How to use Syrian Electronic Army attacks to improve security awareness

Ira Winkler and Samantha Manke suggest exploiting the Syrian Electronic Army and Target hacks to improve your organization's security awareness

Recently, we have been called in to help companies handle attacks from the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA). Our first priority is to help contain the damage, figure out which accounts have been compromised that have not been used yet to cause damage, and clean things up.

[Syrian Electronic Army hacks Microsoft's Office Blogs site]

However, the most useful outcome for victims resulting from these attacks is that security awareness becomes the top concern. The next priority is how to take advantage of the newfound respect for security awareness. That being said, most companies are not victims of these attacks. They can, however, still take advantage of the misfortune of others.

One of the most effective ways to spread awareness is to make sure that your program is timely and relevant. The hacks of Target, Neiman Marcus, Michaels, and the ongoing Syrian Electronic Army are gifts to security awareness managers and security departments as a whole. Your expertise is now relevant to the professional and personal lives of all employees. What are you doing to take advantage of that?

While a future article will go into more details about our experiences in responding to SEA attacks, for now we will address how to exploit attacks for your own benefit. This may sound harsh, but if you are a CSO, security manager, or awareness profession and you did not take the opportunity to provide people with the basic facts of the Target and Neiman-Marcus hacks, you ruined a major opportunity to engage with your organization. You lost the opportunity to demonstrate your ongoing value you can provide to employees. You also lost an opportunity to protect your organization from the distraction of a distressed employee, who doesn't know the proper actions to take and is left with a drained bank account.

With Target and Neiman Marcus, you could provide basic facts, but more important, you should provide simple guidance as to what actions to take. The only information people tend to get is from the mainstream media, which provides guidance that is trivial at best, inaccurate and harmful at worst. A simple email blast or post on an internal website would be perceived as a blessing by Target customers, which represented about 1 in 3 Americans.

[CSO's guide to the Target data breach]

Even if you are not American, there are constant incidents worldwide to take advantage of. Any incident of that involves a consumer loss represents an opportunity to exploit for good.

Ironically, if you are not a victim of the SEA, it is great to use their incidents to highlight and publicize the importance of awareness. The SEA relies almost solely on phishing and social engineering attacks. As most people don't believe that anyone would ever target them, the SEA especially targets people who never thought it would happen to them. For example, their infamous Twitter hack involved sending spear phishing messages to a small company in New Zealand, because they had access to an ISP that served Twitter. The recent attacks targeting Microsoft and CNN again used spear phishing attacks to gain account information.

These SEA incidents are great to demonstrate the importance of overall awareness, using anti-malware software, not reusing passwords, identifying the distinguishing factors of phishing attacks, etc. The Target, Neiman Marcus and similar attacks also serve as a reminder of the importance of good security programs.

More importantly, if you do it properly, putting out such information can create a new perspective about your security department. You are not an organization that is there to inhibit your organization, or to punish people, but to support your employees when they need it. As we described in another article, you want to be the Department of How.

[Positioning your institution's response in the face of data breach]

Besides providing useful information, taking advantage of security related current events keeps your security awareness program fresh. It demonstrates that awareness is not a stale topic with nothing new to contribute. You are not just rehashing policies and putting up posters, forcing people to watch videos, or tricking them with phishing messages. Highlighting the latest SEA attacks, also demonstrates why those efforts are relevant.

To take advantage of incidents, be succinct. Let people know the basic issues involved, what it means to the employee, and what actions, if any, they should take if they are affected. A sample message you can distribute regarding the current retailer attacks can be found at this link.

The fact is that all organizations will suffer some form of a breach. It is impossible to know what form that may take when it hits your organization. While you should not delight in the misery of other security professionals, it doesn't mean that you cannot use that misfortune for the benefit of your own organization and its employees.

Security awareness has ongoing applicability inside and outside of your organizational walls, and if you can demonstrate that applicability is relevant to your employee's personal and business lives, they will practice better security behaviors both at home and at work.

Ira Winkler, CISSP and Samantha Manke can be contacted at

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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