Pratum Blog

Employees sitting at conference room table talking

Every year, Pratum consultants review information security policies for dozens of organizations as part of regular risk assessments. And while no two organizations are exactly alike, we do find one consistent theme: Most clients need to do some serious work on their information security policies. The policies are often incomplete, badly outdated or missing altogether. That means that strengthening your security posture should start by checking whether you have the following essential policies, which our consultants have ranked in rough priority order. (And, of course, you need to actually follow the policies you have in place.)

1. Information Security Policy

Start with this foundational document. It provides an overview of the topics that you can develop further in the specific documents listed below as your program matures. Your Information Security Policy covers the top-line aspects of areas such as acceptable use, password management, access control, encryption, etc.

2. Acceptable Use Policy

These are the basic rules for everyone in your organization. Make sure the policy is clear and concise and that every employee reads it and signs it on their first day of work. Writing this policy and sharing it with each employee ensures that you can enforce critical security rules in the future.

3. Incident Response Plan

Don’t start thinking about how to handle a data breach on the day you discover one. A written IR plan helps you anticipate potential issues and create a detailed checklist that tells everyone what to do when stress is running high. A recent IBM study found that organizations with a written IR plan reduced the cost of a breach by 55%. A good plan identifies your response team in advance and clearly describes each person’s duties, along with how the team will coordinate efforts. Use this guide to start creating your plan.

4. Access Authorization and Identity Access Management

Hackers always hope that compromising one set of credentials will give them access to your entire environment. You prevent that by limiting each user’s access to no more than the data they need to do their job. Write a policy for determining what access every user gets, and be sure to include a plan for regularly updating access when people switch jobs, leave the organization, etc.

5. Business Continuity/Disaster Response

Closely related to the IR plan is this policy that anticipates how you’ll avoid serious operational interruptions in a variety of scenarios. Your BC/DR plan lays out the business impact of various threats and describes how you’ll pivot to restore critical operations as quickly as possible. Be sure to plan for testing to confirm that your plans hold up in real life.

6. Risk Management Policy

This document explains your organization’s overall approach to evaluating and remediating risks. The policy will explain how you identify risks, measure their likelihood and impact, set strategies for handling them, etc.

7. Vendor and Third-Party Management

The security of your key suppliers and partners is your problem, too. If a key supplier suffers a breach, you may lose access to essential supplies and services. If one of your software suppliers gets breached, your own system could be infected with malware unwittingly delivered by someone you trust. You need a policy for reviewing the security posture of all third parties, whether that’s following your own security questionnaire or requiring something like a SOC 2 report.

8. Change Management

Who has authority to change IT elements such as firewall settings or approve a new piece of software? Your policy should ensure that only qualified people have that authority, and that proposed changes are reviewed by the appropriate stakeholders to avoid unintended consequences.

9. Security Awareness and Training

You can choose to view your end users either as the biggest threat to your security or as your biggest team of frontline defenders. That means you need a plan for purposefully educating each employee on critical security issues, with an emphasis on the “why” so everyone knows how it affects them.

10. Password Policy

Your end users interact with this policy multiple times a day as they log into their systems. Yet password policies are still widely overlooked. Compromised credentials remain one of the top ways hackers get into a system. And if you’re wondering how robust most password policies are, consider that the most popular password in 2021 was “123456.” The second most popular was “password.” Make time to update your policy to require strong passwords.

If you need expert help in reviewing your existing policies or writing new ones, contact us today to talk to a Pratum cybersecurity consultant.

Computer caught by fishing hook

Phishing has pumped up its frequency to being present in 36% of breaches (up from 25% last year).

2021 Verizon Data Breach Investigations Report

Network end users are frontline defenders that form a critical component of an organization's information security program. That’s why all cybersecurity training materials include sections on how to spot phishing, which is both rampant and increasingly sophisticated in the methods used to lure victims. When our consultants evaluate risk within an organization and discuss their phishing awareness and training efforts, we typically see advice such as “Don't click on suspicious links” and “Hover the mouse pointer over links in an email to check whether it is legitimate.” But how do you know whether a link and the associated Uniform Resource Locator (URL) lead to a legitimate site?

To evaluate links and URLs, you should understand generic Top-Level Domains (gTLDs), country code TLDs (ccTLDs), and other types of Internet domains. This article covers the basics about reading and interpreting links/URLs.

What Does "www1" Mean?

A web address looks pretty suspicious if you see “www1” or “www2” (or some other number) in the URL. But that's not a definite red flag. Some web sites may be very popular and, therefore, have multiple servers working in a load-balancing configuration to serve content when requested. Some companies choose to number their servers. So, if you see a www1 or www2, you’re just seeing which server # among multiple servers is providing the content. Seeing a www1, www2, etc., is not in itself an indicator of a phishing site.

One way to teach users to look for indicators like these is by developing a customized training program that includes phishing awareness and testing. A training consultant can develop a set of simulated phishing messages that help users learn to spot red flags. When users click the simulated malicious links, the program can point them to additional training.

How Links/URLs are Formed

So what’s the key to reading URLs in links? The basic answer is that interpreting the URL means focusing on the important stuff between the double forward-slash “//” and the first single slash, primarily in the highlighted area shown below.

The structure of a link/URL

Note: The framework above is the basic URL breakdown. In place of http:// or https://, you may see ftp:// or news://. These are different types of transfer protocols. In addition, though “www” appears in many URLs, it is not a required component. You may see additional fields prior to the generic top-level domain and secondary domain/server name. (After the first single forward slash, you’ll find less critical things such as directories, subdirectories, filenames and file types.)

Example Links/URLs

With that background information in mind, let’s look at some examples.

1. http://www.amazon.com

This is a well-known site, and the URL doesn’t include any suspicious modifications.
Assessment: LEGIT!

2. http://www.ama.zon.com/gp/cart/view.html/ref=nav_cart

URLs can be formed in almost any fashion, which makes it easy for site owners to build unique site names. It also makes it easy for phishers to build site names that closely approximate legitimate site names.

In this example, a period makes all the difference. If a person clicked on the link above, they wouldn’t go to amazon.com. The link leads to the site zon.com, which could be a site registered by phishers.
Assessment: SUSPECT!

3. http://This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it./catalog

In this case, a person would be directed to IP address 66.161.153.155, not amazon.com. If you see a link/URL with an “@” sign, be particularly careful. Phishers routinely use this URL-manipulation tactic.
Assessment: SUSPECT!

4. http://209.131.36.158/amazon.com/index.jsp

This URL is somewhat similar in function to #3 above. It leads to the IP address, not amazon.com, which is listed after the first single forward slash.
Assessment: SUSPECT!

5. http://www.google.com/url?q=http://www.badsite.com

This URL would refer a person from one site (in this case, google.com) to another site, badsite.com (note the “=http://” nomenclature that allows this). Referrals are not in themselves bad, but a referral could lead to a phishing site. In this case, badsite.com doesn’t look legitimate.
Assessment: SUSPECT!

To help users quickly determine the top-level and secondary domains within a URL, some companies and organizations have started to use “domain highlighting.” When a user visits a site, part of the URL will dim after a few seconds, leaving the top-level and secondary domains dark. For example:

PayPal domain

It’s always good to look for these signs of a legitimate, secure site:

  • closed padlock
  • https://
  • company name highlighted in green within the URL (such as in the PayPal example above).

If a site’s certificate is expired or otherwise invalid, some browsers, such as Internet Explorer and Firefox, or security services, will warn users. Is it safe to proceed through the warning? In this case, use other available indicators (review the URL again) to help determine whether the site is legitimate. If in doubt, do not proceed.

Why Country Domains Matter

Fifty-four countries have chosen to allow their ccTLDs to be used for commercial purposes. For example, .co, the ccTLD for Colombia, can be used in place of .com. It’s very popular, due to the burgeoning .com domain, and allows businesses to have alternative ways to form website names.

Have you seen the URL http://o.co? That’s Overstock.com providing an alternate way for you to get to the company through your browser.

You may have seen youtu.be. That’s a legitimate URL, registered by Google using Belgium’s ccTLD, .be.

Much of the entertainment industry uses Tavalu’s ccTLD, .TV. It’s a great way for the island nation to make money.

When trying to determine whether a site is legitimate, realize that many ccTLDs are also used for commercial purposes. What looks like a suspicious site could be, in fact, legitimate. However, ccTLDs can also be used to form names for phishing sites, so when in doubt, don’t click!

A Short History of Generic Top-Level Domains

We are all used to seeing gTLDs. We use them almost every day, including familiar ones such as .com, .gov and .edu. They are a key part of the structure of the Internet. They are also well understood by phishers, who manipulate URLs for fraudulent use. To best assess links within emails, as well as URLs within browsers, it’s good to know how the various domains have evolved and how they work.

In 1984, Request for Comments (RFC) 920 was used to define the original “general purpose domains”: .com, .gov, .mil, .edu, and .org. Another domain, .net, was added in early 1985 and is also considered one of the “original” domains. In 1988, .int (international) was added to meet the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s request for a domain. Over the years, other domains were added, such as .biz and .info (2001). By early 2011, 22 gTLDs had been established. In June 2011, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) voted to remove many of the restrictions on gTLD applications and implementation, effectively opening the door for almost any gTLD to be used. Under the new rules, there are currently about 1,500 gTLDs, including .auto, .computer, .network, .social, .pizza, .organic, registered and cleared for use on the Internet. According to some security experts, this evolution in gTLDs is considered a gift to phishers because it will allow them to form a multitude of new phishing websites. For a full listing of the expanded gTLDs, see the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) Root Zone Database (https://www.iana.org/domains/root/db).

Country Code TLDs

Country code TLDs are also part of many URLs, and, therefore, one can expect to see them in links on occasion. Countries have ccTLDs to help distinguish what country a site is registered in or originates from. For example, the ccTLD for the United States, .us, is often used by state and local governments. Other ccTLD examples are Australia, .au; Japan, .jp; and United Kingdom, .uk. When reading a link or URL, realize that the location of the ccTLD within the URL could shift (at the end of a URL, such as http://www.gov.uk, or earlier in a URL, such as https ://uk.news.yahoo.com).

Conclusion

Phishing continues to be a global problem, exacerbated by users who are unaware of phishing tactics, increasingly sophisticated phishing methods, and now, an increasing set of generic Top-Level Domains. Though links in emails aren’t phishers’ only method, they’re very common. To reduce the risks posed by phishing, you should know how to interpret links and the associated URLs.

If you are interested in learning more about social engineering, awareness and training, and risk assessment services, please contact us today.

Can You Spot E-mail Phishing? Awareness Poster

PhishingPoster

There are a number of key issues to search for in an e-mail to help identify if it is malicious. This poster will help your employees learn how to spot them.

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Intrusion Detection System

At one time, everyone considered intrusion detection (IDS) or prevention (IPS) systems critical to overall information security success. But in recent years, observers keep declaring IDS/IPS dead, only to see it keep hanging on. And while we’re still not ready to bury IDS/IPS today, we DO urge you to consider how you’re deploying these tools within your overall information security strategy. Without proper tuning and deployment, IDS/IPS solutions can't do their jobs properly. And the current landscape of cloud computing and dispersed workforces means protection tied to a firewall misses a lot of activity. Read on to learn how to properly leverage IDS/IPS in a modern environment.

How IDS/IPS Works

The goal of IDS is to detect cyberattacks by analyzing the signature of data packets as they traverse the network. When the system detects a suspicious packet, it generates an alert. IDS is a passive tool that simply detects and alerts. IPS goes a step farther by adding an active protection method of adapting to the threat and blocking the traffic from reaching the intended victim host. Most IDS/IPS solutions are now available as a bundle with your firewall subscription.

Intrusion Detection System Diagram showing how Endpoint Detection and Response will protect workstations that bypass company firewall

Weaknesses in IDS and IPS Systems

To effectively use IDS/IPS systems, you should be aware of a couple of inherent limitations:

  • They rely on signatures, which means they only watch for what you tell them to. These systems require constant tuning to keep up with changing attack vectors used by cybercriminals. Tuning signatures to eliminate false positives and alert fatigue is a full-time job. In fact, there’s an entire industry providing these services. Even if you purchase these feeds of updated signatures, you still need to test and tweak them to match each unique environment. This explains why most IT teams use IDS rather than IPS. They don’t have time to tune the system, so they just skip the protection tools rather than risk constant business interruptions caused by false positives.
  • They can see only traffic that passes by them. All too often, we see IDS/IPS implementations provide a false sense of security to an organization because of poor network design. Organizations frequently rely on a unified threat management (UTM) type of firewall to provide their IPS. In that setup, the IPS sees only the traffic that is routed through the firewall. Most of the time, this is only internet traffic to the DMZ servers (such as websites and email) and outbound traffic to the internet from the workstations on the local network.

    While a UTM setup is a start, it leaves major gaps in coverage. The setup typically lacks monitoring within security zones or between local workstations, servers and remote workforces. You may have compromised systems attempting to breach other internal systems, but you can’t see it because the IPS isn’t privy to the traffic on those network segments without it passing through the IDS/IPS.

How to Use IDS/IPS Effectively

Follow these steps to ensure that these tools provide the protection you’re expecting:

  • Get a risk assessment. Many organizations implement IDS/IPS simply to fulfill a compliance checkbox. But you need a full information security risk assessment to get a true picture of your organizational risk. Plus, you may still be non-compliant with IDS/IPS in place because most compliance requirements such as HIPAA, PCI, FISMA, etc. require a risk assessment.
  • Ingest IDS/IPS data into your SIEM. Your SIEM provides a centralized log and alerting system for the entire environment. An IDS keeps its own logs, but how often are you looking at them? By ingesting the IDS/IPS data into your SIEM, you’ll have a clear look at what’s happening. This process will probably show you just how noisy most IDS/IPS’ are in terms of alerts generated, which will probably motivate you to do some tuning.
  • Add EDR (endpoint detection and response). Protection tied to your firewall doesn’t account for today’s distributed workforces. Many of your users now work remotely, which means their activities never pass through your corporate firewall. The solution is EDR, which bundles active detection and response into each workstation. A full Managed Extended Detection and Response (XDR) system protects workstations, IoT devices, BYOD issues and more.
  • Leverage XDR to make IDS/IPS more effective. With the detailed information and correlation provided by XDR, you’ll be able to spot poorly tuned IDS/IPS, antivirus and other tools and make the right adjustments.

For help reviewing your security system’s architecture, contact us today.

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