Since the dawn of IT, there’s been a very consistent theme among admins: end users are the weakest link in your network, organization, security strategy, fill-in-the-blank. We’ve all heard the stories, and even experienced them first-hand. An employee falls for a phishing scam and the whole network is down. Another colleague torrents a file laced with malware. Or maybe it’s something less sinister: someone wants to charge their phone, so they unplug something from the only nearby outlet, but what they unplug is somehow critical… help desk tickets ensue.
But when it comes to security issues caused by human error, it’s not necessarily always the end user’s fault. Cyberattacks are getting more and more sophisticated by the second, and all of them are designed to either circumvent defenses or appear totally legitimate to fool people. One of the major advances of this type that we’ve seen is with phishing sites and the use of HTTPS.
HTTPS: The Beginning
While HTTP is the foundation of all data exchange and communication on the internet, it wasn’t designed for privacy. Transmitting information on the web using HTTP is kind of like sending a postcard; anybody who handles that card can read it. HTTPS was supposed to be a way of adding privacy to protect users and sensitive information from prying eyes.
At first, you’d only see HTTPS on financial or health care websites, or maybe the cart page on a shopping site, where the extra privacy was necessary. And back then, getting a security certificate was much harder—it involved significant costs and thorough security checks. Then, a few years ago, most web browsers started requiring security certificates for every website, or else they’d throw up a scary-looking warning that the site you were trying to visit might be dangerous. That trained us to look for (and trust) HTTPS.
A False Sense of Security
These days, when we see HTTPS at the beginning of a URL or the accompanying lock icon in our browser’s address bar, we’ve been conditioned to think that means we’re safe from harm. After all, the S in HTTPS stands for “secure”, right? But the issue is that HTTPS isn’t really about security, it’s about privacy. That little lock icon just means that any information we transmit on that site is encrypted and securely delivered to its destination. It makes no guarantees that the destination itself, is safe.
If you unwittingly end up on a well-faked phishing copy of your banking website and see the lock icon, it’s natural to assume that you’re in the right place and all is well. Except when you try to log in, what you’re really doing is securely transmitting your login credentials to an attacker. In this case, HTTPS would’ve been used to trick you.
The Bad Guys and HTTPS
Malicious actors are always looking for new ways to trick end users. Because so many of us think HTTPS ensures security, attackers are using it against us. It’s no longer difficult to obtain a security certificate. Attackers can do so very cheaply, or even for free, and there’s really no background or security check involved.
As I mentioned during my talk on HTTPS at this year’s RSA conference, almost half a million of the new phishing sites Webroot discovered each month of 2018 were using HTTPS. In fact, 93% of phishing domains in September and October alone were hosted on HTTPS sites. When you think about these numbers, it’s easy to see why end users might not be to blame when you discover that a major security breach was caused by someone being duped by a phishing scam.
The Way Forward
As more HTTPS phishing and malware sites emerge, even the most vigilant among us could fall victim. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t invest in end user education. End users are on the front lines on the cybersecurity battlefield. It’s up to us to provide right tools and armor to keep users and the companies they represent safe. To be truly effective, we need to implement ongoing security awareness training programs that recur continually throughout an employee’s time with the company. If we accomplish that, the results speak for themselves; after 12 months of training, end users are 70% less likely to fall for a phishing attempt!
We also need to make sure our security strategies incorporate real-time threat intelligence to accurately classify and determine which websites are good or malicious, regardless of their HTTPS designation. In an age where phishing sites appear and disappear in a matter of hours or minutes, malicious sites use HTTPS, and at least 40% of bad URLs can be found on good domains, it’s more important than ever that we all use the most advanced real-time technologies available.
Ultimately building a culture of cybersecurity will always be more effective than a top-down mandate.. Everyone in the organization, from the CEO to the newest intern, should be invested in adopting and furthering a security conscious culture. Part of that process is going to be shifting the general IT perceptions around human error and the issues it can cause. We shouldn’t think of our end users as the weakest link in the chain; instead we should think of them as the key to a robust security strategy.
To hear more about HTTPS, phishing, and end user education, you can listen to the podcast I did with cybersecurity executive and advisor Shira Rubinoff at RSAC 2019.