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The Rising Email Threat: Are instant messaging tools the answer?

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By Barracuda Networks

At Barracuda we believe two heads are better than one. Following that logic, we can’t argue the value of the opportunity to hear from our peers on industry trends. We recently discovered through such means that, for the channel, email security is its biggest focus in 2019, as partners are increasingly helping their customers fight the battle against email attacks.

This got us thinking: how do end users view email security? And does it match with their channel counterparts? Are they too prioritising it over the next 12 months?

To answer our question, we quizzed 280 high-level decision makers across different industries throughout EMEA on their email security measures, where it falls on their ever-changing priority list, and ultimately how equipped they are for the inevitable attack.

Attacks are going up, up, up 

The results pointed to an industry already aware of – and often affected by – the rising new wave of email threats. Of the 280 decision makers polled, a majority (87%) predicted email threats to increase in the coming year. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the majority (75%) also said they had witnessed a steady increase in email attacks over the past three years against their own organisation. 

Breaking those attacks down, in the last year, almost half (47%) were attacked by ransomware, 31% were victim to a business email compromise attack, and a huge 75% admitted to having been hit with brand impersonation. This final statistic gives credence to our recent spear phishing report, which found that 83% of all the email attacks we analysed focused on brand impersonation. Clearly the criminal’s favourite choice, and for good reason.

Email remains the weakest link

However, regardless of this awareness, many organisations admit to being vastly unprepared when it comes to email security. Despite email being used since the 1990s, a staggering 94% admitted that email is still the most vulnerable part of organisations’ security postures. 

Unsurprisingly, finance departments seem to experience the most attacks, with 57% identifying it as the most targeted department. What was surprising was the rise in customer support attacks; a not insignificant 32% identified this as their most attacked department in what could indicate a new emerging trend for would-be attackers.

Without proper employee training, these attacks will continue to succeed. However, training is still hugely lacking across most organisations we spoke to, with the most popular answer (29%) being from respondents who receive it just once a year. Shockingly, 7% stated they’d either never had training or that they weren’t sure.

The lack of training is clearly leaving employees either confused or unaware of security protocol, as over half (56%) stated that some employees do not adhere to security policies. Of those, 40% said their employees used a ‘workaround’ to do so, perhaps referring to shadow IT solutions and the issues they continue to cause in enterprise IT environments. Both of these issues could be solved by regular and in-depth employee security training.

Not all doom and gloom

That being said, we’d be amiss to ignore those taking measures to reduce email threats. For the 38% whose security budgets are increasing next year, we’d hope security awareness training will play a key role in where the funds will be spent – after all, regardless of whether you have the latest technology, your employees are still the last line of defence. 

However, with 62% of security budgets to either stay the same or decrease over the next year, it seems that organisations are taking to other ways to try and reduce the rising email threat. Over a third (36%) are implementing instant messaging applications such as Slack or Yammer, to reduce email traffic.

This approach comes with a warning from us: while we haven’t yet seen attacks using messaging platforms such as Slack, this may well change in the future and doesn’t necessarily mean that these platforms are immune to attacks. Any organisation going down this route should do so with care, as if we know anything about cyber attackers, it’s that they’re always trying new ways to catch their victims out.

Interestingly, those companies using instant messaging tools are more likely to use Office 365 (78%), compared to an average of 56% across the rest of the study. They were also slightly more likely to pinpoint email as the weakest link (97%) versus 92%. With that in mind, security should be front of mind in order to ensure Office 365 environments are fully protected in the move away from Exchange.

In the short term, while a shift away from email to communications tools such as Slack might be tempting in order to temporarily ease the email burden, it might not work out in the long run, as we wouldn’t be surprised if cyber attackers just changed their tactics in response. In the longer term, the right combination of technology and security awareness training is the key to email attack protection. Attacks will always increase in sophistication, but as long as you stay ahead of the game, it is possible to keep the bad guys out. After all, even at 30 years old, email attacks are still proving profitable for cyber criminals, so they won’t stop any time soon… 

Image by rawpixel from Pixabay