Tim: Aaron, could you introduce yourself please?
Aaron: Hi, my name is Aaron Higbee. I'm Co-Founder and CTO of PhishMe
Tim: Okay. Now explain PhishMe. It is a funny name.
Aaron: So every organization is worried about getting spear phished. So we provide a software-as-a-service that allows organizations to send real mock spear phishing emails to their employees and as soon as they may fall victim to one of our emails, they are immediately funneled to training about why you need to be worried about this, why people are targeting you at work, and why a spear phishing email at work is a little different than the phishing email you get at home.
Tim: So walk me through this a little bit. They are at their desk, they open their corporate Gmail or their corporate email account, and what happens?
Aaron: Well, there is a variety of things. An attacker might be motivated just to send them a malicious link and hope to take them to a website that is booby-trapped with malware. They might put together a lookalike website that is trying to solicit credentials to get them to log into a fake website. Or they might be including a malicious attachment where the payload is embedded in the attachment and trying to get them to do that.
Tim: How far do you let people go before you let them in on the game?
Aaron: We do it right away. The value in this is the experience, and the person realizing that, hey if they are not vigilant, if they are just mindlessly clicking through emails as fast as they can, they can be victimized by this. And that there really are people out there. So we want to funnel them into the training and awareness portion of it right away, to close out the example, to let them know that this wasn’t to make fun of them, to make them feel bad
Tim: It sounds like it could be embarrassing.
Aaron: Right. We just were trying to empathize and let them know that this was designed to help you get good practice on identifying and spotting this.
Tim: Now you have it for spear phishing specifically over email.
Aaron: That’s right.
Tim: There a lot of threats though over various social media, over Facebook, they can get their account hacked, and send messages through that. Are you addressing things like that yet?
Aaron: Yeah, we are still focused I mean this is the number one attack vector, if you read the recent APT 1 report by Mandiant, they said spear phishing is the most prevalent, aggressive way that people are trying to get in. But I do keep up on those trends. Google was compromised via an instant messaging vector and so that’s interesting to me and I try to keep on top of that.
Tim: The malicious messages that people get, they’ve evolved over the years. I know the ones I get certainly have changed, and now there is something a lot more competent sounding than they used to be.
Aaron: Sure, sure. They might have researched you, they might know your interests, but there are certain emotional triggers that are going to be in all of these emails. And it is up to us as humans to figure that out. They are either going to be baiting you with curiosity, with fear, with a reward, one of those triggers. And if you look at it, and you see the sense of urgency in the email, you should have some spidy senses that tingle that say, wait a minute, I need to spend a little bit more time, this might not be legitimate.
Tim: Now do employees know in advance that the system is even in place within their company?
Aaron: Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. Because we are a software-as-a-service, organizations choose to run their PhishMe program anyway they like. We encourage that. We tell people that they should be upfront with their staff to let them know that the purpose behind this isn’t to make fun, or belittle anyone. And that we are going to be doing this for the next 12 months to give people experience in spotting and identifying these.
Tim: Now how long has PhishMe been around? Where did it come from? Is this academic research or?
Aaron: So where PhishMe came from was, I used to be a pentester, and I did a lot of pentesting work, and I noticed in about 2005, the way that attackers were getting into organizations was starting to shift towards spear phishing instead of your traditional vulnerability scanning and finding some vulnerable service to compromise. So I started offering this as a pentesting service, and in about 2006 and 2007 that light bulb went off where I realized I am actually damaging a valuable teaching opportunity, that the way to correct this is through user awareness education. That the attackers are always going to come up with some new technical tactic, and so we really need to focus in on the social and the human aspect to go after this problem.
Tim: Speaking of the way the stuff has changed, what have you observed about that? What are the trends you see in how have the spear phishing things have changed?
Aaron: Well, one of the things that we’ve noticed is when an attacker is going on a spear phishing campaign, two to three years ago, they would lob in one or two emails to certain employees inside the organization, and they would wait to see if they would respond. What’s happening now is they are sending batches of 10, 20, 30, or 50, because they know those emails are getting analyzed and they know that the command and control infrastructure that the malware connects to is going to be burnt. It is not going to be _____4:59. So they are being a little more tenacious about the volume that they are sending in, which is good; that means some of our preventative technology is working, and also that means user initiative reports are valuable, because now they are going to be sending more of these emails into the organization.
Tim: It gives you a bigger corpus to write your own too.
Aaron: Sure, sure. We are building our human sensors to help fight this problem.
Tim: And who are your customers?
Aaron: Anyone that has been in the news, that has a spear phishing breach, it is likely that they are one of our customers. Our customers are people that have bought all of the technological solutions. They have good information security practices. Yet people are still getting in. And they are frustrated by this. And they want to change. And so if you look at who are the big targets of spear phishing, it is the people that you would imagine, the financial, the government contractors, the oil and gas industry, manufacturing, anyone that has got intellectual property to protect.
Tim: And you are based in Northern Virginia, so that gives you a pretty good access to the various hackable governmental offices there?
Aaron: Yeah, absolutely. I have some interesting lunches with my colleagues in Northern Virginia, and there is always some spear phishing incident that we are talking about that has come up.
Tim: Now Aaron, have you ever personally been tempted or actually clicked on a spear phishing link?
Aaron: You know I might have. Given the nature of our business, we know that we are targets. It would be good bragging rights to be able to phish someone here. And it has changed the way that we do business. Email is not really a very useful tool to us. We have to use a lot of other collaborative software and other internal tools in order to get work done and anytime something comes in to email, we have this very strict process on what we do before we interact with it. I don’t think anyone in my company would say, we are impervious to this. We know that this is a human condition. People can make mistakes. And that is one of our training messages, is even if you did something, and you have that uneasy feeling afterwards, that this might not have been legitimate, it is still something that you need to report to your IT department. Maybe it was benign, maybe it was okay, but it still should be reported as soon as you have that uneasy feeling.
Tim: Anything else you want to tell us about? You mentioned something to me earlier about your Slashdot effect.
Aaron: Oh okay. So we try to offer PhishMe as a true-to-life example. So we send spear phishing emails from the internet, our spear phishing websites are hosted on the internet, and our customers want to make it accurate, but they also want it to be contained. So they don’t want a situation where an employee receives one of our training emails and then forwards it to Slashdot, hey look what my employer is doing to me. So we actually designed our phishing pages to self-destruct. So that we don’t get on the cover of Slashdot.