Black Hat survey reveals a disconnect between losses and security program focus

The Black Hat study focused on the concerns of practitioners, including how they actually spent their times and the losses that they incurred

I started to review the recently published Black Hat Attendee Survey. This study primarily focused on the concerns of practitioners, including how they actually spent their times and the losses that they incurred.

In another article, I will try to compare those concerns with the actual conference content. For now though, the most notable statistic is the prominence of awareness related concerns, as a pain point for security professionals.

Clearly, the news media and study after study indicate that attackers target poor awareness on the part of end users and administrators. It has been reported that spearphishing was behind the Sony and TV5Monde attacks. The Sony results are well known. The TV5Monde attack was originally credited to ISIS sympathizers and the fact that TV5Monde actually televised many of their passwords while broadcasting an interview from their studios. Passwords were written on a white board in the background. Whether the attack was the result of televised passwords or spearphishing, it is still a result of user actions.

While I admit that it is questionable as to how valid some studies can be when they rely upon random people self-reporting what they see, as there can be bias, poor estimation, and a hesitation to disclose incidents, it is as legitimate an estimate that you can get. So while I take the results with a proverbial grain of salt, it can be assumed that these people have a reasonable estimate of what they are experiencing.

In the analysis of the data, there is clearly a predominance of user related concerns. Then a top concern, besides of clear awareness related issues, is “sophisticated attacks”. As has been thoroughly discussed, the primary attack vector for sophisticated attacks has been phishing and similar attacks. So it can be argued that this concern is directly related to awareness related issues.

When I look through the survey categories and identify those that are related to or addressed by security awareness, I find the following:

  • Sophisticated attacks targeted directly at the organization
  • Phishing, social network exploits or other forms of social engineering
  • Accidental data leaks by users who fail to follow security policy
  • Data theft or sabotage by malicious insiders
  • Internal mistakes or external attacks that cause my organization to lose compliance
The top concern of the survey respondents was by far awareness related issues. It was more than 50% higher than a lack of a comprehensive security architecture. All other categories rated less than 10%. Remember that Black Hat, as a concept, focuses on technical vulnerabilities, and is known for highlighting 0 Day Attacks. Yet despite the likely bias of attendees, non-technical concerns are on the top of the mind for event attendees.

It is no wonder that this is the top concern as on average, the answers to which vulnerabilities consume the greatest amount of time, awareness incidents consumed the most time of the professionals who responded to the survey.

So, while I already admitted that you have to take these results with a grain of sand, you need to ask yourself if your budgets and resource expenditure demonstrate that you are proactively at least attempting to address where your time goes.

Surveys like this should at least cause you to assess how your current priorities and spending match the source of the losses that you face. I wish there was more to this study and this article, however from my experience helping companies with their awareness efforts and their overall security programs, I know first hand that there is a disconnect.

While it may be argued that technical vulnerabilities are not as big of an issue as they are dealt with more effectively and aggressively, and that might be true, resources should be reallocated as appropriate. Also perhaps technical countermeasures can be enhanced to address awareness related issues. For example, multifactor authentication can stop many social engineering attacks.

However the reality is that most organizations address the costly losses with CBT and/or phishing simulations, and leave it at that. While each of them may be part of a security awareness program, it is the non-technical equivalent of saying that a firewall and anti-virus software is good enough for a technical security program.

The issue is that there has to be a comprehensive strategy to mitigate user vulnerabilities. This strategy would typically include CBT and phishing simulations, but is must also include a constant stream of passive and active security awareness efforts. Additionally, there should be a firm analysis of available technologies to see if they can better mitigate user vulnerabilities.

So while this study might not be definitive, it should make you at least pause to consider whether or not your security program is spending a significant amount of time responding to user created incidents, while having security programs that don’t adequately reflect those losses. Hopefully, you will take steps to address those issues, and then you will have to reconsider the focus of your security program later.

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