Cyber Attack and Hack – Is Our Use of Language Creating Security Vulnerabilities in Our Thinking?

Hacking and Cyber attacks have hardly been off our media front pages for a long time. But are businesses and organisations misleading themselves by referring to these incidents as ‘hacks’ or as ‘cyber attacks’? Are businesses actually limiting their thinking and thereby creating vulnerabilities by mislabelling these important events? There is a strong indication this might sometimes be the case.

When we talk about hacking we think about a variety of activities, from the lone, disruptive back-room coder, to the determined and resource-laden gurus of cyberspace who can 

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apparently enter our systems at will and remove whatever data they want – maybe government funded but definitely expert and dangerous. Of course, both of these exist but if recent surveys give us any indication of how much these remote threats actually affect our businesses and organisations on a daily basis, it would appear an important part of the threat puzzle is missing. 

According to the Verizon Data Breach Report 2013, more than three quarters of breaches utilised weak or stolen credentials. So either the malfeasant has taken a solid guess that the password will be ‘password’ or has potentially stolen a passcard to a server room or a myriad of other activities which are not hacking but are breach enablers. So the myth of the remote hacker is revealed, at least in the majority of cases to be just that, a myth. With 35% involving some kind of interaction in the physical world, such as card-skimming or theft it underlines the need to move the security focus away from solely cyber.

The same report showed that in larger organisations, ex employees were the same level of threat as existing managers. If we refer to the previous stat then a proportion of those stolen credentials could actually come from ex employees using their old credentials or credentials they had access to, in order to access company networks as happened in the ‘Hacker Mum’ story

Nearly a third of breaches involved some kind of Social aspect, this could be coercion of an existing employee, a phishing campaign or simply walking into a building and charming a staff member such as a receptionist (mines of information that they are) on a regular basis to get information on staff comings and goings etc. It could also involve surveillance of a business over an extended period, including its staff, visitors and contractors.

So the actual ‘hack’ or ‘cyber attack’ is quite an extensive way down the line in this kind of breach. It could have been in planning for months. On one hand this is worrying because our language has encouraged us to focus our attention on only one part of the process. It enables the already prevalent, ‘IT deals with security’ mindset, we have discussed in previous posts.  But in enabling this narrowed view, we are creating a vulnerability and ignoring the opportunities we will have had along the route of this breach to have halted it before anyone even logged on to anything.

A comprehensive program of Security Awareness training in-built into everyone’s role and that training being regular and refreshed, is one helping hand in preventing the attack reaching the actual hack stage. Simple things like ensuring everyone knows not to click on uninvited or suspicious looking links in emails for instance. Being aware of unfamiliar faces  in a building, regardless of whether they are wearing a high vis jacket or lab coat for instance. Social engineers love to hide in plain sight. 

So use of language has ruled out these elements being considered by all staff members, they hear the words ‘cyber’ and ‘hack’ and think it is IT’s responsibility and then carry on as normal. There are many points at which the hack could have been prevented by basic security hygiene or good practice.

It underlines to us that threat to our businesses and infrastructure are holistic and so should the response to that threat be. Yes, there is a threat from the faceless hacker, the determined and well funded professional as well as the random and opportunistic ‘back-bedroom warrior’. But many businesses and organisations are facing a people based threat first.  An old vulnerability being enabled in a new way – language.

Advent IM Cyber Threat and security consultants

Advent IM Security Cyber Security experts

 Advent IM cyber security experts

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