April 17, 2019 By Douglas Bonderud 2 min read

In a new U.K.-based study, 100 percent of test spear phishing attacks gained access to sensitive university data in less than two hours.

That’s the word from joint efforts by nonprofit research firm Jisc and the U.K.’s Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), which evaluated 173 higher education providers recently. As noted by We Live Security/ESET, researchers were able to “reach student and staff personal information, override financial systems and access research databases,” often in less than an hour. Jisc also achieved perfect scores in breaching security when spear phishing was part of the test attack.

For Your Immediate Attention

Well-designed phishing attacks worked against both students and staff. The Jisc/HEPI report noted that “particularly at the start of the academic year, there has been an increase in student grant fraud.” In this type of attack, students receive emails promising free grant money if they supply banking details or click through to malicious attachments.

Staff members, meanwhile, are often sent supposedly urgent documents they need to unlock using university credentials, effectively giving attackers unfettered network access. Using available social data and published department structures on university websites enabled white-hat hackers to create custom-built emails that bypassed security at every participating institution.

It’s also worth noting that post-secondary distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks are on the rise. In 2018, HEPI reported more than 1,000 DDoS attacks across 241 U.K. education and research facilities. These attacks are doubly concerning: As Jisc noted, data availability is critical to school success, especially during “clearing,” which sees unfilled university spaces matched with new student candidates.

Inability to access course or applicant data during this time could be financially and reputationally devastating. In addition, DDoS attacks are often used to mask other threat vectors. For example, a high-volume DDoS attack could increase the efficacy of spear phishing efforts by shifting security focus away from email compromise.

Avoiding the Hook of Spear Phishing

While higher learning institutions were the target industry in Jisc’s study, the lesson is applicable at scale: Well-written phishing emails are corporate compromise kryptonite.

Avoiding the spear phishing hook starts with recognizing the critical link between employees and email. Most users believe they’re above average when it comes to recognizing the danger signs of phishing, but this doesn’t pan out in practice. By implementing low-key warning processes that recognize key phishing tactics, companies can ensure staff are notified without fighting the “it won’t happen to me” battle.

IBM security experts also recommend implementing identity and access management (IAM) solutions that leverage user behavior analytics (UBA) to identify normal user behaviors and sound the alarm if strange access requests or odd resource use patterns emerge.

More from

What cybersecurity pros can learn from first responders

4 min read - Though they may initially seem very different, there are some compelling similarities between cybersecurity professionals and traditional first responders like police and EMTs. After all, in a world where a cyberattack on critical infrastructure could cause untold damage and harm, cyber responders must be ready for anything.But are they actually prepared? Compared to the readiness of traditional first responders, how do cybersecurity professionals in incident response stand up? Let’s dig deeper into whether the same sense of urgency exists in…

Unified endpoint management for purpose-based devices

4 min read - As purpose-built devices become increasingly common, the challenges associated with their unique management and security needs are becoming clear. What are purpose-built devices? Most fall under the category of rugged IoT devices typically used outside of an office environment and which often run on a different operating system than typical office devices. Examples include ruggedized tablets and smartphones, handheld scanners and kiosks. Many different industries are utilizing purpose-built devices, including travel and transportation, retail, warehouse and distribution, manufacturing (including automotive)…

Stealthy WailingCrab Malware misuses MQTT Messaging Protocol

14 min read - This article was made possible thanks to the hard work of writer Charlotte Hammond and contributions from Ole Villadsen and Kat Metrick. IBM X-Force researchers have been tracking developments to the WailingCrab malware family, in particular, those relating to its C2 communication mechanisms, which include misusing the Internet-of-Things (IoT) messaging protocol MQTT. WailingCrab, also known as WikiLoader, is a sophisticated, multi-component malware delivered almost exclusively by an initial access broker that X-Force tracks as Hive0133, which overlaps with TA544. WailingCrab…

Operationalize cyber risk quantification for smart security

4 min read - Organizations constantly face new tactics from cyber criminals who aim to compromise their most valuable assets. Yet despite evolving techniques, many security leaders still rely on subjective terms, such as low, medium and high, to communicate and manage cyber risk. These vague terms do not convey the necessary detail or insight to produce actionable outcomes that accurately identify, measure, manage and communicate cyber risks. As a result, executives and board members remain uninformed and ill-prepared to manage organizational risk effectively.…

Topic updates

Get email updates and stay ahead of the latest threats to the security landscape, thought leadership and research.
Subscribe today