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The Coalfire Blog

Can we kick the attachment habit?

October 11, 2011, John Rostern, VP, Technology Advisory and Assessment Services

John Rostern

As consumers of messaging services, particularly email, we have become addicted to attachments. This habit has become an easy avenue for mounting cyber-attacks against an organization. In the 2010 Verizon Data Breach Investigations Report, conducted in cooperation with the United States Secret Service, 38 percent of breaches utilized some form of malware and 28 percent employed social tactics.

It is quite typical for email to be used as the delivery vehicle for malware and social engineering to facilitate the design of the email to induce the recipient to open it and the attachment. This attack works because we have conditioned ourselves and our customers, clients, vendors and other third parties to ‘trust’ email as a medium of exchange. It would seem that this trust is not well founded and that the paradigm should be re-examined.

From the perspective of a historical parallel, Cholera epidemics in New York City in 1832, 1848-49 and 1854, killed thousands of people. It led to the founding of the Board of Health in 1866 and the adoption of improved standards for sanitations that eventually eradicated the disease. Treating the individuals during each of the outbreaks had been ineffective and in some cases counterproductive as more people were exposed to the disease. Improving sanitation and overall social hygiene effectively eliminated the root cause of the disease.

The current state of polymorphic malware makes treating the affected systems similarly difficult. The number of malware variants, combined with polymorphic characteristics, makes detection and removal extremely challenging if not impossible. Therefore, the most effective approach may be to eliminate the root cause; in this case, email attachments.

Many organizations have already implemented some form of Document Management System (DMS) or in the broader sense Enterprise Content Management (ECM). A DMS provides a centralized repository that supports several common functions; Check In/Out, Version Management, Search & Navigation and Document Organization. Products such as Documentum, eDocs, NetDocuments and Sharepoint are representative of this class.

Implementing a DMS is a relatively trivial exercise in terms of technology. The products are proven and the underlying infrastructure is common in today’s IT environment.  It should also be noted that security controls around the DMS are critical, but easier to achieve than the traditional model where this same information is scattered throughout the organization. However, changing the habits of the work force will be the most challenging aspect of the project.

There are other advantages in creating a DMS-centric operation for your organization:

  1. The DMS provides a central, single version of documents and will help prevent ‘version-it is’ in the creation-review-edit process;

  2. Distribution of sensitive, private or otherwise controlled information can be restricted more easily;

  3. Backup and recovery is simplified by eliminating the end points from the problem;

  4. A centralized DMS repository may facilitate the notification process in response to a data breach;

  5. The organization of the DMS facilitates compliance with eDiscovery requirements, (e.g., litigation hold), in a litigation scenario; and

  6. Creation of a portal for access by known/trusted third parties supports the secure transmission of sensitive information without exposing it to the internet. 

Eliminating email attachments may seem to be a formidable task. However it may be the most realistic means of reducing the threat of malware to the enterprise. So what is stopping you from ‘kicking the habit’?

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