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Employees and Email: How Considering User Experience Strengthens Email Security

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10
Apr 2023
10
Apr 2023
As the practical users of email, employees should be considered when designing email security. This employee-conscious lens to security can strengthen defenses, improve productivity, and prevent data loss.

When considering email security, IT teams have historically had to choose between excluding employees entirely, or including them but giving them too much power and implementing unenforceable, trust-based policies that try to make up for it. 

However, just because email security should not rely on employees, this does not mean they should be excluded entirely. Employees are the ones interacting with emails daily, and their experiences and behaviors can provide valuable security insights and even influence productivity. 

AI technology supports employee engagement in this non-intrusive, nuanced way to not only maintain email security, but also enhance it. 

Finding a Balance of Employee Involvement in Security Strategies

Historically, security solutions offered ‘all or nothing’ approaches to employee engagement. On one hand, when employees are involved, they are unreliable. Employees cannot all be experts in security on top of their actual job responsibilities, and mistakes are bound to happen in fast-paced environments.  

Although there have been attempts to raise security awareness, they often have shortcomings, as training emails lack context and realism, leaving employees with poor understandings that often lead to reporting emails that are actually safe. Having users constantly triaging their inboxes and reporting safe emails wastes time that takes away from their own productivity as well as the productivity of the security team.

Other historic forms of employee involvement also put security at risk. For example, users could create blanket rules through feedback, which could lead to common problems like safe-listing every email that comes from the gmail.com domain. Other times, employees could choose for themselves to release emails without context or limitations, introducing major risks to the organization. While these types of actions include employees to participate in security, they do so at the cost of security. 

Even lower stakes employee involvement can prove ineffective. For example, excessive warnings when sending emails to external contacts can lead to banner fatigue. When employees see the same warning message or alert at the top of every message, it’s human nature that they soon become accustomed and ultimately immune to it.

On the other hand, when employees are fully excluded from security, an opportunity is missed to fine-tune security according to the actual users and to gain feedback on how well the email security solution is working. 

So, both options of historically conventional email security, to include or exclude employees, prove incapable of leveraging employees effectively. The best email security practice strikes a balance between these two extremes, allowing more nuanced interactions that maintain security without interrupting daily business operations. This can be achieved with AI that tailors the interactions specifically to each employee to add to security instead of detracting from it. 

Reducing False Reports While Improving Security Awareness Training 

Humans and AI-powered email security can simultaneously level up by working together. AI can inform employees and employees can inform AI in an employee-AI feedback loop.  

By understanding ‘normal’ behavior for every email user, AI can identify unusual, risky components of an email and take precise action based on the nature of the email to neutralize them, such as rewriting links, flattening attachments, and moving emails to junk. AI can go one step further and explain in non-technical language why it has taken a specific action, which educates users. In contrast to point-in-time simulated phishing email campaigns, this means AI can share its analysis in context and in real time at the moment a user is questioning an email. 

The employee-AI feedback loop educates employees so that they can serve as additional enrichment data. It determines the appropriate levels to inform and teach users, while not relying on them for threat detection

In the other direction, the AI learns from users’ activity in the inbox and gradually factors this into its decision-making. This is not a ‘one size fits all’ mechanism – one employee marking an email as safe will never result in blanket approval across the business – but over time, patterns can be observed and autonomous decision-making enhanced.  

Figure 1: The employee-AI feedback loop increases employee understanding without putting security at risk.

The employee-AI feedback loop draws out the maximum potential benefits of employee involvement in email security. Other email security solutions only consider the security team, enhancing its workflow but never considering the employees that report suspicious emails. Employees who try to do the right thing but blindly report emails never learn or improve and end up wasting their own time. By considering employees and improving security awareness training, the employee-AI feedback loop can level up users. They learn from the AI explanations how to identify malicious components, and so then report fewer emails but with greater accuracy. 

While AI programs have classically acted like black boxes, Darktrace trains its AI on the best data, the organization’s actual employees, and invites both the security team and employees to see the reasoning behind its conclusions. Over time, employees will trust themselves more as they better learn how to discern unsafe emails. 

Leveraging AI to Generate Productivity Gains

Uniquely, AI-powered email security can have effects outside of security-related areas. It can save time by managing non-productive email. As the AI constantly learns employee behavior in the inbox, it becomes extremely effective at detecting spam and graymail – emails that aren't necessarily malicious, but clutter inboxes and hamper productivity. It does this on a per-user basis, specific to how each employee treats spam, graymail, and newsletters. The AI learns to detect this clutter and eventually learns which to pull from the inbox, saving time for the employees. This highlights how security solutions can go even further than merely protecting the email environment with a light touch, to the point where AI can promote productivity gains by automating tasks like inbox sorting.

Preventing Email Mishaps: How to Deal with Human Error

Improved user understanding and decision making cannot stop natural human error. Employees are bound to make mistakes and can easily send emails to the wrong people, especially when Outlook auto-fills the wrong recipient. This can have effects ranging anywhere from embarrassing to critical, with major implications on compliance, customer trust, confidential intellectual property, and data loss. 

However, AI can help reduce instances of accidentally sending emails to the wrong people. When a user goes to send an email in Outlook, the AI will analyze the recipients. It considers the contextual relationship between the sender and recipients, the relationships the recipients have with each other, how similar each recipient’s name and history is to other known contacts, and the names of attached files.  

If the AI determines that the email is outside of a user’s typical behavior, it may alert the user. Security teams can customize what the AI does next: it can block the email, block the email but allow the user to override it, or do nothing but invite the user to think twice. Since the AI analyzes each email, these alerts are more effective than consistent, blanket alerts warning about external recipients, which often go ignored. With this targeted approach, the AI prevents data leakage and reduces cyber risk. 

Since the AI is always on and continuously learning, it can adapt autonomously to employee changes. If the role of an employee evolves, the AI will learn the new normal, including common behaviors, recipients, attached file names, and more. This allows the AI to continue effectively flagging potential instances of human error, without needing manual rule changes or disrupting the employee’s workflow. 

Email Security Informed by Employee Experience

As the practical users of email, employees should be considered when designing email security. This employee-conscious lens to security can strengthen defenses, improve productivity, and prevent data loss.  

In these ways, email security can benefit both employees and security teams. Employees can become another layer of defense with improved security awareness training that cuts down on false reports of safe emails. This insight into employee email behavior can also enhance employee productivity by learning and sorting graymail. Finally, viewing security in relation to employees can help security teams deploy tools that reduce data loss by flagging misdirected emails. With these capabilities, Darktrace/Email™ enables security teams to optimize the balance of employee involvement in email security.

EINBLICKE IN DAS SOC-Team
Darktrace Cyber-Analysten sind erstklassige Experten für Threat Intelligence, Threat Hunting und Incident Response. Sie bieten Tausenden von Darktrace Kunden auf der ganzen Welt rund um die Uhr SOC-Support. Einblicke in das SOC-Team wird ausschließlich von diesen Experten verfasst und bietet Analysen von Cyber-Vorfällen und Bedrohungstrends, die auf praktischen Erfahrungen in diesem Bereich basieren.
AUTOR
ÜBER DEN AUTOR
Dan Fein
VP, Produkt

Based in New York, Dan joined Darktrace’s technical team in 2015, helping customers quickly achieve a complete and granular understanding of Darktrace’s product suite. Dan has a particular focus on Darktrace/Email, ensuring that it is effectively deployed in complex digital environments, and works closely with the development, marketing, sales, and technical teams. Dan holds a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from New York University.

Carlos Gray
Product Manager

Carlos Gonzalez Gray is a Product Marketing Manager at Darktrace. Based in the Madrid Office, Carlos engages with the global product team to ensure each product supports the company’s overall strategy and goals throughout their entire lifecycle. Previous to his position in the product team, Carlos worked as a Cyber Technology Specialist where he specialized in the OT sector protecting critical infrastructure.  His background as a consultant in Spain to IBEX 35 companies led him to become well versed in matters of compliance, auditing and data privacy as well. Carlos holds an Honors BA in Political Science and a Masters in Cybersecurity from IE University.

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Customer Blog: Community Housing Limited Enhancing Incident Response

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04
Mar 2024

About Community Housing Limited

Community Housing Limited is a non-profit organization based in Australia that focuses on providing affordable, long-term housing and creating employment opportunities where possible. We give people the security of having a home so that they can focus on other essential pathways. As such, we are responsible for sensitive information on our clients.

As part of our commitment to strengthening our cyber security, we sought to simplify and unify our incident response plans and equip our engineers and desktop support teams with all the information we need at our fingertips.

Why Community Housing Limited chose Darktrace

Our team hoped to achieve a response procedure that allowed us to have oversight over any potential security risks, even cases that don’t overtly seem like a security risk. For example, an incident could start as a payroll issue and end up in the hands of HR, instead of surfacing as a security problem. In this case, our security team has no way of knowing the real number of events or how the threat had actually started and played out, making incident response and mitigation even more challenging.

We were already a customer of Darktrace’s autonomous threat detection, attack intervention, and attack surface management capabilities, and decided to add Darktrace for AI-assisted incident response and AI cyber-attack simulation.

AI-generated playbooks save time during incident response

I wanted to reduce the time and resources it took our security team to appropriately respond to a threat. Darktrace automates several steps of the recovery process to accelerate the rate of incident response by using AI that learns the granular details of the specific organization, building a dynamic understanding of the devices, connections, and user behaviors that make up the normal “pattern of life.”  

The AI then uses this understanding to create bespoke, AI-generated incident response playbooks that leverage an evolving understanding of our organization to determine recovery steps that are tailored not only to the specific incident but also to our unique environment.

For my security team, this means having access to all the information we need to respond to a threat. When running through an incident, rather than going to different places to synthesize relevant information, which takes up valuable resources and time, we can speed up its remediation with Darktrace.  

The playbooks created by Darktrace help lower the technical skills required to respond to incidents by elevating the workload of the staff, tripling our capacity for incident response.

Realistic attack simulations upskill teams while saving resources

We have differing levels of experience on the team which means some members know exactly what to do during incident response while others are slower and need more guidance. Thus, we have to either outsource skilled security professionals or add a security solution that could lower the technical skills bar.

You don’t want to be second guessing and searching for the right move – it’s urgent – there should be certainty. Our goal with running attack simulations is to test and train our team's response capabilities in a “realistic” scenario. But this takes considerable time to plan and execute or can be expensive if outsourced, which can be a challenge for organizations short on resources. 

Darktrace provides AI-assisted incident response and cyber-attack simulation using AI that understands the organization to run simulations that effectively map onto the real digital environment and the assets within it, providing training for actual incidents.

It is one thing to sit together in a meeting and discuss various outcomes of a cyber-attack, talking through the best response strategies. It is a huge benefit being able to run attack simulations that emulate real-world scenarios.

Our team can now see how an incident would play out over several days to resemble a real-world scenario or it can play through the simulation quickly to ascertain outcomes immediately. It then uses these insights to strengthen its technology, processes, and training.

AI-Powered Incident Response

Darktrace helps my security team save resources and upskill staff using AI to generate bespoke playbooks and run realistic simulations. Its real-time understanding of our business ensures incident preparedness and incident response are tailored to not only the specific threat in question, but also to the contextual infrastructure of the organization.  

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About the author
Jamie Woodland
Head of Technology at Community Housing Limited

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E-Mail

Beyond DMARC: Navigating the Gaps in Email Security

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29
Feb 2024

Email threat landscape  

Email has consistently ranked among the most targeted attack vectors, given its ubiquity and criticality to business operations. From September to December 2023, 10.4 million phishing emails were detected across Darktrace’s customer fleet demonstrating the frequency of attempted email-based attacks.

Businesses are searching for ways to harden their email security posture alongside email providers who are aiming to reduce malicious emails traversing their infrastructure, affecting their clients. Domain-based Message Authentication (DMARC) is a useful industry-wide protocol organizations can leverage to move towards these goals.  

What is DMARC?

DMARC is an email authentication protocol designed to enhance the security of email communication.

Major email service providers Google and Yahoo recently made the protocol mandatory for bulk senders in an effort to make inboxes safer worldwide. The new requirements demonstrate an increasing need for a standardized solution as misconfigured or nonexistent authentication systems continue to allow threat actors to evade detection and leverage the legitimate reputation of third parties.  

DMARC is a powerful tool that allows email administrators to confidently identify and stop certain spoofed emails; however, more organizations must implement the standard for it to reach its full potential. The success and effectiveness of DMARC is dependent on broad adoption of the standard – by organizations of all sizes.  

How does DMARC work?

DMARC builds on two key authentication technologies, Sender Policy Framework (SPF) and DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM) and helps to significantly improve their ability to prevent domain spoofing. SPF verifies that a sender’s IP address is authorized to send emails on behalf of a particular domain and DKIM ensures integrity of email content by providing a verifiable digital signature.  

DMARC adds to this by allowing domain owners to publish policies that set expectations for how SPF and DKIM verification checks relate to email addresses presented to users and whose authenticity the receiving mail server is looking to establish.  

These policies work in tandem to help authenticate email senders by verifying the emails are from the domain they say they are, working to prevent domain spoofing attacks. Key benefits of DMARC include:

  1. Phishing protection DMARC protects against direct domain spoofing in which a threat actor impersonates a legitimate domain, a common phishing technique threat actors use to trick employees to obtain sensitive information such as privileged credentials, bank information, etc.  
  2. Improving brand reputation: As DMARC helps to prevent impersonation of domains, it stands to maintain and increase an organization’s brand reputation. Additionally, as organizational reputation improves, so will the deliverability of emails.
  3. Increased visibility: DMARC provides enhanced visibility into email communication channels, including reports of all emails sent on behalf of your domain. This allows security teams to identify shadow-IT and any unauthorized parties using their domain.

Understanding DMARC’s Limitations

DMARC is often positioned as a way for organizations to ‘solve’ their email security problems, however, 65% of the phishing emails observed by Darktrace successfully passed DMARC verification, indicating that a significant number of threat actors are capable of manipulating email security and authentication systems in their exploits. While DMARC is a valuable tool in the fight against email-based attacks, the evolving threat landscape demands a closer look at its limitations.  

As threat actors continue to innovate, improving their stealth and evasion tactics, the number of attacks with valid DMARC authentication will only continue to increase in volume and sophistication. These can include:

  1. Phishing attacks that leverage non-spoofed domains: DMARC allows an organization to protect the domains that they own, preventing threat actors from being able to send phishing emails from their domains. However, threat actors will often create and use ‘look-a-like’ domains that closely resemble an organization’s domain to dupe users. 3% of the phishing emails identified by Darktrace utilized newly created domains, demonstrating shifting tactics.  
  2. Email Account Takeovers: If a threat actor gains access to a user’s email account through other social engineering means such as credential stuffing, they can then send phishing emails from the legitimate domain to pursue further attacks. Even though these emails are malicious, DMARC would not identify them as such because they are coming from an authorized domain or sender.  

Organizations must also ensure their inbound analysis of emails is not skewed by successful DMARC authentication. Security teams cannot inherently trust emails that pass DMARC, because the source cannot always be legitimized, like in the event of an account takeover. If a threat actor gains access to an authenticated email account, emails sent by the threat actor from that account will pass DMARC – however the contents of that email may be malicious. Sender behavior must be continuously evaluated and vetted in real time as past communication history and validated DMARC cannot be solely relied upon amid an ever-changing threat landscape.  

Security teams should lean on other security measures, such as anomaly detection tools that can identify suspicious emails without relying on historical attack rules and static data. While DMARC is not a silver bullet for email security, it is nevertheless foundational in helping organizations protect their brand identity and must be viewed as an essential layer in an organization's overall cyber security strategy.  

Implementing DMARC

Despite the criticality of DMARC for preserving brand reputation and trust, adoption of the standard has been inconsistent. DMARC can be complex to implement with many organizations lacking the time required to understand and successfully implement the standard. Because of this, DMARC set-up is often outsourced, giving security and infrastructure teams little to no visibility into or control of the process.  

Implementation of DMARC is only the start of this process, as DMARC reports must be consistently monitored to ensure organizations have visibility into who is sending mail from their domain, the volume of mail being sent and whether the mail is passing authentication protocols. This process can be time consuming for security teams who are already faced with mounting responsibilities, tight budgets, and personnel shortages. These complexities unfortunately delay organizations from using DMARC – especially as many today still view it as a ‘nice to have’ rather than an essential.  

With the potential complexities of the DMARC implementation process, there are many ways security and infrastructure teams can still successfully roll out the standard. Initial implementation should start with monitoring, policy adjustment and then enforcement. As business changes over time, DMARC should be reviewed regularly to ensure ongoing protection and maintain domain reputation.

The Future of Email Security

As email-based attacks continue to rise, the industry must recognize the importance of driving adoption of foundational email authentication protocols. To do this, a new and innovative approach to DMARC is needed. DMARC products must evolve to better support organizations throughout the ongoing DMARC monitoring process, rather than just initial implementation. These products must also be able to share intelligence across an organization’s security stack, extending beyond email security tools. Integration across these products and tools will help organizations optimize their posture, ensuring deep understanding of their domain and increased visibility across the entire enterprise.

DMARC is critical in protecting brand identity and mitigating exact-domain based attacks. However, organizations must understand DMARC’s unique benefits and limitations to ensure their inboxes are fully protected. In today’s evolving threat landscape, organizations require a robust, multi-layered approach to stop email threats – in inbound mail and beyond. Email threats have evolved – its time security does too.

Join Darktrace on 9 April for a virtual event to explore the latest innovations needed to get ahead of the rapidly evolving threat landscape. Register today to hear more about our latest innovations coming to Darktrace’s offerings. For additional insights check out Darktrace’s 2023 End of Year Threat Report.

Credit to Carlos Gray and Stephen Pickman for their contribution to this blog

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About the author
Carlos Gray
Product Manager

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