Email security in COVID-19 times

Issue 5 2020 Cyber Security

Across the globe businesses have devolved employees to remote working sites in unprecedented numbers. This move in itself has skyrocketed cybersecurity risk and vulnerability potential, making an increase in the variety and volume of attacks inevitable.

Cyber resilience strategies coupled with fortified cybersecurity awareness training will be critical to keeping businesses operating efficiently, if not actually ensuring they survive the COVID pandemic.

International research* of 1025 IT decision makers, conducted from February through March 2020, has provided useful insights into the current state of email security. Participants were interviewed from the USA, UK, Germany, Netherlands, Australia, South Africa, United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Saudi Arabia. The study was further augmented by the screening of more than 1 billion emails* a day. Key findings were highlighted, along with prescriptive guidance on how to evolve cyber resilience programmes.


MJ Strydom.

In 2020, threats are impacting organisations at every level. The report provides a glimpse of how email attacks – from phishing and business email compromise, to ransomware and internal email threats – rise and fall based on the latest strategies devised by cyber criminals, also referred to as threat actors. Sophisticated attacks are arriving inside business environments via the email perimeter. The study indicates that 60% of organisations surveyed believe it’s inevitable that they will suffer from an email-borne attack in the coming year.

Impersonation fraud increased by 30% in the first 100 days of COVID-19 – a staggering statistic. The report also notes that governments worldwide are cautioning against observed increases in impersonation attempts with the FBI in the USA cautioning that business email compromise is expected to increase due to threat actors’ ability to take advantage of the global pandemic.

Continued prevalence was noted of threat actors’ use of pattern-of-life analysis to track social media sites, such as LinkedIn, to target individuals within organisations who may have access to executive and financial systems. In terms of phishing generally, 72% of respondents stated it remained flat or increased in the last 12 months at their companies – which is a jump from the 69% recorded in 2019.

Spear phishing – the act of sending emails or electronic communications with malicious intent to a specific individual or organisation – is said to increase the cyber threat actors’ probability of success, up to 75%. These acts are usually intended to steal data for malevolent purposes but are also a means by which cybercriminals may attempt to install malware on targeted users’ computers.

According to Gartner responding to COVID-19 remains the biggest challenge for most security organisations in 2020. Gartner*** has identified top response trends of leading organisations that highlight strategic shifts in the security ecosystem that aren’t yet widely recognised but are expected to have broad industry impact and significant potential for disruption.

CISOs are advised to understand these trends to practise strong planning and execution of security initiatives. The most significant ongoing major security challenges are highlighted to be technical staff shortages; rapid migration to cloud computing; regulatory compliance requirements and the unrelenting evolution of threats.

They report the observance of nine security trends during this period:

1. Extended detection and response capabilities emerge to improve accuracy and productivity.

2. Security process automation emerges to eliminate repetitive tasks.

3. AI creates new security responsibilities for protecting digital business initiatives.

4. Enterprise-level chief security officers (CSOs) emerge to bring together multiple security-oriented silos.

5. Privacy is becoming a discipline of its own.

6. New ‘digital trust and safety’ teams focus on maintaining the integrity of all interactions where a consumer meets the brand.

7. Network security transforms from the focus on LAN-based appliance models to SASE.

8. A full life cycle approach for protection of the dynamic requirements of cloud-native applications.

9. Zero-trust network access technology begins to replace VPNs.

While cyber resilience strategies vary from company to company – and certainly they differ across sectors depending on the regulatory or industry needs – they reflect a sense of awareness and preparedness about what threats might come their way. This year, data suggests a high level of confidence in the respondents’ cyber resilience strategies, but it also shows a clear need for improvement given we’re still seeing significant levels of data loss and downtime.

The state of email security in 2020 is unlike any other year – there is no longer any such thing as business as usual. At the close of 2019, many IT and security decision makers were planning to bolster their security posture with protections at the email gateway within their organisations to protect employees and customers, and beyond their organisations’ four walls to uphold brand trust. These protections are still underway; in fact, they are more critical than ever. At the same time, comprehensive data indicates a severely negative impact to businesses in the first half of 2020, with the expectation of it to continue through the year. Threat actors are relying heavily on impersonation and brand exploitation to take advantage of uncertainty during the pandemic.

The usual email and web security defences are no longer good enough; to prevent and protect a business against attack, now and in the future, it’s critical to implement security awareness training as a strategic objective within businesses.

For more information contact DRS, mj@drs.co.za, www.drs.co.za

* https://www.mimecast.com/globalassets/cyber-resilience-content/the_state_of_email_security_report_2020.pdf

** 100 Days of COVID, Mimecast Threat Center

*** https://www.gartner.com/smarterwithgartner/gartner-top-9-security-and-risk-trends-for-2020/




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