Advice from Hackers at Black Hat

At the recent Black Hat USA conference, CIO asked 250 self-identified hackers for their opinion on security solutions. The answers are a good indicator for what works to protect your organization. Of all the technologies out there, the responders identified multi-factor authentication and high-level encryption as the two that are hardest to get past – 38 and 32 percent, respectively – making them the two best tools an organization can use to thwart attackers. The lesson? Your organization should invest in multi-factor authentication and strong encryption for data at rest and data in motion to make the attackers’ job much more difficult.

Another surprising revelation – more than 90 percent of respondents find intrusion prevention systems, firewalls, and anti-virus easy to overcome. This is because attackers use technologies to encode their payload (i.e. disguise their software so it isn’t detected). They also realize that it is much easier to ‘hack’ the weakest link, the human element. Let’s say an attacker shows up and tells the receptionist she has an interview. Then the attacker explains, with an exasperated look on her face, that she didn’t have time to swing by a print shop to print her resume. The attacker then asks the receptionist to print it. As human beings, we feel empathy and we want to help. The receptionist sticks the USB drive into a computer, finds the resume, and prints it – firing off the payload attached to the USB document.

Does this mean that the money and man hours spent on firewalls, intrusion prevention systems, and antivirus is wasted? The answer is no. These technologies help thwart the most basic and greatest number of automated attempts at breaking into your organization. The example I used above is called a social engineering attack. Attackers will put together payloads and either email them out, attach them to resumes and apply for jobs, or physically go to your location and drop USBs on the ground. In fact, 85 percent of those surveyed prefer these types of attacks because of how successful they are. Each of these attacks makes your perimeter security useless. CIOs and ISOs need to harden the internal security of their organization as well. They need to train their employees for these types of attacks, tell them what to look out for, and breed an environment where it is okay and even expected to challenge people.

Understanding your network and the actions that attackers take to compromise your environment will help your organization develop contingency plans. These contingency plans will help your organization maintain a resilient network. You can’t just protect your network and expect that to be enough anymore. The question all leaders in security should be asking is, “what do we do when an attacker gets in and how do we lessen the damage done to our organization?”

That is the beginning of building a resilient network.