Author Archives: Adam Levin

Email Is the Biggest Threat to Business, So Why Is Everyone Using It?

Microsoft’s Outlook.com service suffered a major breach earlier this year. The compromise allowed hackers to potentially access user email accounts, and that was the case for more than six months. This news was no shocker. Outlook has always been, and continues to be a perennial target.

Saying that email is a major service of the Internet is a bit like saying Donald Trump doesn’t like CNN. Email is foundational. In fact, it pre-dates the Internet by decades. (Lest we forget, the first email was sent in 1971).

Email currently has a 90.1% penetration rate among Internet users in the United States, compared to 68% for Facebook and 23% for Twitter. It’s the main communication tool for 95% of businesses. Email addresses are still the main way we authenticate ourselves to do business online, and because of that email as a category represents an extremely weak link in our collective cybersecurity. It doesn’t have to be this way, but as Yogi Berra once said, “We made too many wrong mistakes.”

It’s this familiarity and this reliance on email that has made it the target of choice for hackers, and with that a major liability for businesses and consumers alike. If you think social media networks and data mining organizations have juicy digital assets, consider for a moment the El Dorado of information transmitted daily via email, ranging from intimate correspondences to tax information, travel plans, financial transactions, photos, and shopping lists to real-time data on a user’s emotional state and how their important relationships are going.

Because email isn’t deleted from most servers by default, this target-rich digital information environment is often accessible to anyone with a login and password–something that is regularly served up to hackers by the billions.

The cybersecurity threat posed by email isn’t limited to sensitive data sitting passively on account servers. Email is the preferred tool hackers use to access their targets’ networks: 83% of organizations reported phishing attacks in 2018, up from 76% in 2017. Fully two thirds of malware is installed by clicking on an email attachment.

Email is equal parts Achilles heel and Trojan Horse, so why are we still using it?

“Just Because” Isn’t a Good Answer

It’s not an original thought to say that email is problematic, or that a replacement of some sort would be welcome. Its obsolescence, if not demise, has been predicted repeatedly over the years. A murderers’ row of newer technologies like SharePoint, Slack, Skype, Messenger, and many, many others have seemed like contenders, but email still dominates in the realm of communication.

The reason for email’s ongoing existence despite its obvious shortcomings and major security issues is counter-intuitive. People use it because it’s insecure. That’s why it doesn’t matter that Bill Gates didn’t come through with the promise of eradicating spam by 2006. Spam is something we’re willing to accept to stay Internet nativists. It is the digital equivalent of gnats in nature.

True story: The Internet was not made with security in mind. It was made to communicate fast. While the underlying structures seem naïve, none of it was designed for the general public. Domain names were initially intended as a means of identifying remote academic, military, and government locations. Their corresponding numerical (IP) addresses were limited to roughly 4 billion possible variations. That was more than enough for every single person on the planet at the time of its creation. That this structure didn’t anticipate the rise of Internet-enabled telephones, vacuum cleaners, nuclear reactors, or personal assistants is as much a part of the problem as the fact that they didn’t anticipate every small-time crook switching from convenience store stick-ups and smash and dash crimes to the much less risky practice of email phishing campaigns with the cornucopia of identity-related crimes made possible by them.

Email has none of the strings-attached vibe that the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world have attached to our information, no terms and conditions or privacy policies subject to change, and it doesn’t rely on any specific hardware or software to be able to access it as a service. Looking at its liabilities without understanding its appeal is one of the key factors that has made it a communication mainstay, seemingly against all odds and to the consternation of IT departments around the world.

In this way, email is an object lesson in the cybersecurity quagmire: We’re over-reliant on the idea of technology providing a silver bullet instead of changing our behavior. No Slack or Messenger or any other killer app is going to solve the email problem (although traffic may continue to migrate from email to other modes of communication). The only thing that will change the situation, Yogi Berra might have said, is to change the situation. Meanwhile, he did say this: “If the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be.”

This article originally appeared on Inc.com.

The post Email Is the Biggest Threat to Business, So Why Is Everyone Using It? appeared first on Adam Levin.

The Government Claims a Private Sector Fail, But It Just Doesn’t Know How to Pick a Vendor

The Government Accountability Office recently released a report that analyzed the results as well as the relative effectiveness of the identity theft services, including insurance, provided to victims of data breaches and other forms of digital compromise.

The report is entitled, “Range of Consumer Risks Highlights Limitations of Identity Theft Services,” and it largely reiterates the GAO’s 2017 assertion that the identity theft insurance provided to agencies in the wake of a data breach were both unnecessary and largely ineffective. The findings also included a conclusion that credit monitoring, identity monitoring, and identity restoration services were of questionable value. The GAO recommended that Congress should explore whether government agencies should be, or indeed are, at present, legally required to offer victims of federal data breaches any of the services examined in the report.

At the center of the report’s finding was $421 million set aside by the Office of Personnel Management for the purchase of a suite of identity protection products and services following the 2015 data breach that exposed extremely sensitive personal information of 22 million individuals. According to the report, the “obligated” money expended was largely squandered.

“3 million had used the services and approximately 61 individuals had received payouts from insurance claims, for an average of $1,800 per claim… GAO’s review did not identify any studies that analyzed whether consumers who sign up for or purchase identity theft services were less subject to identity theft or detected financial or other fraud more or less quickly than those who monitored their own accounts for free…” To be clear, there is a jump in logic here. Just because the GAO was unable to find data to support these services does not mean the services are ineffective. In fact, it could just as easily be that the services work.

Then there was the GAO’s observation that, “The services also do not prevent or directly address risks of nonfinancial harm such as medical identity theft.” When millions of Social Security Numbers have been exposed, prevention of identity theft is purely aspirational. Frankly, this assertion would not pass muster with the FTC, since it is actually frowned upon to suggest that any service provider can prevent identity theft. The goal is awareness and targeted action, and medical fraud, in particular, is an area where detection is, at best, difficult and resolution is often complicated and requires professional assistance.

While the report raises an important point, it is too limited in scope to pinpoint it effectively. Not all identity theft services are the same. Those offered by the OPM to victims of its massive breach may or may not have been ineffective, but if they were, mostly likely it was because they were inadequate to the task or “mis-underestimated” during on-boarding, not because they’re unnecessary. In other words, it’s not a question of how much money changed hands, it’s how those funds were spent.

Misunderstanding?

In the case of the services offered to victims of the OPM breach, the results do look damning: 61 paid insurance claims out of 3 million service users is the kind of figure unworthy of rounding error status. The above result must not, however, be mistaken for a demonstration of why identity theft insurance isn’t useful, but rather should be understood as a real-life metric of the usefulness of the specific plan provided, and the applicability of that’s plan provisions to the majority of the individuals covered by it.

Consider this counterpoint: If the services provided worked, little to no insurance payments would be necessary. (See above.)

Rather than scrapping the requirement, policies should either be expanded to cover more of the expenses associated with identity theft (there are many), or they should prioritize more robust monitoring tools and full identity fraud remediation solutions with the funds available.

Lack of Participation

Another issue raised by the report is participation on the part of those affected by data breaches. According to data from OPM, only 13 percent of those affected took advantage of the services made available to them–at least as of September 30, 2018. While the number may seem low, anecdotally it’s not really. Regardless, the question remains: Were those services made available in an accessible way that encouraged action on the part of users?

History suggests that paltry participation figures are due in no small part to a lack of awareness among consumers of the dangers posed by the exposure of personal information and the often free (to the consumer) availability of products and services that help manage the damage. Workplace education in this area is lacking, for sure, but that alone doesn’t explain it. Beyond breach fatigue, a larger factor may be lack of confidence in or clarity about the services provided–and that is an issue that belongs to vendor selection, because it’s their job to make clear what’s at risk and how the proffered solutions can help.

As described elsewhere in the report: Organizations that offer services, don’t do it based on what should be the pivotal question here: “how effective these services are.” Instead, “some base their decisions on federal or state legal requirements to offer such services and the expectations of affected customers or employees for some action on the breached entities’ part.” If the standard is to offer a certain amount of protection, they do that. Does it matter what kind? Can it be a generic? That’s the crux of the matter here.

Spoiler alert: It matters what service provider you choose. If you take nothing else away here let it be this: identity protection services and insurance are useless in a low-information environment. Indeed, if the service provider doesn’t produce an ocean of content that explains to users why they need to use the services, then it’s probably not right for mass allocation.

Data breaches have become so commonplace and the threat of identity fraud so widespread that token offerings to those affected are increasingly viewed as a B.S. attempt at better optics while a company is in disaster mode. A vicious cycle ensues: lack of confidence in a breach response leads to lack of participation in identity theft protection offered, and lack of participation is used to justify offering less comprehensive protection–all while identity theft incidents and data breaches increase.

The GAO report raises many salient points about the services offered in the wake of data breaches. The current legislation and its requirements for both identity theft protection services and insurance can rightly be viewed as an expensive boondoggle with little to show when it comes to actual results, but the conclusion of the GAO–to pull back instead of getting the right services in place to protect against future breaches and assist their victims when they can’t be avoided–is worrisome.

We need to focus now more than ever on high-information, robust solutions that provide greater protection as well as more guidance and assistance–not less.

This article originally appeared on Inc.com.

The post The Government Claims a Private Sector Fail, But It Just Doesn’t Know How to Pick a Vendor appeared first on Adam Levin.

What This Report on Cyber Risk Gets Wrong

The Marsh brokerage unit of Marsh and McLennan recently announced a new evaluation process called Cyber Catalyst designed to determine the usefulness of enterprise cyber risk tools.

The goal of the new offering is to identify and implement industry-wide standards to help cyber insurance policyholders make more informed decisions about cyber-related products and services; basically, what works and what doesn’t. Other major insurers participating in Cyber Catalyst include Allianz, AXA XL, AXIS, Beazley, CFC, and Sompo International.

While this collaboration between insurance companies is unusual, it’s not entirely surprising. Cyber insurance is a $4 billion market globally. While it’s difficult to accurately gauge how many hacking attempts were successfully foiled by the products targeted here, data breaches and cyber attacks on businesses continue to increase in frequency and severity. The 2019 World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report ranks “massive data fraud and theft” as the fourth greatest global risk, followed by “cyber-attacks” in the five slot.

Meanwhile, cybersecurity products and vendors have been, to be charitable, a mixed bag.

Good in Theory

From this standpoint, Cyber Catalyst seems like not just a good idea, but an obvious one. A standardized metric to determine which cybersecurity solutions are no better than a fig leaf and which ones provide real armor to defend against cyberattacks is sorely lacking in the cybersecurity space. By Marsh’s own estimates, there are more than three thousand cybersecurity vendors amounting to a $114 billion marketplace. Many of them don’t inspire confidence on the part of businesses.

Insurers have a vested interest in determining the effectiveness of cybersecurity products, weeding out buggy software and promoting effective solutions that can help address risk aggregation issues. Businesses and their data are in turn better protected, and at least in theory, they would pay less for coverage. Everyone wins.

Insurance companies did something similar in the 1950s with the creation of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. In the face of rising traffic collisions and fatalities, the insurance industry collaborated to establish a set of tests and ratings for vehicles, and the result has been a gold standard for automotive safety for decades. Using a similar strategy for cybersecurity would at least in theory help mitigate the ever-increasing costs and risks to companies and their data.

Or Maybe Not

Where the analogy to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety breaks down is here: The threats to car drivers and passengers have ultimately stayed the same since its inception. Everything we’ve learned over the years about making cars has progressively led to safer vehicles. Information technology is vastly different in that iterative improvements in one specific area doesn’t necessarily make an organization as a whole safer or better protected against cyber threats–in fact sometimes it can have the opposite effect when a new feature added turns out to be a bug.

Cyber defenses are meaningless in the presence of an unintended, yet gaping, hole in an organization’s defenses. Then there is the march of sound innovation. Products that provided first-in-class protection for a business’s network a few years ago may no longer be so great where cloud computing and virtual servers, or BYOD are concerned. The attackable surface of every business continues to increase with each newly introduced technology, and it seems overly optimistic to assume the standard evaluation process (currently twice a year) would be able to keep pace with new threats.

There’s also the risk of putting too many eggs into one basket. While the diffuse nature of the cybersecurity market causes headaches for everyone involved, establishing a recommended solution or set of solutions effectively makes them an ideal target for hackers. While it’s important to keep consumers and businesses informed of potential risk to their information, cybersecurity issues require a certain amount of secrecy until they have been properly addressed. Compromising, or even identifying and reporting on a vulnerability before it’s been patched in an industry standard security product, process or vendor practice could cause a potentially catastrophic chain reaction for cyber insurers and their clients.

Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast

Where the Cyber Catalyst program seems to potentially miss the mark is by overlooking the weakest link in any company’s security (i.e., its users). An advanced cybersecurity system or set of tools capable of blocking the most insidious and sophisticated attack can readily be circumvented by a spear phishing campaign, a compromised smartphone, or a disgruntled employee. Social engineering cannot be systematically addressed. Combatting the lures of compromise requires organizations to foster and maintain a culture of privacy and security.

The risk of employee over-reliance on tools and systems at the expense of training, awareness, and a company culture where cybersecurity is front and center must not be underestimated. While it is easier to opt for the quick and easy approach of purchasing a recommended solution, companies still need a comprehensive and evolving playbook to meet the ever-changing tactics of persistent, sophisticated and creative hackers.

While industry-wide cooperation may be a good thing, it’s vital for companies and insurers alike to recognize that any security program or service is fallible. Without an equal investment in functional cybersecurity, which places as much store in training employees and keeping aware of new threats, the rise in breaches and compromises will continue.

This article originally appeared on Inc.com.

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