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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