If you thought phishing emails were going away anytime soon, think again. According to Symantec’s July Intelligence report, “one in every 1,968 emails” during the 31-day month was a malicious phishing message – the highest rate in the past 12 months. Similarly, a recently released study by Accenture ranked “sophisticated phishing campaigns” as the second most notable threat currently facing the enterprise.

Thankfully, many organizations have begun to take the phishing epidemic more seriously, as evident by the significant increase in spend on phishing awareness and training programs and simulations. In total, the analyst firm Cybersecurity Ventures projects that “global spending on security awareness training for employees is predicted to reach $10 billion by 2027.”

An argument can be made that the “phishing sophistication” of organizations and their employees is improving due to advances in awareness and smarter cybersecurity solutions. Yet, the results of study after study seem to infer that the continued risks of email phishing far outweigh much of the progress made to date. Take for example almost every major cyberattacks of 2017 so far. From the IRS and Facebook to Google Docs, Ukraine and Amazon, each of these attacks began with a sophisticated phishing event.

The unprecedented frequency of successful phishing attacks, such as those identified above, begs the question: how much can and should organizations rely on employee phishing awareness and training alone as a formidable line of defense? The answer is not very much.


Phishing as the Complicated Root Cause of Cyber Attacks

In the most basic grade school math and science classes, students are tasked to find the root causes of problems and subsequently challenged to offer various solutions. In cybersecurity, the root cause of 90 percent of cyberattacks – at least as delivery is concerned – is phishing. Yet, as an industry, the most common phishing “solutions,” such as spam filters and email gateways, can no longer withstand the sophistication of malicious emails.

The Cybersecurity Ventures research referenced earlier confirms that phishing education and training is trending in popularity among organizations globally. From 3D simulations to quizzes and gamified experiences, phishing awareness and training providers are attempting to capture the market through both innovation and creativity.

The problem, however, is that phishing education and training is often positioned as the solution (along with spam filters and gateways) to the “root problem” of cyberattacks; despite evidence to the contrary. For example, it’s been well documented that people will always be curious to click on links; employees don’t always pay attention; changing behavior is difficult and sometimes the phishing emails are just too darn good, tricking even the most well-intentioned and educated employees.

But what’s not frequently communicated is that, even if phishing education and training excelled to the extent in which organizations would like it to, the phishing epidemic would remain far from solved. That’s because once a suspicious email is flagged, it must first go through an intense analysis and forensics process, followed by remediation – all phases in which the employee is powerless to support.

The analysis and forensics process resides squarely on the shoulders of SOC teams and security groups – both of which struggle to perform such initiatives in a timely manner at scale. With hundreds to thousands of suspicious emails sent for inspection each month, it’s all but impossible for them to expedite manual analysis and forensics, even though with phishing, time is of the essence, as the average time it takes for an employee to fall victim is 82 seconds.

Moreover, whenever an attack is verified, the process of mitigation and remediation is not quick or simple. First, organizations must block the mail source (IP) and sender address in the firewall and email gateway. The suspicious email must then be deleted from all mailboxes using commands by the provider platform. At the same time, SOC teams are expected to conduct spam analysis, email clustering, URL and link scanning and attachments scanning, in order to determine the magnitude of the attack and uncover which employees have received and opened the phishing email. Those who have opened the email and downloaded an attachment or clicked on a link must have all of their endpoint devices examined as quickly as possible.  

So, while phishing may be the root cause of most cyberattacks, phishing education and training is far from a sufficient solution to it.


Defeating the Phish Requires a Multi-Staged Approach

Phishing is the root problem of most cyberattacks. But what’s important to understand about employee phishing and awareness training, one of the primary defenses against phishing, is that it is just the beginning piece to solving a much larger puzzle. Simply put, to defeat phishing with any regularity requires no gaps in defenses at any stage. That is, wherever and whenever employee awareness and training falls short, another line of defense must already be present.

Advances in artificial intelligence, automation and machine learning show promise to help thwart the phishing epidemic prior to and during attacks. For example, machine learning can supplement human intelligence by learning every employees' mailbox individually, collecting statistics about the sender, not just based on the volume of emails going through, but also on the actual correspondent and attachment/link interaction. Similarly, sound automation can immediately trigger a response to irregular communications, which relieves SOC teams and employees of this burden. Artificial intelligence can help weed out false positives, among many other benefits.

After a threat or attack is verified, security orchestration working in tandem with a security information and event management (SIEM) or an Incident Response platform (IR), is necessary to sort disparate security solutions and automate the most appropriate response based on the data and analysis. With today’s phishing complexities and with a shortage of security professionals to combat them in real-time, orchestration has emerged as an imperative to ensure the malicious content is removed from the network seamlessly and automatically.

There is finally global awareness that phishing is the root cause for 90 percent of cyberattacks. Now all we need is to create a general understanding that employee awareness and training cannot and will not thrive on its own. Rather, it’s just a small piece to a large and sophisticated phishing puzzle.