Proofpoint's Human Factor Report 2019 has been released. It looks at the social engineering and factoring of human reactions carried out by bad actors to further their onslaught of malware and attacks.
Most notably the research found that less than 1% of attacks observed in the past year exploited a hardware or software vulnerability. That means the majority required some form of human intervention -- a link that was clicked or an attachment opened -- to take effect. The research also identifies the type of workers and industries being targeted, breaks down the social engineering tricks behind these attacks, and calls out what companies need to do to stop these attacks.
Proofpoint found that instead of attacking computer systems and infrastructure, threat actors were focused on people, their roles within an organization, the data to which they had access, and their likelihood to "click here" or perform some other enabling action.
Whether attacking at a massive scale in large, indiscriminate campaigns, going after special industries or geographies with more targeted campaigns, or seeking out a single person within an organization, Proofpoint observed that attackers (and their sponsors) consistently found human beings to be the most effective vectors to infiltrate organizations and therefore facilitate fraud and theft.
Over 99% of emails distributing malware required human intervention -- following links, opening documents, accepting security warnings, and other behaviors -- for them to be effective.
Proofpoint identified "Very Attacked People" (VAPs) that represent significant areas of risk for organizations. They tend to be either easily discovered identities or targets of opportunity like shared public accounts. Of the identified VAPs, 36% of the associated identities could be found online via corporate websites, social media, publications, and more.
VAPs are not necessarily high-profile individuals like VIPs who are C-level executives. Only 7% of executive emails could be found online.
For the VIPs who are also VAPs, Proofpoint discovered that almost 23% of their email identities could be discovered simply by a Google search.
Malware distribution is focused on establishing a silent foothold in organizations to commit fraud rather than simply smash-and-grab via ransomware attacks.
Generic email harvesting accounted for almost 25% of all phishing schemes in 2018. In 2019, Microsoft Office 365 phishing has been the top scheme, but the focus remains credential harvesting.
The most effective phishing lures in 2018 were dominated by "Brain Food," a diet and brain enhancement affiliate scam that harvested credit cards. 2019 has seen a shift in terms of effectiveness towards cloud storage, DocuSign, and Microsoft cloud service phishing.
2018 saw impostor attacks at their highest levels in the engineering, automotive and education sectors. Proofpoint thinks that this likely reflects easily exploited supply chain complexities in the first two as well as high-value targets and user vulnerabilities -- think students -- in the latter.
Tactics such as building rapport with attacked individuals, multiple points of contact and creating a sense of urgency, among others, began appearing more frequently in attacks involving commodity malware. This mimicked the personalization needed to make a victim respond to a bait email.
In summary, Proofpoint thinks that people remain the primary target of attackers and the last line of defense for organizations. A focus on people, as well as more traditional layers of security and training, will be critical to a holistic approach to defense.
— Larry Loeb has written for many of the last century's major "dead tree" computer magazines, having been, among other things, a consulting editor for BYTE magazine and senior editor for the launch of WebWeek.