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Trust as an Attack Vector

May 31 2022

Trust is one of the things that makes us human. We evolved the ability to trust in order to make life or death judgment calls and it is wired into our brains from birth. Unfortunately, since time immemorial, nefarious characters have always abused the trust of others to their own advantage, and in the modern world it is now one of the primary tools in a cybercriminal’s arsenal. Both state-sponsored and commercially driven cybercriminals are using social engineering that relies upon our very humanness to give them access to data and systems. 

This was just one of the areas discussed at an event we hosted at the US Embassy in London last week on the broader theme of “Security to Enable Growth and Innovation in a Disrupted World,” including guest speaker Dr. Jessica Barker, a specialist in the human and cultural side of cybersecurity. With businesses and nations around the world looking for ways to tackle macroeconomic challenges, it is clear that security can be an important enabler, allowing organisations to drive for agility and productivity. But the disrupted world is not only providing topline business challenges, it is also directly increasing the threats that security professionals are facing.

But why is trust the problem?

Before 2020, most people had a much higher level of trust in the physical world than they did in the digital one. But, as Dr. Barker explains, that status quickly reversed as we learnt to mistrust even the air we breathe, and were driven to greater use of (and confidence in) technology and online services for our social interactions and basic day-to-day needs. Through necessity, and then through familiarity, our preparedness to use digital services, and then our trust in the digital world, expanded. 

Humans have two ways of processing information. As security professionals we would like employees to always be rational and calm. We ask them to take their time and assess information to make considered decisions. Cybercriminals don’t want this. They want everyone to be impulsive, making fast and often rash decisions with little research, and they use triggers such as fear to prompt us to use this riskier side of our brain when they attack.

These fear messages are almost always presented from behind the facade of trusted people, organisations, and brands (at the event, we heard a recent example from an individual in the room who had clicked on a phishing link purporting to be the expected communication from her doctor about her son’s bloodwork). One of the more shocking facts we heard came from Paolo Passeri, our cyber intelligence principal at Netskope EMEA, who revealed that cloud services now account for almost as much malware delivery as traditional websites (47% to 53%). He detailed the tactics used by threat actors that include the use of the same cloud infrastructure that their targets rely upon (OneDrive, Sharepoint, Azure, etc.) so that malicious links no longer look suspicious, but are—to the untrained eye—identical to the links colleagues are sharing with each other in the daily course of work. The old mantra of “don’t click suspicious links” has to evolve.

2022 needs to be the year we all embrace zero trust for security. For employees this means we need to nudge them back into their rational brain in moments of weakness (and there was a lot of discussion about innovative ways to do this, for instance delivering just-in-time warning messages), and for organisational security strategies it means embracing a zero trust principle to inform the entire technology framework. You can read lots more about zero trust in this excellent recent blog from Ilona Simpson (another of the event presenters). 

Our London event was just the first in a European tour, and we will be hosting this discussion in a city near you over the coming weeks. If you are interested in attending our Paris, Copenhagen, Stockholm, or Amsterdam US Embassy events “Security to Enable Growth and Innovation in a Disrupted World” please contact Irina Palici at [email protected]

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Neil Thacker
Neil Thacker is a veteran information security professional and a data protection and privacy expert well-versed in the European Union General Data Protection Regulation (EU GDPR).

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