Email security: why end users should never be the first line of defence

Opinion by Andrew Pearch

People's behaviour is unpredictable which is why Andrew Pearch recommends that a company's best defence is a front line built on technology, not training.

Why is it that cyber-security breaches always need a scapegoat?  All too often, end-users are held responsible when a cyber-criminal infiltrates an organisation via email. Whether it is the front-desk receptionist or the CEO, if an individual has been targeted, the attack can be (often unfairly) positioned as their fault. This way of thinking has inspired organisations to spend vast amounts of time and money educating end-users about IT and latterly cyber-security. The logic being, the biggest threat comes from within – if they can eliminate ‘reckless' end-user behaviour, they can prevent an attack.

This notion is clearly flawed. We don't blame people for getting mugged or burgled because they didn't know how to defend themselves. Email was designed for function, not security, and users shouldn't have to contend with IT defence issues in their daily work. Anyone can fall victim to a determined cyber-criminal. Even the most experienced and wary end-user is susceptible.

The email threat landscape

Email scams come in many different shapes and forms. They commonly involve some form of identity fraud to dupe the recipient into granting access sensitive information, or the transmission of malicious content to infect the end-user's computer and network. A very well-informed end-user may be able to spot clues indicating malicious intent, but new, more complex attack tactics are being developed all the time. Punycode, for example, can be extremely hard to detect. This sophisticated form of encoding uses Unicode characters as substitutes for regular alphabet characters, and can make fake URLs very difficult to recognise.

The point here is that there is a long list of possible routes for cyber-criminals to infiltrate an organisation via email. Given this complexity, it's impossible for a business to expect its employees, who have jobs they need to focus on, to act as a line of defence. The question is then, how can an organisation defend itself?

Fight fire with fire

As a starting point, organisations need to stop spending money on training users to act as a first line of defence. User training only perpetuates a culture of blame.  At most, they should be taught a healthy level of cynicism. No matter how many millions an organisation spends on training, all it takes is one small mistake to allow a criminal in. Something as innocuous as opening an infected attachment in an email, from someone impersonating a known and trusted sender, can cost an organisation much more than just money. After all, how can a user realistically be trained to be ‘careful' every time they open an attachment?

The next step lies in removing users completely from the line of defence. Instead, organisations need to implement quarantine tools to identify, isolate and remove email security threats before they can even reach an email server or user's inbox. Systems protected by solutions that can detect common fraud techniques like domain impersonation and reply redirection, as well as perform content checks to identify spam and malware, are immediately better protected than those reliant on end-user training.

What's more, advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning can help these solutions keep pace with the threat. Algorithms, combined with large training sets, can help solutions learn and improve through experience. Each attempted security breach enhances a solution's ability to accurately detect which emails are safe and which are compromised.

While people are arguably more intelligent than machines in certain situations, their behaviour is also more unpredictable. A company's best defence is robust email security solutions – a front line built on technology, not training.

Contributed by Andrew Pearch, head of information assurance services at CORVID  

*Note: The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of SC Media or Haymarket Media.


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