The successful use of phishing emails to breach secure organizations like Oak Ridge National Laboratory and RSA are stark reminders of the serious threat posed by what some experts have dismissed as as a low-tech method of attack.
Oak Ridge, a U.S. Department of Energy-run research lab, this week disclosed it had shut down all Internet access and email services after discovering a sophisticated data stealing malware program on its networks.
According to the lab, the breach originated in a phishing email that was sent to about 570 employees. The emails were disguised to appear as notes about benefits changes written by the lab's HR department. When a handful of employees clicked on the embedded link in the email, a malware program was downloaded onto their computers.
The malware exploited an unpatched flaw in Microsoft's Internet Explorer software, and was designed to search for and steal technical information from Oak Ridge, whose engineers are in the midst of an effort to build the world's fastest supercomputer.
A Oak Ridge official described the attack as being very similar to one that hit security vendor RSA last month.
That incident resulted in the theft of information about RSA's SecurID two-factor authentication technology. And a breach at Epsilon earlier this month, said to be the largest ever involving email addresses, is also suspected to have been caused by a targeted phishing campaign.
That hackers are able to penetrate such presumably well-protected organizations using low-tech, fake email methods points to the growing sophistication of targeted phishing campaigns and the continued tendency by enterprises to think that user education alone will mitigate the problem, analysts said.
"It doesn't surprise me at all," said Anup Ghosh founder of security firm Invincea. "Almost every publicized and self-declared Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) attack this year has been through phishing emails."
Such emails, in fact, now appear to be the preferred method for illegally breaking into corporate networks, he said.
"All you need to do is to get an email to a target. You only need a very low click through rate to establish several points of presence inside an organization," Ghosh said. "If you have 1,000 employees in your organization and you train them all on not opening untrusted attachments, you'll still have someone doing it. This is not a problem you can train yourself out of."
Exacerbating the issue is the growing sophistication of phishing campaigns, analysts note.
Increasingly, organized cybergroups have started using convincingly crafted emails to target high level executives and employees within the organizations they want to attack. In many cases, the phishing emails are personalized, localized and designed to appear like they originated from a source trusted.
Ghosh said he received such an email just last week. The message, which was sent to his personal account and appeared to be sent by a close friend, included a link that purportedly would take him to a set of photographs of the friend's daughter's birthday. The email even contained the first name of the friend's daughter.
There were some red flags in the email, but Ghosh noticed them only after clicking on the link. At first glance, he said, "It was convincing enough for me."
The fact that some form of phishing has been a part of many recent hacks is troubling, said Pete Lindstrom, an analyst with Spire Security. "We all seem to be failing at basic things, which points to the possibility that they aren't really basic," he said.
Companies must routinely log and monitor networks for data leaks enabled by such phishing campaigns, he said.
In phishing attacks, companies should focus more on response and containment rather than just prevention said Rich Mogull, an analyst with Securosis.
In such attacks, companies are often dealing with adversaries with vast resources, patience and money. Often, such adversaries are willing to keep on trying until they break in. "It's nearly impossible to keep someone like that out of your organization," he said.
Therefore, IT security personnel should focus on minimizing damage, Mogull said. For example, companies should consider compartmentalizing networks and building "air gaps" between critical components and data to make it harder for intruders to hop around inside the network, he said.
Also key is the need for companies to extensively monitor inernal networks to ensure that data is not being leaked out, he said.
"Targeted phishing attacks aren't all that low-tech anymore," said John Pescatore, an analyst at Gartner.
Increasingly, information from social networking sites such as LinkedIn and Facebook is used to make the targeted phishing attacks harder to detect, he said. "With all the personal information and friend's lists people expose on those sites, it is not that hard to craft a very personal sounding email," Pescatore added.
In addition, Web security efforts, especially within government agencies and research labs like Oak Ridge, often focus on issues such as URL blocking to prevent access to porn and illegal sites rather than on blocking suspicious incoming mail, he said.
"This leaves them more open to damage if a user does fall for a phishing email, and at some point an employee always will fall for one," he said. "Twenty-five years of trying to rely on awareness and education has proven that over and over again."
Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan, or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His e-mail address is email@example.com.