks isn’t enough, there are going to be other things, and you can already see it’s happening. So This is why I’m saying it. 

If you look over the last year, the Biden administration had come out and said the cyber attacks are getting worse and worse. We’re spending tons of money. We’re constantly under attack. What are we going to do about it? They built out an executive order and they specifically say you’ve got to have MFA, if that’s not enough, the insurance companies are doing it too. 

So if you’re looking at cyber security insurance and almost everybody is asking for it at this point. Uhm, they’re going to be looking forward as well. Uh, as I’m going down this compliance thing, I’ll wrap this up briefly and I’ll pass it back to Nate. But as you’re looking at the compliance thing, I was actually working with one of our customers and they were going through the insurance process and they don’t have any of the compliance from CMC Healthcare. Any of that. But the insurance organization had come in and they did what I would consider pretty much a full IT audit where they were looking at data diagrams. They’re looking at security protocols. I mean, it was everything, so I actually went on site and met with the insurance adjuster just to make sure that we covered all of the information. That we needed to cover and it was significant. It took an hour and obviously MFA is included in that. 

It’s kind of the way life insurance used to be where with life insurance you could just sign on the dotted line (and) off you went. You got a whole bunch of coverage and that’s changed over the years to whereas the underwriting is going (to say) now I need blood work and I need to wait. You and I need health background and family history and yadda yadda. 

It’s just gonna get worse, and where I was going with it… and like I said, I was going to wrap that up quickly and I didn’t, so I’ll stop talking and pass it back to Nate. 

00:22:02 Kelsey 

Yeah, can I interrupt for just just a hot second, as we’ve kind of gone down the compliance path and all of these good things. Kind of looking back at if you’re having user friction and you’re having people there, like, “I don’t want to do it. I don’t have this code pushed to my phone. It’s too much work.” Why is it effective at actually preventing? These attacks, what is it doing for me?

I’m like yeah I get it, I get the phone, I put it (the code or push notification) in and congratulations. So we’re saying yeah, it’s 99, or over 99% effective? Why? 

00:22:30 Nate 

Yeah, a good question there. Before I jump into that. While Todd was talking, I decided to go look at our system here just to see how many of that password spraying attempt I saw in our system in the last 24 hours. It was just shy of 200 attempts, right? I can see the logs, so again, we’re not a big company by any means. It happens all the time, so. 

Why is it (MFA) so effective, right?

So if I just called out, there’s nearly 200 attempts in the last 24 hours to password spray our environment there. The reason why it (MFA) is so effective is, even if a password is compromised the threat actor is not going to have the other form of multi-factor, or the the other form the second form, or the third form of multi factor. 

In order to get into the system so password I’ve showed this to people before is, I say here’s a dummy account in, like a Gmail or something, right? Here’s the password. I’ll give you 100 bucks if you can get into that, because I have the multi-factor keys here. It just doesn’t happen. I’ve never paid someone out, because they would have to retrieve that file from me or that hardware token from me in order to get into place.

So, where we typically see multi-factor fail is not the the technology in itself. 

It’s still the user. 

So there are websites that will try and capture the multi-factor token and pass it through to the legitimate site and then redirect the user so they’ll still log in, but it’s the user who has fallen for a fraudulent website, still entered in their password and given up the multi-factor code gave it both of them to the attacker. Then the attacker just goes logs in and you know there is a timing on these tokens where maybe they’re good for five minutes. Maybe they’re good for 15 minutes. It allows for users to have a grace period to access their phones sitting on the desk access the email, access the text message so if you give it up right away, and then you hand it over. Is someone immediately? They’re going to use it first, right? 

I I just worked with another organization where their multi-factor was a phone call, right? 

So this is actually a pretty common attack method at the moment it’s called. MFA bombing.

So what you do is you just bug the user enough until they just say “I can’t take it anymore”, accept the phone call, and that was the phone call that was the MFA prompt and the attacker just logs in, right?  

So in the instance that I was looking at with that other customer, it was attacker tried to log in, was prompted with a 6 digit code. They weren’t able to get that, so then they switched over to the backup which is a phone call. Sent the user a phone call. It failed because the user didn’t accept it. 30 seconds later sent another one. It failed. Sent the next one. The user said “I’m sick of this call” accept, and the attacker logged in, so yeah. 

00:25:47 Todd 

Another one I’ll throw in. We don’t see this as often in the endpoint of this is you still need training when you deploy the tool, but we have seen people that have deployed the push technology so that is when you log in and you get a push to your phone that says was this really you? You know we have had people that have been attacked where someone was like, “yeah, I just logged in” and they’ve allowed the attacker in even though they didn’t personally sign in. So there is kind of a training aspect that goes with it. 

Uhm, one last thing that I kind of wanted to dive into – I know we talked about the threats and the attacks and whatnot, but as we’re wrapping this up I just kind of wanted to kind of re illustrate some of the real concerns and and ultimately I we talked about compliance. We talked about the threats we talked about all of that stuff. The reality is the reason behind that is because of the cost, and the cost is built up from a lot of different things. 

From the ransomware, if you get attacked from ransomware, ransomware more often than not they started nowadays. They started around $1,000,000 and they start to get talked down to something real. It includes downtime, it includes unproductive employees, etc. Statistically, the last time I looked at it we were somewhere on average, so that’s average across all SMB market, not you’re a bigger company. You get bigger ransomware, etc. It’s about $500,000 down time, about two weeks, so that’s fairly significant, and if I can deploy something like MFA and protect 90% to 99.9. It’s something you really gotta start to consider and go, “boy, I can reduce my risk by $500,000 in a given year. 

That’s probably (worth it for) something that’s little bit of friction, a little bit of build up. We can find a way to move forward. It’s a good way to start looking at it and thinking about it and go where do we go from here? 

00:27:33 Nate 

Yeah, and the one thing that I’d add to that is the cost is going to be dependent on the the application or system that the threat actor is obtaining access to, right so? So Todd was mentioning ransomware that could have been multi-factor on a VPN for example, right, someone had a compromised password, attacker gets into the VPN. Most companies don’t have a dedicated demilitarized or DMZ zone for VPN users, they just say once you pass through, you have full access to the network. 

That’s where those ransomware costs are going to come into play. 

It could be something like your email system, right? Someone in there just obtaining data. Maybe it’s a fraudulent wire transfer that they’re trying to set up, whatever that number is it could be 10,000, I’ve dealt with the ones that are $500,000 wire transfers, right? 

It’s just a matter of; What are they accessing? What are the costs? and whatever…

…the ransomware remediation costs are I promise that it’s far more than the cost of implementing multi-factor at the end of the day.

00:28:39 Todd 

Yeah, so so kind of as a last thought from me (and Nate can jump in on this too If he’s got any) but the last thing I have is we did talk about, sometimes there’s friction, sometimes there’s a technical hurdle, if you will, beause there are ways to go about it, there’s paid solutions etc. Obviously if you need help, reach out to your trusted partners. There’s a lot of help out there or there course you can go do your Google searches as well. 

So in the end when you need help, reach out. Reach out to those (technology partners) that you trust and you can get some good support from. 

00:29:07 Nate 

Yeah, I I guess my final closing thought is:

Everyone scared of user friction, but in almost every case, it ends up being more of a concern that doesn’t always come to fruition, right, is that the impact is actually fairly minimal if you implement it correctly. So, a lot of those concerns are unfortunately, just not fully grounded based on facts, right? Just feelings. 

00:29:41 Kelsey 

Awesome, thank you so much Todd and Nate for sitting down and chatting about MFA and all of the things that we could go into it. I’m sure that you guys would love to chat with anybody for an extended period of time about any of this that we could tangent on a lot of things. But that wraps up our first Tech for Business podcast here today. 

If you guys have more questions that you want to ask feel free to reach out to info@cit.net.com or give us a call 651.255.5780 or we’re also online at www.cit.net.com/podcast, but that’s our little marketing spiel on there that. 

We’re here to answer your questions anytime about any cyber security needs or technology for business, and we will chat with you guys next week. 

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Cybercrime costs organizations $2.9 million every minute, and major businesses lose $25 per minute as a result of data breaches. It takes 280 days to find and contain the average cyberattack, while the average attack costs $3.86 million. Companies in the United States have the highest average total cost at $8.64 million per breach, and it is estimated that half of all data breaches globally will occur in the United States by 2023. If you haven’t already, take a minute and look at one of the many cyber threat maps to see how many attacks are detected every second—there are hundreds of thousands every day!

That’s why you need to understand what kinds of threats you are up against and how your defenses will fare.

A cybersecurity partner can help ensure the safety of your company’s most critical assets. The reason to rely on a cybersecurity partner is because teams like ours are full of cybersecurity experts who have the extensive education and experience needed to combat various types of cyberattacks. If you have some kind of cybersecurity product installed to your network of devices, you are going to be able to prevent a good number of attacks, but without an expert who constantly reads reports and anticipates the different attacks, you are at risk. Experts don’t need to turn to an incident response manual every time there appears to be a threat. You need a team to be on constant lookout for things such as zero-day attacks and other unseen threats that may appear.

Attacks can come from your cloud, servers, firewalls, SDS systems, personal devices, and more.

With a threat detection solution—such as Security Information and Event Management (SIEM) continuously monitoring your environment—you’ll not only get preventative software, but real-time notifications on serious threats, not false positives. In addition, if an attack is detected, our team of experts will start working with you to find a solution within minutes of an attack.

Analysis finds that 80% of data breaches can be prevented with basic actions, such as vulnerability assessments, patching, and proper configurations.

Although the reality of cybersecurity threats and malicious attacks is challenging, CIT is here to help you realize your cybersecurity capabilities and risks and provide recommendations for improving your overall defense in-depth for the best possible cybersecurity outcomes.

Let’s discuss!

Combatting Business Email Compromise Risks 

Combatting Business Email Compromise Risks 

An old scam that keeps reinventing itself with new victims. Don’t become one! 

You’ve probably heard the classic business email compromise (BEC) scam about Nigerian princes who want to deposit money in people’s bank accounts—but first need their prey to send them money to make it all work to plan. It’s an oldie but goodie. Unfortunately, it’s also one that keeps reinventing itself along with another batch of unwitting victims. In fact, it happens so often, BEC scams currently outdo ransomware as the most damaging cyberattack in the world. 

In fact, according to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), in 2020, losses from BEC exceeded $1.8 billion—that’s a fourfold increase since 2016! The number of BEC incidents also rose by 61% between 2016 and 2020. Using tactics that play off real-time world events, such as COVID-19 or the trust of established interpersonal relationships, criminal elements have managed to stay ahead of the good guys with increased sophistication and swiftness. 

  • Healthcare provides bilked by criminals posing as trusted vendors with access to much-needed personal protection equipment 
  • A large social media firm handed over personal payroll information about employees to an individual they thought was their CEO 
  • A non-profit organization was fooled into transferring a large loan to a business partner right into the hands of the threat actor  

To protect yourself and your business from these types of attacks, employee education is essential. For example, if someone in your accounts payable department receives an email from a business partner requesting you alter established wire transfer information, be sure your staff are trained to recognize the request as a red flag and confirm directly with their point of contact details of the change. It seems second nature, but when people are busy and working against deadlines, it’s easy to miss a well-disguised ruse.   

From a defense in-depth perspective, it’s also essential to ensure you have a layer of threat detection in place to help identify malicious behavior, alert of the threat, and inform the correct response and remediation measures. This would include: 

Monitoring for anomalous behavior, both on-premises and in the cloud  

BEC threats rely on looking like normal user activity. With an increase in remote work, companies are relying more on cloud services like Microsoft® Office 365® which puts data into a complex environment that’s often under-protected. Once threat actors can get access to Office 365, getting to the juicy data is just a few clicks away. Traditional perimeter security tools, such as firewalls, aren’t able to monitor suspicious activity in cloud-hosted applications like Office 365, SharePoint, or OneDrive. The same applies to monitoring of your endpoints for suspicious activity. If a threat actor slips past perimeter defense and acquires user credentials, it will be difficult to identify threats that appear as typical activity. 

Having enough IT Security staff 

When something nefarious goes down, you need to know immediately. Too many businesses lack the ability to dedicate staff to 24/7 monitoring of their environment. If an alert goes off at 1 a.m., the time lost until someone sees it and makes sense of it could be the difference between defense of the business or catastrophic damage. Managed threat detection and response can be a force multiplier if you are unable to monitor your environment 24/7. 

While there are many aspects to improving your defense in-depth, the following from the FBI act as good and effective tips to share with employees to help elevate everyone’s awareness of how to avoid business email compromise attacks. 

  • Be skeptical—Last-minute changes in wiring instructions or recipient account information must be verified. 
  • Don’t click it—Verify any changes and information via the contact on file—do not contact the vendor through the number provided in the email. 
  • Double check that URL—Ensure the URL in the email is associated with the business it claims to be from.
  • Spelling counts—Be alert to misspelled hyperlinks in the actual domain name.
  • It’s a match—Verify the email address used to send emails, especially when using a mobile or handheld device, by ensuring the sender’s email address appears to match who it’s coming from. 
  • Pay attention—Often there are clues with business email compromise, e.g.:
    • An employee who does not normally interact with the CEO receives an urgent request from them 
    • Data shows an employee is in one location at 1 p.m. but halfway around the globe 10 minutes later
    • Active activity from an employee who is supposed to be on leave 
  • If you see something, say something—If something looks awry, report it to your managed service provider or IT Security supervisor. And if you have been a victim of BEC, file a detailed complaint with IC3.

To learn more about business email compromise threats and defense against them, CIT can provide you with guidance, education, and technology to strengthen your security posture. Give us a call and let’s discuss.

What is CMMC?

What is CMMC?

The Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification (CMMC) is a program developed by the Department of Defense (DoD) to help measure the cybersecurity maturity level of contractors across the defense industrial base (DIB), which includes over 300,000 companies. The CMMC is the DoD’s response to significant increase in compromises of sensitive data located on contractors’ information systems.

When did it go into effect?

September 2020.  Many companies have already been required to meet certain requirements outlined by the DoD to meet CMMC requirements.  The expectation is that CMMC will be a requirement of all new DoD requests for proposals beginning in 2026.

What companies are included?

The certification is applicable to contractors who work directly with DoD, and to subcontractors who contract with primary contractors to provide fulfilment and execution of those contracts. 

As mentioned above, all contracts with the DoD will include CMMC requirements by 2026.  It is worth noting that the DoD has indicated they intend to issue contract opportunities at all levels of the maturity model, meaning that there will be some number of requests issued that will require only a low level of certification.

What are the levels of CMMC?

The levels of CMMC can be directly related to the security maturity of organizations.   They are accumulative meaning, as organizations implement stronger controls, they can achieve a higher level.  The level of maturity may be a differentiator for retaining or gaining new contracts with the DoD

  • CMMC level 1: Preformed – Creation requirements.  Processes are informal
  • CMMC level 2: Documented meaning a security program exists, is documented, and understood throughout the organization.
  • CMMC level 3: Managed.  Tools and processes are in place, consistent and followed by all within the organization
  • CMMC levels 4: Reviewed.  Tools and processes are reviewed periodically and updates as opportunities are identified from review.
  • CMMC level 5: Continuous improvement throughout the organization.  Organization has implemented all requirements.

What is included in the review?

The CMMC includes the following cybersecurity domains, all of which need to have at least Basic Cybersecurity milestones to be CMMC compliant:

  • Access control 
  • Asset Management
  • Awareness and training 
  • Audit and accountability 
  • Configuration management 
  • Identification and authentication 
  • Incident Response 
  • Maintenance 
  • Media protection 
  • Physical protection 
  • Personnel security 
  • Recovery
  • Risk management
  • Security assessment 
  • Situational awareness
  • System and communications protection 
  • System and information integrity

Still have questions?

CIT is a Registered Provider Organization (RPO). RPO’s are the “implementors” and consulting organizations that help companies achieve the various levels of certification.

Not All MFA is Created Equal: Advantages and Disadvantages of Common Forms of MFA

Not All MFA is Created Equal: Advantages and Disadvantages of Common Forms of MFA

If you’ve spoken to anyone in the cybersecurity industry in the past few years, you’ve probably heard at least once “multi-factor authentication (MFA) is one of the best things you can do to protect yourself and your organization.” But what, you may be asking, does that specifically entail? MFA comes in all different shapes and sizes and like anything else in the cybersecurity and technical worlds, there is a fair amount of nuance in the available technologies. There are many things to consider when attempting to determine what type of MFA is best for you and your organization, including security, ease of implementation, ease of use, cost, etc. Let the below information serve as a high-level overview of those considerations for the four most common forms of MFA: SMS OTP, software TOTP, hardware TOTP, and push OTP.

SMS One-Time Password (OTP) 

  • Description: a random, numerical password, usually six digits, sent via SMS message to a designated mobile device. The password can only be used once.
  • Advantages: easy to implement and better than no MFA at all. It can also be free or inexpensive to set up (disregarding the cost of the mobile phone).  
  • Disadvantages: requires the user to own a mobile phone that can receive SMS text messages. One of the least secure forms of MFA (see Vulnerabilities).
  • Vulnerabilities: susceptible to SMS intercept attacks, wherein the text message is “intercepted” by a cyber attacker who receives the text message instead. SMS intercept attacks can be accomplished in a variety of ways, including SIM-swap scams, mobile number port-out scams, and SMS-stealing malware. Several high-profile security breaches have occurred over the past few years that were the result of SMS intercept attacks, including the 2018 data breach at Reddit and the 2019 compromise of Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s Twitter account.
  • Other info: SMS OTP was deprecated by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in 2016.

Software Time-based One-Time Password (TOTP)

  • Description: a random, numerical password, usually six digits, generated via an authenticator app installed on the associated mobile device. The code regenerates at regular intervals, usually every 30 seconds, and each code may only be used once. There are a variety of authenticator apps available, including Google Authenticator, Duo Mobile, Authy, etc.
  • Advantages: more secure than SMS OTP and fairly easy to deploy, though not as easy as SMS OTP. It is can also be free or inexpensive to set up (disregarding the cost of the smartphone).
  • Disadvantages: requires the user to own a smartphone and install a mobile app. The security of software TOTP is heavily dependent on the authenticator app being used, as well as the parameters specified by the authenticating server. TOTP relies on a shared secret key that is portable, often shared via a QR code, which makes it susceptible to cloning.

Hardware Time-based One-Time Password (TOTP)

  • Description: a random, numerical password, usually six digits, generated via a hardware token, like a key fob or smart card, with a digital display. The code regenerates at regular intervals, usually every 30 seconds, and each code may only be used once.
  • Advantages: very secure, as most hardware tokens are difficult to compromise remotely. The use of hardware tokens does not require users to own a mobile device or smartphone or install an authenticator app.
  • Disadvantages: can be very expensive (~$15+ per token). Hardware tokens can be difficult to deploy, as they are set up using NFC, which can be temperamental to use. The hardware tokens, which can be quite small, can be easily lost. Additionally, some hardware tokens, such as Yubikeys, require a physical connection to the device attempting the authentication and are thus not compatible with devices that do not have the token’s connection type (i.e., USB-A, USB-C, Lightning, etc.). Hardware tokens with more than one connection type are available, but they tend to be more expensive.

Other info: Push One-Time Password (OTP)

  • Description: a push notification is sent to the user’s device via an installed mobile app, giving the user the option to approve or deny the authentication request. The push notification usually includes the context of the authentication request, such as the IP address and corresponding location from which the login request originated.
  • Advantages: very secure, as the authentication communication is out-of-band and encrypted. Unlike TOTP, push OTP links a single device to the user’s identity, so it is not susceptible to cloning. It is easy to deploy and extremely easy to use, requiring only the click of a button to approve the request. It can be free or inexpensive (disregarding the cost of the smartphone).
  • Disadvantages: possible for users to accidentally approve fraudulent requests. It requires the user to own a smartphone and download a mobile app. Push OTP requires that the smartphone have an internet connection and it is a relatively new technology that is still not widely supported.
  • Other info: often used as a replacement for passwords. The push notification does not usually carry the OTP, but upon approval by the user, a unique OTP is generated internally on the device and sent back to the authenticating server to verify it.

Why should an organization consider using a security framework?

NIST framework

Why should an organization consider using a security framework?

Historically, organizations have invested significant amounts of time and budgets into their current security posture.  Up until recently, that posture was largely designed to protect the traditional office space.  With more people working remotely than ever, that security posture and program may not fit with the new requirements of protecting employees that may be working anywhere at any time. 

A security framework is designed to help organizations:

  • Understand their current cybersecurity posture
  • Define or update a cybersecurity program
  • Help communicate requirements and future state with stakeholders
  • Identify opportunities or needs for new or revised standards
  • Assists in prioritizing potential projects to help reduce risk to the company
  • Enables investment decisions to address gaps

What is NIST?

The National Institute of Standards and Technology developed its cybersecurity framework to strengthen the security of United States critical infrastructure.  Like most security frameworks, NIST can be applied to any sized organization in any industry.  The NIST framework includes five cores. 

Those are:  Identify, Protect, Detect, Response, and Recover.



Identify

Naturally, most security programs begin with the Identify stage.

  • Identify can include the review Inventory of assets, data, Users, Systems, and the boundaries of where all those items can be located.  After which, most will complete assessments, which may include gap analyses, a self-assessment or questionnaire, a review of the technical infrastructure, as well as potentially reviewing those of their supply chain vendors and partners. 
  • Assessments are performed to help define risks allowing the organization or that of its partners, to develop the appropriate security controls to address those risks.
  • Identify also includes the traditional governance process of building or revising security policies and procedures, change management processes, vendor management processes, and so on.

Protect

Once the identify process has been completed building a security program begins with defining and applying security controls to help mitigate the risks as well as help build processes to protect the organizations’ assets and people.

  • The Protect core focuses on building administrative and technical controls to protect data, identifiable information, and all company assets.
  • Some tools that assist with this function include building out Identity Management, applying a least privileged access model to limit users’ access to only what they need to complete their daily tasks.  Applying multifactor authentication (MFA) on external-facing systems, limiting access to management interfaces, continuously reviewing and remediating vulnerabilities.
  • Building out a cybersecurity training program that should include training of current threats and should include frequent phishing simulations.
  • An example of administrative controls can include ensuring no one user can approve a wire transfer without a second person’s confirmation.
  • Physical controls can include physical access management through locked doors, badging as well as the use of security cameras.

Detect Icon

Detect

As organizations continue to mature Detection and response capabilities become a priority.  The detection core is designed to help build a formal detection process for the various threats organizations face every day. 

  • Advanced Detection tools help gather information from disparate systems across the network, from Cloud environments, 3rd party threat intelligence, and system vulnerabilities.  Correlate that information providing event alerts and insights on a variety of threats.  Such as external attacks on systems, anomalous user behavior as well as helping with Data Loss Prevention.  Common detection tools include SIEM solutions, Endpoint Detection, and Response tools.

Respond Icon

Response

As organizations mature their detection capabilities the next step would be to respond to detected threats.

  • Building out response processes and procedures is also a core capability of NIST. Cybersecurity Incident Response plan is a common 1st step in building out and formalizing response capabilities.  Understanding that over 94% of organizations had a security event in 2020, building a plan to respond is crucial to help the organization better understand their capabilities and outline how communications flow.
  • Once an Incident Response Plan has been developed working through a variety of tabletop exercises will help organizations validate and test their plan and capabilities.
  • Tools such as Endpoint Detection and Response are absolutely critical tools that need to be budgeted and deployed for every organization regardless of industry or size. 
  • EDR tools have the capability of detecting, shutting down malicious processes, quarantining, ability to remove the malicious file as well as potentially providing valuable logging capabilities for forensic investigation in some cases.

Recover Icon

Recover

Developing and implementation of a Disaster Plan is the final pillar of the NIST Framework.

  • In the event that all of the other tools and processes don’t stop an event from happening, having a well-documented and tested disaster plan is also needed for every organization.
  • Deployment of backup solutions that validate backups, replicates to the cloud, are configured properly, and tested is a requirement for every organization that has any sort of business-critical data, even if that data is stored in the cloud.

Regardless of whether or not compliance is a requirement for your organization, a security framework such as NIST can help provide a solid foundation, through the general guidance, for maturing your security posture.

Comparing Zix Layered Protection With a Recent Breach

Reflecting on the recent SolarWinds breach and exploitation of the Microsoft Exchange 0-day, the associated threat actors started from the beginning of the Cyber Threat Cycle. They needed to run reconnaissance to identify the right target and instigate the initial attack.

This is key to the first part of Zix Layered Protection. Preventing the initial attack takes the least amount of resources and can save the organization the biggest headache. Further, many fail to realize that the majority of successful attacks are rooted in well-established techniques. Similar to the principles of their security counterparts, threat actors balance sophisticated techniques with ease of use. If there is an easy way to infiltrate a target, they will always go that route. The SolarWinds breach was years in the making, as sophisticated as the technique was to drop malware into the SolarWinds Orion system, the breach was almost certainly started with an email. We can make this assumption given the evidence that has been discovered.

Inside the SolarWinds breach

Reconnaissance and attacking the target

There are numerous ways to collect reconnaissance from a target to determine the right attack, and in the SolarWinds case it would appear that email was a primary research tool and ultimately the attack vector.

Points of evidence:

  • According to the SEC filing, email was a primary attack vector during the initial SolarWinds attack and APT29 are known to launch phishing attack campaigns as a tactical strategy.
  • During the Malwarebytes breach, their investigation uncovered that the, “attackers leveraged a dormant email protection product within their own O365 tenant.”
  • Microsoft reported to Crowdstrike that a reseller account was being used to read emails that were linked to Crowdstrike.

Infiltrating the target and evading detection

With a spear phishing attack the technique most likely to have been used to initially compromise SolarWinds, there was still no guarantee that the threat actors would be able to move within the environment without the right privileges and ensuring that their activities were going undetected.

Yet according to published details:

  • Hackers gained privileged access to restricted systems
  • Hackers were communicating via Command and Control infrastructure
  • Hackers were altering file systems to prevent detection

Considering these key points, an effective advanced email threat prevention and encryption solution must be part of the layered security framework.

Read more about the cyber threat cycle

Break the Cyber Threat Cycle Part II

The cyber threat cycle

Start out with Part I of this series

Prevent the initial reconnaissance and attack with an effective advanced threat protection and email encryption solution coupled with enforcing multi-factor authentication for user logins.

97% of users are still not able to detect a sophisticated phishing attack. SolarWinds is just another reminder that email continues to be core to the Cyber Threat Cycle. It is the most difficult to secure and the easiest to exploit. While security organizations validly discuss new attack techniques and the potential of these being used, there is a never-ending list of evidence that:

  • Email is a treasure trove of reconnaissance information
  • Email attacks are very cheap for the threat actor to execute
  • Employees are no more effective at detecting a phishing attack intended to steal their credentials or malware intended to compromise their endpoint today than they were years ago.

Detect the presence of a threat actor with a security audit or monitoring solution

Highly effective email defense with a better than 99.9% effectiveness rating against phishing and malware will close 95% of your prevention gap. We are aware that threat actors will figure out other ways to get into your network, so developing approaches to protect other vectors will be necessary. However, you can quickly close this gap while evaluating other tools by leveraging a security auditing service. Particularly a solution that focuses on:

  • Identifying weaknesses in user login and authentication
  • Identifying suspicious behavior related to mailbox rules and email communication

As the SolarWinds breach proved, the threat actors needed to gain access to secured development environments. In that context, monitoring for weaknesses in simple policies like regularly changing passwords, or where a user may be logging into a system from a remote location, can be a clear indication that someone not employed by the organization has made it into your network.

Furthermore, we know in every case of a major breach, when the threat actor has infiltrated the business, they must communicate to something on the outside to retrieve further instructions, files, or exfiltrate internal intelligence. Monitoring for email forwarding rules or activity such as immediately deleting sent messages on an automated basis should set off a red alert.

Therefore a security audit or monitoring tool to detect internal suspicious behavior is a must for the layered protection strategy.

Zix Layered Protection

Act on any suspicious behavior through containment and remediation to prevent attacker success.

As you put in place the two main components to prevent and detect malicious behavior, the third motion must be in response to what may have failed. As we’ve indicated, businesses can implement every security solution pitched to them by the hundreds of security vendors available, but Zix Layered Protection is intended to keeping your security as simple as possible while maximizing your time and investment. To complete this goal, the response to the potential breach must be immediate. The goal should be to maintain business productivity even in the face of an attack. Most growing businesses may not have the time or expertise to immediately triage the incident, but they can begin their response and remediation process at no risk. Those tasks at a minimum should be:

  • Immediately remove any malicious email that may have landed within the targeted employee’s inbox.
  • Scan the targeted employee’s login activity and require any vulnerable passwords to be changed immediately (enforce MFA if disabled).
  • Immediately clear their file systems and provide the targeted employee with a clean working copy of their data.

Zix Layered Protection enables organizations to maintain productivity through Zix Backup and Recovery services. Coupled with message retraction and account lock-down, latent threats can be rapidly eliminated.

How does Zix Layered Protection break the Cyber Threat Cycle?

Zix Secure Cloud turns a complex plan into a simple operational model.

Zix Secure Cloud turns a complex plan into a simple operational model

Protect

Advanced Email Encryption

The gold standard of encryption secures the email channel so that threat actors cannot hijack the SMTP conversation via a man-in-the-middle attack. With Zix’s Best Method of Delivery regardless of who the organization communicates with, business insights are fully protected from inbox to inbox.

Advanced Email Threat Protection

Today’s top attack technique continues to be advanced phishing and malware-based attacks. Zix Advanced Email Threat Protection is rated one of the most effective solution in 3rd party testing:

  • Phishing Detection Rate: 99.9%
  • Threat (Malware, ransomware, etc.) Detection Rate: 100%
  • Accuracy Rate: 99.994%

With Zix acting as the first layer of defense the initial compromise is mitigated exponentially.

Azure AD Multi-factor Authentication

Relying on users to detect a phishing URL is a recipe for allowing cybercriminal access to their endpoint. By enforcing multi-factor authentication that is built into every M365 bundle, security teams can close this gap and solve the protection need.

Detect

Security Audit (Detect & Alert)

While the protection components exponentially reduce the attack surface, the risk for internal negligence does exist. Continuous monitoring and detection within Zix Security Audit adds a layer of scanning that quickly identifies suspicious activity that bypassed the security gateway. With compromised credentials being the key to establishing a foothold, being able to detect suspicious user activity such as low-end employees having administrative access, or Finance employees suspiciously forwarding work email to a personal email address becomes essential to containing the threat.

Advanced Email Threat Protection Threat Analyst Support

Combined with insights from the Zix Security Audit, customers can work directly with Zix Phenomenal Care and Threat Analyst to immediately develop and implement a mitigation strategy to stop subsequent attacks. This is a unique value-add that is essential to making Zix Layered Protection effective.

Respond

Security Audit (Detect & Alert)

Integrated within the Security Audit are actionable response steps to stop threat actors in their tracks such as locking the user out of the environment.

Advanced Email Threat Protection (Message Retraction)

An additional response step to take once a threat is discovered is to remove any existence of malicious email that may have been launched internally from the compromised account. Message retraction provides the ability to immediately reduce the risk to anyone else that may have been targeted.

Backup & Recovery

Any response goal must keep employee productivity in mind. With Zix Backup and Recovery services, even if the attacker’s goal was to corrupt corporate data or hold the data for ransom, the business has peace of mind knowing that they have a clean copy of their data to keep their business going.

Advanced Email Encryption (DLP)

Insight into what the attacker may have been after can provide an advantage to keeping this data secure. With Data Loss Prevention policies within Zix Advanced Email Encryption, security personnel are notified if key information is attempted to be extracted via email.

Enabled by Zix Secure Cloud

Enabled by Zix Secure Cloud

Zix Secure Cloud plus Azure AD Multi-factor Authentication encompasses layered protection. With these foundational pieces in place, growing businesses can focus on their productivity without being exposed to significant gaps. We recognize that the threat landscape is constantly changing and no growing business should stand still, as their business matures so will the threats targeting them. With assistance from our security partners, we can help guide you through your maturity path while keeping the strategy simple and straightforward.

Break the Cyber Threat Cycle Part I

Break the Cyber Threat Cycle with Zix Layered Protection Part I

Achieving robust security does not have to be hard work. However, with the multitude of ways organizations are targeted, coupled with the hundreds of security companies pitching different approaches, choosing and implementing the right security solution can be daunting.

Endpoint security vendors will highlight the many risks of bring your own device (BYOD) and the need to install security directly on the endpoint. Security awareness vendors will tell you that your people are the weakest link. Web or email gateway security vendors will recommend that securing the gateway is your best bet. Finally, a threat hunting expert will tell you it is too late because you’ve already been compromised!

What can you do?

If you evaluate your security strategy through the lens of the security vendor, they all make valid points and the need for every single solution makes sense. Unfortunately, most growing organizations neither have the money, expertise, or time to implement and integrate such a complex strategy. Therefore, what is the most straight forward yet robust security strategy? To answer this question, let’s first review the Cyber Threat Cycle.

The Cyber Threat Cycle

The cyber threat cycle

The Cyber Threat Kill Chain or Cyber Threat Cycle was first articulated by Lockheed-Martin. Many security organizations have developed their own interpretation of this kill chain but, at its simplest form cyber threat actors commence in 5 major activities:

Activity 1: Identify a target

Threat actors will use a variety of methods for reconnaissance based on their mission goals to identify a target. Tactics can range from company and user profiling via LinkedIn or other social media platforms, through to conducting internet-wide vulnerability scans or snooping communication traffic via man-in-the-middle attacks. Yet, the most widely and easily accessible method has always been email. By sending a seemingly innocent email, threat actors can collect a lot of information, from the type of security gateway in place to whether the user actually exists and willing to engage.

Activity 2: Attack the target

Once a target has been identified, the threat actors will launch their initial attack. The attack can spawn multiple steps but the end goal is the same – gain access to an endpoint or internal server. From analysis of hundreds of thousands of breaches over recent years, email has been the easiest way to gain initial entry in the majority of instances.

Activity 3: Infiltrate the target

Gaining access to a single system does not automatically result in a completed mission. Often the compromised system doesn’t have the right access to move within the organization. Threat actors will attempt to establish a foothold through a number of steps including:

  • creation of a back door
  • set-up a connection to a command
  • and control (C&C) server
  • download an exploit
  • launch phishing attacks internally
  • infiltrate communication channels to establish their reconnaissance.

It’s often increasing or elevating the credentials they already have that helps establish a foothold. often increasing or elevating the credentials they already have that helps establish a foothold.

Activity 4: Evade and move

Once a threat actor has infiltrated their target, they can act methodically to gain more information and evade detection. At this point, it is important to remember that the breaches that make headlines are often years in the making. The threat actor often laid dormant, closely researching their victim, and waiting for the perfect time to execute the mission goal. Compromising a user’s inbox is a common technique to gaining more information about the business processes and personnel within an organization. Yet, threat actors are cunning enough to augment mailbox rules so that their presence is never detected.

Activity 5: Complete mission

The last activity is execution of the mission goal. Is the goal to exfiltrate sensitive data? Is it to force the victim to execute a wire transfer due to ransomware or carefully crafted Business Email Compromise (BEC) attack? Is the goal to wreak havoc by corrupting or making the victim’s data inaccessible? At this point, it is a matter of mitigating or containing the execution before the breach makes headlines.

Alignment with industry-known security frameworks ultimately should be the right approach, but to reach that point takes a heavy investment of money, personnel, and time. Further, the deeper the organization finds itself within the cycle the more business interruption will occur. With that in mind, we can begin to formulate a tactical, simple layered protection strategy that initiates a move towards a security-mature goal.

Check out part II of this blog series

Can HIPAA Information Be Emailed?

Women standing with a laptop near a server room.

Can HIPAA Information Be Emailed?

According to the CDC: “while the HIPAA Privacy Rule safeguards protected health information (PHI), the Security Rule protects a subset of information covered by the Privacy Rule. This subset is all individually identifiable health information a covered entity creates, receives, maintains, or transmits in electronic form. This information is called ‘electronic protected health information (e-PHI).”

In order to comply with the HIPAA Security Rule you must:

  • Ensure the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of all electronic protected health information
  • Detect and safeguard against anticipated threats to the security of the information
  • Protect against anticipated impermissible uses or disclosures
  • Certify compliance

But what does this mean for those working in the healthcare industry emailing HIPAA information? Let’s start with why email communications should be secure first:

Understanding how cybersecurity and email are connected begins with a breakdown of the path that an email follows. Email follows the following path:

  1. Created by sender on their workstation
  2. Sent from workstation to sender’s email server
  3. Sender’s email server sends email to recipient’s email server
  4. Recipient’s workstation pulls the message from their server

Every time the email is sent it could be at risk for malicious interference. In addition, a copy of the email is stored on each workstation it travels through. Breaking that down, that means there’s a copy on:

  • The sender’s workstation
  • The sender’s email server
  • The recipient’s email server
  • The recipient’s workstation 1

This path alone illustrates the risk a single email can pose – both in transit and at rest. So can emails be HIPAA compliant?

Emails can be HIPAA compliant, but requires IT resources and a monitoring process to ensure that authorized users are communicating PHI in adherence with policies for HIPAA compliance for email.2

What IT resources and monitoring processes are available? Beyond our in-house security solution, we also recommend email encryption.

Encrypted Email

Encryption is a way to make data unreadable at rest and during transmission. CIT partners with Zix for email encryption and they partner with more than 1,200 U.S. hospitals to help maintain HIPAA compliance. As cyberattacks continue to grow exponentially, Zix provides you with efficient methods to optimize your IT security effectiveness while better securing PHI in and out of their organization.

To learn more check out A Case for Email Encryption.

So now that we’ve talked about the path of an email, HIPAA compliance, and our recommended solutions we want to make sure all types of emails are secure.

What different kinds of emails need to be secure?

In the healthcare industry, it is important to avoid security risks, meet compliance standards, and secure multiple types of emails. Cybersecurity and compliance solutions should include securing:

  • In-office emails
  • Doctor-to-doctor emails
  • Personal emails
  • Mass emails 
  • Reply emails
  • Patient emails

Additional email security considerations

Start with a HIPAA Compliance Checklist or learn more about a Cybersecurity Gap Analysis for your business. Want to chat with one of our experts? Contact us here. 

  1. https://www.securitymetrics.com/blog/how-send-hipaa-compliant-emai
  2. https://www.hipaajournal.com/hipaa-compliance-for-email/