Experts are debating whether the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) email system was hacked by the Russian military intelligence service (G.R.U.) or Guccifer 2.0, a lone wolf Romanian hacker. While this is a very important question, the answer will not change the results: over 20,000 DNC emails ended up on WikiLeaks. How did this happen? How likely is it to happen to you or your company? What can you do to protect your email system from a similar fate?
Are the Russians Going to Hack Your Email System?
The chances that the G.R.U. or some other Russian-based hackers will target your email system are not huge (unless you work for a big company or are relatively famous, in which case they are trying several times each day). That said, you are going to be hacked by someone, and it could happen at any time.
If you are targeted and attacked by a motivated, organized team of criminals, you will need a better-motivated, better-organized team of anti-criminals to enable you to emerge from the battle unscathed.
It’s not like the movies where you see a stereotypical geek with a laptop tapping a few keys and accomplishing the task in a few minutes. An organized team of criminals will do a thorough job of reconnaissance. They will find out which operating systems you are running and what ports are open, and they will examine your subsystems and how they interconnect.
Next, the bad guys will check their favorite sources for known vulnerabilities. A quick Google search will result in dozens of sites that contain vulnerability disclosures along with the proof of concept code used to discover the vulnerability. For professionals, this is a fruitful path to travel, as it leads to strategies to exploit computer systems where servers are not properly patched or are sloppily configured. Well-maintained, up-to-date systems are safe from the usual tactics associated with exploiting known vulnerabilities. After all, they’re “known.” But sadly, not everyone is as diligent with system updates and security patches as they should be.
Then they will take a hard look at your online presence. You publish your life on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Snapchat, LinkedIn, blogs, etc. You probably don’t realize how much information you make available for anyone to gather and analyze. In truth, you (the employee) are the biggest security risk to your company, and you are by far the easiest to exploit. We’ll get to this in a minute.
Next, the hackers will use some tools from outside of your system, or get you to install some tools that put them inside your system to get to your information. At that point, it’s over. You’ve been hacked. So here are a few things you need to know.
Passwords Still Matter
Believe it or not, passwords still matter. It is pretty rare for a hacker to spend time trying to hack your password, but the tools are readily available. I won’t list them here because I’m not promoting the dark side, but just Google “email hacking tools” and you’ll understand. Your best defense against any of these tools is a password that is long, the longer the better; strong, the more cryptic the better; and unique, as in one password per system (never reuse a password). How good are your mobile passwords? iOS allows for six-digit alphanumeric passwords. Are you still using a four digit pin number? If you’re serious about security, long, strong, unique passwords are one of the best defenses you can mount.
Authentication also matters. You’ve heard of two-step authentication. You should use it? Does your login system lock after five attempts to login? How secure is your password recovery or password reset protocol? Does your computer lock after sitting idle for 60 seconds and require a password to regain access? Do you lock your computer every time you step away from your desk? This kind of stuff is inconvenient in the extreme, but all of it should be part of any cybersecurity initiative.
It’s Easier to Hack You than to Hack Your Computer
Which brings me to the most common way to get awesome malware onto your computer or into your network: social engineering.
Known as Phishing (pronounced “fishing”), an email technique that tricks email recipients into performing specific behaviors, or Spear Phishing, a highly targeted version of Phishing that is customized for a small group, this type of social engineering exploits the weakest link in your cybersecurity chain – you! You’ve heard it before, but I’ll say it again. Unless you have asked for it or know the person who sent it (although this is no guarantee of safety), never, ever, under any circumstances click on a link in an unsolicited email. Just don’t do it. Phishing is now high art. The best templates are almost indistinguishable from the emails they are pretending to be. When in doubt, don’t click, because that one click would be all it takes to enable a hacker to put you into a world of hurt.
Remember when Apple CEO Tim Cook adamantly refused to discuss weakening the encryption system on iPhones? He was thinking of you. If you are serious about not seeing your emails on WikiLeaks in the future, then start encrypting them now. Fully encrypted email systems are a pain to use. They can require an extra password, take extra time to deal with and add a layer of complexity to your life that you may not enjoy. However, when hackers get their hands on encrypted emails, those emails are unreadable and useless.
There are many places to learn about best practices email encryption. Google, Microsoft and almost every tech company that sells enterprise-grade solutions can help you. If you’re just a normal person or a small business, there are excellent solutions like Virtru and ProtonMail that offer best practices solutions. A quick Internet search will yield products and reviews galore.
Which emails must always be encrypted? Which emails probably should be encrypted? And which emails don’t need to be encrypted? Stratifying communication into classified, semi-classified and unclassified is a common practice. But I’ll leave you with this thought: the hacked email that hit Sony the hardest contained no financial information, legal documents or personal health information – it was executive banter. The same can be said for the email that forced the chairwoman of the DNC to resign. So, I’ll ask you again: which emails should be encrypted?
Time to Rethink Email Communication
You or your company may already have excellent cybersecurity measures in place. I hope you do. If you’re in doubt, now would be a great time to start asking about it and getting satisfying answers. After all, when you see your sensitive emails on WikiLeaks, you’re not going to care whether it was the G.R.U. or Guccifer 2.0 or the proverbial Red-Bull-drinking, chocolate-covered-coffee-bean-eating teenager with skills and an attitude who ruined your professional life. So let’s make it as hard for the hackers as we possibly can.