Tim Sadler on Hacking Humans Podcast: Episode 87 “The Art of Cheating”

  • 28 February 2020

Tessian’s CEO and co-founder Tim Sadler joined Dave Bittner from the CyberWire and Joe Carrigan from the Johns Hopkins University Information Security Institute to talk about why email is so risky and inboxes remain dangerous territory.

Listen to Hacking Humans Episode 87 “The Art Of Cheating.”

Dave Bittner: Joe, I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Tim Sadler. He is from a company called Tessian. And we discuss the human element of cybersecurity, along with some details on some phishing schemes. Here’s my conversation with Tim Sadler.

Tim Sadler: I think, for a long time, when we’ve spoken about securing people, we’ve always defaulted to training and awareness rather than thinking about how we can use technology to take the burden of security away from people. So I think there’s a challenge at the moment in that humans are unpredictable. They break the rules. They make mistakes. And they’re easily tricked. And that’s what’s leading to so many data breaches today that are ultimately caused by people and human error.

Dave Bittner: And so the bad guys, knowing this, have adjusted their tactics.

Tim Sadler: I think that’s right. I mean, if you think about email for an organization, it is an open gateway. So it is one of the only pieces of infrastructure an organization has where anybody can send anything into an organization without pre-approval. And I think that’s one of the reasons why we’re seeing such a high level of threat around phishing, spear-phishing, business email compromise, those kinds of attacks. It is the – really, the entry point for every attacker that wants to get into an organization today, and it’s so effortless to execute one of these scams.

Dave Bittner: So what kind of things are you tracking? What are some of the specific campaigns that are popular these days?

Tim Sadler: So I think, you know, we see everything from the well-known trends like the fact that, you know, it’s tax season and the W-9 form scam – so attackers putting malicious attachments in emails trying to get people to open them because, you know, it’s tax season, and that’s something that everybody is watching out for. And then some of the more interesting things that we’re seeing specifically are around attackers scraping LinkedIn data to automate attacks based on people moving jobs. So a new joiner to an organization will – you know, is – may have a higher propensity to be duped by a phishing scam. They won’t know the protocol that an organization has in place. So we’re seeing a lot of attacks that come through when people are new to an organization. It’s maybe in their first or second week, and then they’ll receive a spear-phishing email pretending to be the CFO or pretending to be the CEO, trying to dupe them into doing something and, again, use those techniques of deception and urgency on emails.

Dave Bittner: Now, what about some of the more targeted campaigns – you know, things like spear-phishing, even – you hear it referred to sometimes as whaling, where they’re targeting high-level people within organizations?

“The rise in spear phishing and these highly targeted campaigns is largely to do with the fact that we put so much of ourselves online now. So I read a stat recently. Over 150 million U.S. workers have a LinkedIn profile, which is an astonishing statistic. And what that means is it's trivial for any attacker to understand who the C-suite of any organization are, and then it's trivial to then emulate or spoof those identities on email. So what we're seeing is that it's really, really easy to pull off these scams. ”
Tim Sadler Tessian co-founder and CEO

Tim Sadler: And actually, you can – for attackers, it is fairly scalable to do this. You can build a LinkedIn scraper. You can be pulling names. And you can be automating the purchase of domains that look like legitimate domains but, in fact, aren’t. And then you can automate the sending of those emails into organizations. And, you know, the rewards from doing this kind of thing can be enormous for attackers. So I read about that charity in the U.K. this morning who fell victim to a spear-phishing scam where they lost almost a million dollars over three transactions. So it is a huge, huge payoff for these attackers when they actually – you know, they get their target to do the thing they want them to.

Dave Bittner: What are your recommendations for organizations to best protect themselves?

Tim Sadler:  So I think, you know, it does start with awareness. You have to make sure that employees are aware that their inbox is dangerous. And they need to pause, if only for five seconds, just with every email they get and do some basic checks. So check, who is this email from? Does the domain look legitimate?

Tim Sadler: But really, what is extremely difficult is, for most organizations today, their entire security strategy is reliant on their employees doing the right thing 100% of the time. So if you are only relying on security training and awareness, there are going to be things that creep through. There are going to be attacks that are successful. And in the same way that organizations use advanced technology to secure their networks and secure their devices, we believe that organizations today need to be using advanced technology to secure their people.

Dave Bittner: Well, how does that technology play out? What sort of things are you describing here?

Tim Sadler: In order to secure people – so again, we come back to this point that people are unpredictable. They break the rules. They make mistakes, and they’re easily hacked. A system needs to understand the normal patterns of behavior that a person exhibits on email in order to understand what looks like a security threat and what looks like a normal email. So what organizations can do is they can use a platform – like Tessian, for example – that uses machine learning to analyze historical email patterns and behaviors to understand, on every incoming email, does this email look legitimate or not? And that’s something that we’ve pioneered and we use and is much more effective than some of the traditional approaches, which use rules or policies to control the flow of inbound email.

Dave Bittner: You know, it reminds me of a story that a colleague of mine shared with some friends who work for a nonprofit. And they got an email from the chief financial officer, who had just gone on vacation, and it said, I know; I realize I’m out of town, but I need you all to transfer this large sum of money, and I need it done immediately; you know, please don’t let me down. And to a person, they all said, this is the last thing in the world this person would ever say or do. And that tipped them off to the problem. It sounds like – I mean, that’s a similar thing to how you’re coming at this from a technological point of view or looking – making sure that the behavior isn’t anomalous.

Tim Sadler: Yeah, that’s exactly right. We use machine learning in the way that it’s been applied to other fields – for example, credit card fraud detection. You look at their normal spending patterns and behaviors on card transactions, and then you use that intelligence to then spot the fraudulent transactions. And that’s what we’re doing. We’re looking at normal email behavior in order to spot the fraudulent email behavior. And in the same way that you would try and train a person to look out for the unusual aspects of an email that may give a clue as to whether it’s a phishing email or not, you can train a machine-learning algorithm to do the same.

Tim Sadler: Now, the difference and the advantage to doing this is that a machine-learning algorithm can traverse millions and millions and millions of data points in a split second, whereas a human is only going to have a limited number of data points that they can remember or they can go back to in their mind.

Dave Bittner: Where do you suppose we’re headed with this? As you look towards the future and this problem with email continues to be an issue, do you suppose the types of things that you’re offering here are going to become just a standard part of doing business?

Tim Sadler: I think it’s critical that organizations today realize that their security strategy cannot be reliant on training people to do the right thing 100% of the time. And again, it comes back to – at the beginning of my career, I was working for one of the world’s largest banks and saw a massive problem, and that is that banks spend millions of dollars on securing their networks and devices using advanced technology, but they completely neglect the security of their people. So instead, they’re relying on training them to do the right thing 100% of the time. And that, obviously, doesn’t work.

Tim Sadler: I saw people who would send highly sensitive information to completely the wrong person. They would email documents to their personal email account, or they would fall for phishing scams. So we thought this was a huge problem that needed solving, and that’s why we built the product that we’re building today – because we believe that in the same way you have a firewall for your network and you have an EDR platform for your devices, we believe you need a human-layer security platform to protect your people.

Dave Bittner: All right. Interesting stuff. Joe?

Joe Carrigan: Yeah. A couple things stick out to me. One, your inbox is dangerous, and Tim does a really good job of describing why that is. He calls it an open gateway because anyone – literally anyone – can use your inbox.

“A couple things stick out to me. One, your inbox is dangerous, and Tim does a really good job of describing why that is. He calls it an open gateway because anyone - literally anyone - can use your inbox. If you are relying on security training alone, Tim makes this point that you're going to get compromised, and that is a hundred percent true. You need a holistic security plan or solution that at least includes technology, policy and user training.”
Joe Carrigan Johns Hopkins University Information Security Institute, co-host of Hacking Humans