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A Comprehensive Guide to Bolstering Email Security Against Soft Threats

Dive into our whitepaper to understand why secure gateway solutions fall short in protecting against soft threats and discover strategies to fortify them effectively.

Email Threat Simulator Whitepaper


In our digital age, email is a crucial communication tool used by an estimated 5 billion people worldwide. However, with this widespread use, threats have also escalated. Spam emails, often dismissed as mere annoyances, actually constitute about 45% of all emails sent, equating to roughly 14.5 billion spam emails daily. More concerning are phishing schemes and malware attacks, which have seen a 65% increase in the past year. In fact, 1 in 3 businesses have experienced a phishing attack. These threats are not just numbers; they translate into significant financial losses that victims lost over $52 million to phishing scams in 2022.

Secure gateway solutions are like the security guards of digital communication. They've been a key part of email safety for a long time, acting as a protective shield that checks all incoming and outgoing emails for anything harmful. They're really important for keeping an organization's email communication safe by filtering out spam, spotting viruses, and preventing data loss.

While secure gateway solutions are great at guarding our emails, they do have some blind spots. With threats becoming more sophisticated, these solutions sometimes struggle to catch what are known as 'soft threats.' These are sneaky, personalized attacks that don't show the usual signs of danger. In fact, about 82% of these soft threats slip past our email guards. They include things like spear phishing, where an attacker targets a specific person or company, business email compromise (BEC), and clever social engineering schemes.

The increasing prevalence of these soft threats has resulted in significant security gaps, posing severe risks to organizations. This whitepaper aims to bring attention to the critical issue of soft threats and the limitations of secure gateway solutions in addressing them. It provides an in-depth look at the nature of soft threats, why secure gateway solutions often fall short, and what measures organizations can adopt to enhance their security posture.

As we dive into the world of cyber threats, it's clear that old security measures aren't enough anymore. Even with built-in security, 78% of harmful emails come from users of platforms like O365 and Google Workspace. So, it's time for organizations to rethink their email safety strategies. They need a plan that not only defends against known threats but also anticipates and protects against new ones.

II. Understanding Secure Gateway Solutions

Secure Gateway Solutions play an integral role in email security, serving as the first line of defense in protecting an organization's email communications. Simply put, secure gateway solutions are like security guards for an organization's emails. These solutions act as filters, scanning and monitoring incoming and outgoing emails for potential threats such as malware, spam, phishing attempts, and other malicious activities.

Secure gateway solutions have various features and capabilities designed to combat the myriad threats that target email communications. These typically include anti-spam filters that use advanced machine learning algorithms to identify and filter out unsolicited emails, anti-malware and anti-virus systems that scan attachments and links for malicious code, and data loss prevention (DLP) systems that prevent sensitive information from being sent outside the organization's network.

In addition, most secure gateway solutions also offer email encryption, ensuring that the intended recipients can only read the contents of an email. They also include functionality to authenticate emails and prevent spoofing, a common technique used in phishing attacks. Furthermore, secure gateway solutions usually provide detailed logging and reporting capabilities, allowing organizations to analyze email traffic and detect unusual patterns that could indicate a security threat.

III. The Limitations of Secure Gateway Solutions

Secure gateway solutions are great for email security, but they're not perfect. They sometimes struggle with 'soft threats' - these are crafty cyber threats that don't exploit technical weaknesses, but instead manipulate people's trust. They include things like social engineering, spear-phishing, and business email compromise (BEC). So, while these solutions are helpful, they can't catch everything.

For instance, a carefully crafted spear-phishing email, which impersonates a trusted contact and does not contain any malicious links or attachments, can easily slip through the filters of a secure gateway solution. Similarly, a BEC attack, typically involving a hacker posing as a high-ranking executive and instructing an employee to transfer funds, may not trigger any alarms in a secure gateway system as it doesn't exhibit any technical threat indicators.

Let's delve into some examples and case studies that illustrate these limitations.

Case Study 1: Consider the infamous 2016 incident involving the global tech giant Ubiquiti Networks. The company fell victim to a BEC scam, losing $46.7 million. In this case, the attackers impersonated company executives and initiated fraudulent wire transfers, a threat that a typical secure gateway solution would struggle to detect and prevent.

Case Study 2: In another instance, a renowned university fell prey to a spear-phishing attack leading to a significant data breach. Despite having a secure gateway solution, the university could not prevent the breach as the phishing email was carefully crafted to appear as an internal communication, circumventing the gateway's technical threat filters.

Case Study 3: Numerous expert opinions and research data underline this issue's gravity and widespread nature. For instance, a report by the cybersecurity firm Agari revealed that 96% of organizations experienced BEC attacks in 2020, signifying the prevalence of soft threats. Similarly, the FBI's 2020 Internet Crime Report indicated that BEC scams accounted for the highest financial losses, amounting to over $1.8 billion.

Case Study 4: Cybersecurity experts highlight that human error and manipulation, the cornerstone of soft threats, are the hardest to protect against. As Dr. Matthew Kane, a cybersecurity expert at SecureWorks, put it, "The weakest link in the security chain is the human who accepts a person or scenario at face value."

Given the limitations of secure gateway solutions against soft threats, it's clear that organizations need to rethink and augment their email security strategies. A comprehensive solution requires a blend of technical defenses, user training, and incident response measures, forming a multi-layered defense system to counter hard and soft threats. This approach is further explored in the next section of our whitepaper.

IV. Understanding Soft Threats

Soft threats, a category of cybersecurity risks have emerged as one of the most significant challenges for organizations in the digital era. Distinct from hard threats, which typically exploit technical vulnerabilities, soft threats leverage human elements like trust, familiarity, and the natural propensity for error. Their mainstay lies in social engineering - manipulating people into performing actions or divulging confidential information.

Soft threats encompass a broad range of attack vectors, some of the most common ones being phishing, spear-phishing, business email compromise (BEC), and impersonation attacks.

Phishing refers to a broad category of attacks where attackers impersonate legitimate entities to trick recipients into divulging sensitive information. Spear phishing, a subset of phishing, is more targeted and sophisticated. In a spear-phishing attack, the hacker crafts a personalized email that appears to come from a trusted source, making the deception harder to detect.

Business Email Compromise (BEC), meanwhile, is an advanced form of spear-phishing. In a typical BEC attack, cybercriminals impersonate a high-ranking executive or trusted partner and instruct the victim to conduct a transaction, usually a wire transfer to a bank account controlled by the attacker.

Impersonation attacks can also involve attackers posing as reputable brands or authorities to trick users into responding to a supposedly urgent situation, such as a compromised account or a legal matter.

These attacks have severe ramifications for organizations, from financial losses to reputational damage, operational disruption, and regulatory penalties.

Let's consider some real-world instances to illustrate the potency of soft threats.

In 2016, the Belgium-based telecom company Crelan Bank was defrauded of €70 million due to a sophisticated BEC attack. Despite having advanced security systems, the scam was not detected until after the funds had been transferred.

In a different case, the email accounts of executive staff at a large Asian technology firm were compromised through a spear-phishing attack in 2020. The attackers used these accounts to send legitimate-looking emails to customers, convincing them to send payments to new bank accounts. This led to the company's clients being defrauded of over $15 million.

FACC, an Austrian aerospace manufacturer, lost €50 million in 2016 due to a BEC scam. The attack resulted in not only significant financial losses but also the dismissal of the CEO, showcasing the potential for soft threats to result in major corporate upheavals.

These examples highlight the pressing need for organizations to understand and address soft threats as part of their overall cybersecurity strategy. The following sections of this whitepaper will delve into potential solutions and best practices for managing and mitigating these insidious threats.

V. Why Traditional Secure Gateway Solutions Fail Against Soft Threats

As sophisticated and robust as they may be, traditional secure gateway solutions were designed in a different era of cyber threats. While they remain effective against many threats, their limitations become apparent when handling soft threats.

The key challenge is that soft threats like phishing, spear phishing, or BEC exploit human behavior rather than technical vulnerabilities. As such, the simple, rule-based filters that secure gateways use to identify and block threats are often ineffective against these sophisticated attacks.

Many secure gateway solutions rely heavily on detecting malicious payloads or known blacklisted URLs - a method that offers little protection against soft threats. Unlike malware or other hard threats, a phishing email or BEC attack often doesn't need to contain a malicious payload to be successful. The attack relies instead on deceiving the user into voluntarily taking action, such as providing login credentials or initiating a fraudulent wire transfer.

In addition, soft threats are often dynamic and evolving, making them difficult for traditional solutions to keep up with. Attackers continuously refine their techniques, develop new narratives, and create more credible impersonations, allowing them to stay one step ahead of static defense mechanisms.

The lack of advanced analytics is another shortcoming of traditional secure gateway solutions. Modern threats require modern solutions, and applying advanced analytics and machine learning can significantly bolster an organization's ability to detect and mitigate soft threats.

Machine learning algorithms can be trained to recognize patterns in email content, structure, and metadata indicative of a soft threat, even if the threat has never been seen before. However, many traditional secure gateway solutions have not yet integrated such capabilities into their systems. This absence leaves organizations vulnerable to newer, more sophisticated attacks that don't match previously identified threat patterns.

Moreover, the increasing use of encryption has made it more difficult for secure gateways to inspect and analyze email content. Encryption is a double-edged sword - while it's critical for protecting data privacy, it can also be leveraged by attackers to mask malicious content and evade detection.

Secure gateway solutions often fail to provide an integrated response to threats, focusing more on detection than response and remediation. A truly effective defense system must go beyond identifying threats to contain and minimize their impact.

To address the mounting issue of soft threats, it's apparent that organizations need to move beyond traditional secure gateway solutions. The following sections of this whitepaper will explore the more advanced and comprehensive strategies required to combat the increasingly sophisticated landscape of soft threats.

VI. Strengthening Email Security: Beyond Secure Gateway Solutions

In the face of evolving cyber threats, particularly soft threats, traditional secure gateway solutions alone may no longer provide the robust defense needed to ensure comprehensive email security. To fortify defenses, organizations must consider augmenting their security measures with complementary solutions that address the limitations of secure gateways, particularly in countering soft threats.

One of the most potent strategies is the integration of Email Breach and Attack Simulation (EBAS) platforms. Email Breach and Attack Simulation platforms, such as those offered by Keepnet Labs, simulate various threat scenarios to test the effectiveness of an organization's existing email security measures, including secure gateways. They leverage known and emerging threat vectors, comprehensively assessing an organization's ability to respond to various attacks.

Email Breach and Attack Simulation platforms can identify vulnerabilities that secure gateways may overlook by simulating real-world attacks, especially those exploited by soft threats. This allows organizations to see how their defenses would withstand an attack. Moreover, the testing isn't just limited to identifying vulnerabilities - it also helps organizations understand how an attack could progress if a threat were to penetrate their defenses.

One of the unique aspects of Email Breach and Attack Simulation platforms is their ability to conduct continuous testing. Cyber threats constantly evolve, and an organization's defense system must adapt accordingly. Continuous testing ensures that an organization's security measures are always up-to-date and capable of defending against current and emerging threats.

Moreover, Email Breach and Attack Simulation platforms go beyond simply identifying vulnerabilities. They also provide remediation strategies to help organizations address identified weaknesses. This could involve refining email filtering parameters, patching software, updating firewall settings, or even reconfiguring system settings.

As cyber threats evolve, so too must the defenses against them. A comprehensive approach to email security, integrating secure gateway solutions with complementary measures such as Email Breach and Attack Simulation platforms can significantly enhance an organization's ability to defend against hard and soft threats. As we navigate the increasingly complex landscape of cyber threats, one thing is clear - staying protected requires staying ahead.

VII. Keepnet Labs Email Threat Simulator: Reinforcing Email Security

In the complex and dynamic world of cybersecurity, organizations must leverage innovative solutions to stay one step ahead of potential threats. One such tool that has emerged as a formidable component of a email security strategy is the Email Threat Simulator (ETS). As a flagship offering from Keepnet Labs, the ETS represents a cutting-edge approach to email safety.

The Keepnet Labs ETS is a powerful product that tests an organization's existing email security systems by simulating various attacks. It offers a proactive approach to cybersecurity, allowing organizations to identify vulnerabilities before they can be exploited. This "attack yourself to protect yourself" methodology helps companies avoid threats by strengthening their defense systems and preparing them for attack vectors.

The ETS boasts various features that make it an invaluable asset in an organization's cybersecurity arsenal. It is integrated with industry-leading IOC and Exploitation Frameworks and manual sources. This ensures a continually updated set of attack types, allowing it to simulate the latest threats and adapt to the evolving threat landscape.

The ETS goes a step further by generating attacks that send more than +700 known and current attack vector types, including ransomware, browser exploits, malicious code and file format exploits, to the test mailbox. By doing so, it thoroughly evaluates an organization's secure gateway solution's capability to fend off known and unknown threats.

The variety and complexity of email threats can be staggering. The ETS mirrors this complexity, simulating a range of soft threats that might otherwise slip through the cracks. This can include phishing attacks, spear-phishing attempts, and various forms of malware, ensuring a comprehensive assessment of an organization's email security measures.

However, the ETS isn’t just about identifying vulnerabilities. It also provides actionable insights for remediation. Post-simulation provides a detailed report outlining the successful and failed attacks, offering a clear view of where the organization's defenses held strong and where they faltered. It also provides a list of necessary remediation tasks to remove vulnerabilities to update the Firewall, Anti-Spam, and Intrusion Prevention System (IPS).

The ETS's capacity for continuous testing is a significant feature that ensures organizations remain updated against the latest threats. It enables customizable scheduling of attack simulations and automatically incorporates newly discovered attack vectors, providing consistent, up-to-date results and guidance for further technological investment.

The Keepnet Labs ETS is designed to be user-friendly, simple to configure, and doesn't require any installation or complicated server-side setup. It is a versatile tool that tests more than just active network devices, moving beyond traffic analysis to provide 'real-world' testing of an organization's email security defenses.

Keepnet Labs Email Threat Simulator represents a dynamic, comprehensive, and user-friendly approach to bolstering email security. Its robust features and proactive methodology make it a compelling solution for organizations looking to enhance their defenses and stay one step ahead of the ever-evolving threat landscape. As part of a broader, more comprehensive approach to email security, the ETS is an invaluable tool that can dramatically strengthen an organization's cybersecurity posture.

VIII. Take Action Today: Experience Keepnet Labs Email Threat Simulator

There's no better time than now to take a proactive stance against potential threats to your email security. Keepnet Labs offers a comprehensive Email Threat Simulator designed to identify, test, and bolster the defenses of your secure gateway solutions. Our unique approach of 'attack yourself to protect yourself' provides the most realistic and effective evaluation of your current systems.

Don't just take our word for it, see the power of Keepnet Labs Email Threat Simulator in action! We invite you to take advantage of our exclusive offer: a 15-day free trial that grants you full access to our revolutionary simulator. During this period, you can simulate a range of attack vectors on your system and better understand your existing vulnerabilities.

Experience firsthand how the Email Threat Simulator can help your organization identify and remediate vulnerabilities, thereby hardening your secure gateway against known and unknown threats. By the end of the trial, you will have a clear vision of how this innovative tool can bolster your organization's email security strategy and be equipped with actionable insights to improve your defenses.

Tomorrow's cyber threats are unpredictable, but with Keepnet Labs Email Threat Simulator, you can make your defenses unassailable. Embark on your journey to enhanced email security today. Test your secure gateway, understand its vulnerabilities, and see how we can help you fortify it.

Begin your 15-day free trial now and see how Keepnet helps strengthen your secure gateway solutions.



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