The false sense of security people gain from firewalls

Firewalls are important to maintain security. On that, I suppose almost all of us agree. It is, however, not the final solution to the cyber security problem. First, there is the chance of bad guys pushing malware over traffic that is actually allowed through the firewall (people visiting bad web sites, for example). Then there is the chance that the firewall itself is set up in the wrong way. Finally, there is the possibility that people are bringing their horrible stuff inside the walled garden by using USB sticks, their own devices hooked up to the network, or similar. People running both IT and automation systems tend to be aware of all of these issues – and probably most users too. On the other hand, maybe not – but they should be aware of it and avoid doing obviously stupid stuff.

Then there is the oxymoron of the social engineer. For a skilled con artist it is easy to trick almost anyone by bribing them, using temptations (drugs, sex, money, fame, prestige, power, etc) or blackmailing them into helping an evil outsider. For some reason, companies tend to overlook this very human weakness in the defense layers. You normally do not find much mention of social engineering in operating policies, training and risk assessments for corporations running production critical IT systems, such as industrial control systems. Recent studies have shown that as many as 25% of people receiving phishing e-mails, actually click on links to websites with malware downloads. Tricksters are becoming more skilled – and the language in phishing e-mails has improved tremendously since the Viagra e-mail spam period of ten years ago. This can be summarized in a “tricking the dog” drawing:


Stuff that makes organizations easier to penetrate using social engineering includes:

  • Low employee loyalty due to underpay, bad working environment and psychotic bosses
  • Stressed employees and organizations in a state of constant overload
  • Lack of understanding of the production processes and what is critical
  • Insufficient confidentiality about IT infrastructure – allowing sys
  • tem to be analyzed from the outside
  • Lack of active follow-up of policies and practices such that security awareness erodes over time

In spite that this is well known – few organizations actually do something about that. The best defense against the social engineering attack vector may very well be a security awareness focus by the organization combined with efforts to create a good working environment and happy employees. That should be a win-win situation for both employees and the employer.

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