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How AI-Powered Email Solutions Can Level Up Security Teams

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02
Apr 2023
02
Apr 2023
This blog outlines the challenges faced by security teams in protecting organizations from email-based attacks. It explores how a modern, AI-based security solution can tackle these pain points with targeted autonomous action, frictionless UIs, optimized workflows and full visibility of account users.

The modern security team faces challenges on all fronts – it is too often overstretched dealing with an increased attack surface, enabling workforces for secure remote work, and managing multiple security tools to protect that workforce. Added to that, the surge in more sophisticated phishing campaigns – now supported by AI tools – means that it’s harder than ever to pre-empt attacks. 

The needs of the security team should be a key consideration when deploying an email security solution, as it’s them who will be accountable for the success and maintenance of the product. Minimizing time spent inside the user interface – through trusted detection and response technology combined with intuitive reporting and optimized workflows – should be front of mind for vendors in order to assure teams of their value.

Taking security teams off the frontline 

No team should be spending all of their time maintaining email security policies, releasing emails that shouldn’t have been held, or holding back emails that should have been – all the things that traditional email security solutions have almost forced them to become accustomed to. A day in the life of an admin shouldn’t include tens – and certainly not hundreds – of minutes spent in their email security dashboard. 

At the moment, teams are logging in far too often, and when they do, they’re forced to make individual decisions about safe listing and blocking domains, or releasing emails. These can lead to the creation of blanket rules that open up future windows for attackers – unintended consequences that ultimately create more work in the future. This type of hand-to-hand combat puts security teams on the frontline, when their time could be much better spent doing the high-level strategic work humans are best at.  

Understanding You: A Different Approach to Email Security

In today’s discussions about email security, there is a consensus that relying on a gateway is no longer feasible. The new era is one of ICES (Integrated cloud email security) solutions and other tools leveraging artificial intelligence and APIs. But there's no point adopting new technology with an old philosophy – and most of these solutions use AI to automate the same old approach: looking at past attacks to try and stop the next. 

This is where Darktrace/Email takes a fundamentally different and unique approach. It’s not just about using AI; it’s about using it in the right capacity. Our AI understands you – learning where users log in from, who they email, their behavior throughout the day – to tailor the detection and response process according to their individual profile. There’s no point withholding an email if only a tiny element of it poses a risk – Darktrace/Email takes the least aggressive action required to neutralize a threat. Instead of a blanket allow-deny criteria, it can rewrite links or withhold attachments based on its knowledge of the user’s normal inbox activity. Stopping malicious emails while allowing legitimate emails through – with risky elements neutralized – lifts security teams out of the fire-fighting activities described earlier and frees up their time for more strategic and valuable decision-making.

This is going to get me to reduce my current email security stack… this is going to take it to that level that I need it to”

- Early Look Customer, Darktrace/Email 

Account Takeover 

Embedded account takeover protection is an essential component of modern email security. Security teams need visibility not just over email breaches but of what happens once an attacker has control of an inbox, particularly in the most damaging use cases like Business Email Compromise (BEC) and ransomware. This entails understanding a user’s behavior in their inbox, outbound emails and beyond into their wider account activity. Darktrace captures a user’s activity across email and their Microsoft or Google account in a single pane of glass – detecting and countering all of the markers that could signify a compromised account.  

Insights from other cloud applications and network devices gleaned from Darktrace's wider visibility of the business can bring a 360° understanding of the user, further enhancing detection of account takeover and other harmful activity.

Figure 1: A 360° understanding of a user reveals their digital touchpoints beyond Microsoft

What ‘user-friendly’ actually looks like 

The best user interface is one that you never have to log into. In an ideal world, teams are able to visit their tools less frequently because intelligent AI is automating work previously done by humans. This is made possible by Darktrace’s precision detection and response technology, which takes appropriate action on emails and accounts to neutralize threats without disrupting day-to-day business operations. 

The second-best user interface is one where you can quickly log in and get key insights fast, whether that’s regarding an action taken or the current activity of a user – and then get out. Darktrace/Email enables teams to get key information quickly, at both a high and granular level.  The dashboard offers immediate insights into users and emails, with a real-time snapshot of active user identities, targeted user and actioned emails, segmented by type of attack. 

At every touchpoint, Darktrace reduces friction with optimized workflows. From being able to quickly identify VIPs to safely previewing links and attachments, security teams can get the information they need without needing to switch between windows or navigate inaccessible interfaces. Explainable AI gives users natural-language summaries of individual emails or the overall health of an email environment, and simplified action flows allow security teams to personalize security for different employees – for example, sending VIPs a unique notification, or taking extra precautions around employees who work in accounting. Taken together, this meaning that admins can spend even less time managing policies. 

Figure 2: Darktrace/Email dashboard displaying key information about the email environment in a single pane of glass

The ideal interface is also the one that’s the most accessible to you. The mobile app guarantees convenience for security teams, making available all the main functions of the interface for on-the-go analysis at any time or place. Teams can travel or leave the office while retaining the peace of mind that if a critical incident was to occur, they would be able to get instant visibility on the data and take action without needing to get back to their desks.  

Figure 3: Security admins are able to preview, analyze, and act on emails directly from the Darktrace Mobile App

With every passing day, the security team can rest easier. Every activity is taken into account to help the AI tune and adapt over time to become even better at detecting and responding to threats.   

Having email on the app is going to be game changing” 

- Early Look Customer, Darktrace/Email 

Getting the full picture

Most often, email is the entry point from which a threat actor moves stealthily throughout an organization collecting information and assets. Most solutions look at email in isolation, without prioritizing or connecting disparate events into a wider pattern. 

In contrast, Darktrace/Email integrates seamlessly with Darktrace's Cyber AI Analyst, a technology that conducts autonomous enterprise-wide investigations around every alert produced by the wider Darktrace platform. Through this integration, malicious email activity is analyzed and displayed in the context of the full security incident to which it belongs. As a result, security teams can see why and how a wider problem might have originated in email and spread to other apps, endpoints, or the wider corporate network.

Empowering employees to take an active role in security

The role of the security team can be made more difficult if employees take a lax or disengaged approach to security – or if a user is given too much control, and has the ability to make potentially dangerous decisions. Training employees on security procedures is another to-do which can easily fall to the bottom of the agenda during busy periods, especially as point-in-time phishing simulations have proven to be not particularly effective. 

To this end, Darktrace/Email uses Explainable AI to say in natural language what it thought about an email, and delivers its findings not just to the security team, but optionally to the wider workforce as well. Delivered in the form of contextual banners in emails, periodic digests, or directly in Outlook, these insights transform security education from a quarterly or yearly exercise into real-time security awareness. Our next blog will dive deeper into how employee engagement can support the security team’s efforts and harden defenses throughout the organization. 

Because Darktrace is built on a fundamentally different approach, it not only stops novel and targeted sophisticated attacks but allows legitimate emails to flow through. This is what makes it a truly set-and-forget technology, with the AI taking on much of the heavy lifting previously undertaken by security teams. 

DANS LE SOC
Darktrace sont des experts de classe mondiale en matière de renseignement sur les menaces, de chasse aux menaces et de réponse aux incidents. Ils fournissent une assistance SOC 24 heures sur 24 et 7 jours sur 7 à des milliers de clients Darktrace dans le monde entier. Inside the SOC est exclusivement rédigé par ces experts et fournit une analyse des cyberincidents et des tendances en matière de menaces, basée sur une expérience réelle sur le terrain.
AUTEUR
à propos de l'auteur
Dan Fein
VP, Produits

Based in New York, Dan joined Darktrace’s technical team in 2015, helping customers quickly achieve a complete and granular understanding of Darktrace’s product suite. Dan has a particular focus on Darktrace/Email, ensuring that it is effectively deployed in complex digital environments, and works closely with the development, marketing, sales, and technical teams. Dan holds a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from New York University.

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Customer Blog: Community Housing Limited Enhancing Incident Response

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04
Mar 2024

About Community Housing Limited

Community Housing Limited is a non-profit organization based in Australia that focuses on providing affordable, long-term housing and creating employment opportunities where possible. We give people the security of having a home so that they can focus on other essential pathways. As such, we are responsible for sensitive information on our clients.

As part of our commitment to strengthening our cyber security, we sought to simplify and unify our incident response plans and equip our engineers and desktop support teams with all the information we need at our fingertips.

Why Community Housing Limited chose Darktrace

Our team hoped to achieve a response procedure that allowed us to have oversight over any potential security risks, even cases that don’t overtly seem like a security risk. For example, an incident could start as a payroll issue and end up in the hands of HR, instead of surfacing as a security problem. In this case, our security team has no way of knowing the real number of events or how the threat had actually started and played out, making incident response and mitigation even more challenging.

We were already a customer of Darktrace’s autonomous threat detection, attack intervention, and attack surface management capabilities, and decided to add Darktrace for AI-assisted incident response and AI cyber-attack simulation.

AI-generated playbooks save time during incident response

I wanted to reduce the time and resources it took our security team to appropriately respond to a threat. Darktrace automates several steps of the recovery process to accelerate the rate of incident response by using AI that learns the granular details of the specific organization, building a dynamic understanding of the devices, connections, and user behaviors that make up the normal “pattern of life.”  

The AI then uses this understanding to create bespoke, AI-generated incident response playbooks that leverage an evolving understanding of our organization to determine recovery steps that are tailored not only to the specific incident but also to our unique environment.

For my security team, this means having access to all the information we need to respond to a threat. When running through an incident, rather than going to different places to synthesize relevant information, which takes up valuable resources and time, we can speed up its remediation with Darktrace.  

The playbooks created by Darktrace help lower the technical skills required to respond to incidents by elevating the workload of the staff, tripling our capacity for incident response.

Realistic attack simulations upskill teams while saving resources

We have differing levels of experience on the team which means some members know exactly what to do during incident response while others are slower and need more guidance. Thus, we have to either outsource skilled security professionals or add a security solution that could lower the technical skills bar.

You don’t want to be second guessing and searching for the right move – it’s urgent – there should be certainty. Our goal with running attack simulations is to test and train our team's response capabilities in a “realistic” scenario. But this takes considerable time to plan and execute or can be expensive if outsourced, which can be a challenge for organizations short on resources. 

Darktrace provides AI-assisted incident response and cyber-attack simulation using AI that understands the organization to run simulations that effectively map onto the real digital environment and the assets within it, providing training for actual incidents.

It is one thing to sit together in a meeting and discuss various outcomes of a cyber-attack, talking through the best response strategies. It is a huge benefit being able to run attack simulations that emulate real-world scenarios.

Our team can now see how an incident would play out over several days to resemble a real-world scenario or it can play through the simulation quickly to ascertain outcomes immediately. It then uses these insights to strengthen its technology, processes, and training.

AI-Powered Incident Response

Darktrace helps my security team save resources and upskill staff using AI to generate bespoke playbooks and run realistic simulations. Its real-time understanding of our business ensures incident preparedness and incident response are tailored to not only the specific threat in question, but also to the contextual infrastructure of the organization.  

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About the author
Jamie Woodland
Head of Technology at Community Housing Limited

Blog

Email

Beyond DMARC: Navigating the Gaps in Email Security

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29
Feb 2024

Email threat landscape  

Email has consistently ranked among the most targeted attack vectors, given its ubiquity and criticality to business operations. From September to December 2023, 10.4 million phishing emails were detected across Darktrace’s customer fleet demonstrating the frequency of attempted email-based attacks.

Businesses are searching for ways to harden their email security posture alongside email providers who are aiming to reduce malicious emails traversing their infrastructure, affecting their clients. Domain-based Message Authentication (DMARC) is a useful industry-wide protocol organizations can leverage to move towards these goals.  

What is DMARC?

DMARC is an email authentication protocol designed to enhance the security of email communication.

Major email service providers Google and Yahoo recently made the protocol mandatory for bulk senders in an effort to make inboxes safer worldwide. The new requirements demonstrate an increasing need for a standardized solution as misconfigured or nonexistent authentication systems continue to allow threat actors to evade detection and leverage the legitimate reputation of third parties.  

DMARC is a powerful tool that allows email administrators to confidently identify and stop certain spoofed emails; however, more organizations must implement the standard for it to reach its full potential. The success and effectiveness of DMARC is dependent on broad adoption of the standard – by organizations of all sizes.  

How does DMARC work?

DMARC builds on two key authentication technologies, Sender Policy Framework (SPF) and DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM) and helps to significantly improve their ability to prevent domain spoofing. SPF verifies that a sender’s IP address is authorized to send emails on behalf of a particular domain and DKIM ensures integrity of email content by providing a verifiable digital signature.  

DMARC adds to this by allowing domain owners to publish policies that set expectations for how SPF and DKIM verification checks relate to email addresses presented to users and whose authenticity the receiving mail server is looking to establish.  

These policies work in tandem to help authenticate email senders by verifying the emails are from the domain they say they are, working to prevent domain spoofing attacks. Key benefits of DMARC include:

  1. Phishing protection DMARC protects against direct domain spoofing in which a threat actor impersonates a legitimate domain, a common phishing technique threat actors use to trick employees to obtain sensitive information such as privileged credentials, bank information, etc.  
  2. Improving brand reputation: As DMARC helps to prevent impersonation of domains, it stands to maintain and increase an organization’s brand reputation. Additionally, as organizational reputation improves, so will the deliverability of emails.
  3. Increased visibility: DMARC provides enhanced visibility into email communication channels, including reports of all emails sent on behalf of your domain. This allows security teams to identify shadow-IT and any unauthorized parties using their domain.

Understanding DMARC’s Limitations

DMARC is often positioned as a way for organizations to ‘solve’ their email security problems, however, 65% of the phishing emails observed by Darktrace successfully passed DMARC verification, indicating that a significant number of threat actors are capable of manipulating email security and authentication systems in their exploits. While DMARC is a valuable tool in the fight against email-based attacks, the evolving threat landscape demands a closer look at its limitations.  

As threat actors continue to innovate, improving their stealth and evasion tactics, the number of attacks with valid DMARC authentication will only continue to increase in volume and sophistication. These can include:

  1. Phishing attacks that leverage non-spoofed domains: DMARC allows an organization to protect the domains that they own, preventing threat actors from being able to send phishing emails from their domains. However, threat actors will often create and use ‘look-a-like’ domains that closely resemble an organization’s domain to dupe users. 3% of the phishing emails identified by Darktrace utilized newly created domains, demonstrating shifting tactics.  
  2. Email Account Takeovers: If a threat actor gains access to a user’s email account through other social engineering means such as credential stuffing, they can then send phishing emails from the legitimate domain to pursue further attacks. Even though these emails are malicious, DMARC would not identify them as such because they are coming from an authorized domain or sender.  

Organizations must also ensure their inbound analysis of emails is not skewed by successful DMARC authentication. Security teams cannot inherently trust emails that pass DMARC, because the source cannot always be legitimized, like in the event of an account takeover. If a threat actor gains access to an authenticated email account, emails sent by the threat actor from that account will pass DMARC – however the contents of that email may be malicious. Sender behavior must be continuously evaluated and vetted in real time as past communication history and validated DMARC cannot be solely relied upon amid an ever-changing threat landscape.  

Security teams should lean on other security measures, such as anomaly detection tools that can identify suspicious emails without relying on historical attack rules and static data. While DMARC is not a silver bullet for email security, it is nevertheless foundational in helping organizations protect their brand identity and must be viewed as an essential layer in an organization's overall cyber security strategy.  

Implementing DMARC

Despite the criticality of DMARC for preserving brand reputation and trust, adoption of the standard has been inconsistent. DMARC can be complex to implement with many organizations lacking the time required to understand and successfully implement the standard. Because of this, DMARC set-up is often outsourced, giving security and infrastructure teams little to no visibility into or control of the process.  

Implementation of DMARC is only the start of this process, as DMARC reports must be consistently monitored to ensure organizations have visibility into who is sending mail from their domain, the volume of mail being sent and whether the mail is passing authentication protocols. This process can be time consuming for security teams who are already faced with mounting responsibilities, tight budgets, and personnel shortages. These complexities unfortunately delay organizations from using DMARC – especially as many today still view it as a ‘nice to have’ rather than an essential.  

With the potential complexities of the DMARC implementation process, there are many ways security and infrastructure teams can still successfully roll out the standard. Initial implementation should start with monitoring, policy adjustment and then enforcement. As business changes over time, DMARC should be reviewed regularly to ensure ongoing protection and maintain domain reputation.

The Future of Email Security

As email-based attacks continue to rise, the industry must recognize the importance of driving adoption of foundational email authentication protocols. To do this, a new and innovative approach to DMARC is needed. DMARC products must evolve to better support organizations throughout the ongoing DMARC monitoring process, rather than just initial implementation. These products must also be able to share intelligence across an organization’s security stack, extending beyond email security tools. Integration across these products and tools will help organizations optimize their posture, ensuring deep understanding of their domain and increased visibility across the entire enterprise.

DMARC is critical in protecting brand identity and mitigating exact-domain based attacks. However, organizations must understand DMARC’s unique benefits and limitations to ensure their inboxes are fully protected. In today’s evolving threat landscape, organizations require a robust, multi-layered approach to stop email threats – in inbound mail and beyond. Email threats have evolved – its time security does too.

Join Darktrace on 9 April for a virtual event to explore the latest innovations needed to get ahead of the rapidly evolving threat landscape. Register today to hear more about our latest innovations coming to Darktrace’s offerings. For additional insights check out Darktrace’s 2023 End of Year Threat Report.

Credit to Carlos Gray and Stephen Pickman for their contribution to this blog

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About the author
Carlos Gray
Product Manager

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