Email was, for many organizations and individuals, the first taste of the Internet. In those early years, when companies were considering getting connected to the Internet, they had email in mind. The ability to send messages quickly soon proved a decisive advantage that propelled email into becoming the primary means of business communication. With that came the need to ensure messages sent through email were secure and were not a conduit for propagating malware. Communication technology has evolved tremendously since then. Live chat, social media messaging, and project management apps such as Asana, Microsoft Teams, and Slack are just some of the means companies now use to keep in touch with customers, employees, and vendors. Many expected these new channels would signal email’s demise, thus lowering email security importance. Nothing, though, could be further from the truth. Here is why.
1. Email remains No. 1
Businesses have multiple digital avenues through which they can communicate with customers. But none of these has managed to dislodged email from its position as the number one channel for business communication. Over 300 billion emails are sent and received each day. Such prominence naturally makes it the most popular target for cyberattacks.
From password theft and man-in-the-middle attacks to spear-phishing and invoice fraud, email remains one of the most vulnerable channels of business communication. Much of malware, including the more recent threat of ransomware, are spread through email.
2. Email is formal yet personal
Email is an essential communication tool and medium for business. It is more personal and faster than collaborative project management tools yet more formal than live chat and social media messaging. Attackers know they are likely to get the desired response if they use email instead of other less widely adopted means of communication.
3. Manually operated
Email is remotely managed and cloud-stored yet is manually operated by its end-users. It is primarily up to humans to read messages, respond, download attachments, and click links. Spam filters and antimalware software can block a large proportion of unwanted email. Nevertheless, some slip past the defenses. When that happens, the human element creates loopholes for error as well as social engineering manipulation.
4. Valuable source of exchanging sensitive information
Email makes it possible for organizations to disseminate a wide range of information fast and efficiently. Everything from video call invitations and bank details to strategy documents and sales contracts. This versatility and simplicity make it possible for diverse threats to be relayed unnoticed. In addition, email servers are a valuable reservoir of company and personal information.
5. First line of attack and defense
If there are cybercriminals out there contemplating breaking through your company’s cyber-defenses, email will probably be their first weapon of choice. A failure to deploy the appropriate tools and controls to email security will render any other cyber defenses you put up inadequate. You have to see email security importance as a central pillar in an interdependent system of security controls.
6. Phishing kits and phishing-as-a-service
The proliferation of phishing-as-a-service and phishing kits has given new speed and scale to cyber-threats. No longer does an attacker need to have a technical background to develop and deploy a phishing attack. A person with minimal digital knowledge can get an onslaught going by simply procuring an available kit for as little as $100.
In phishing-as-a-service, the attacker shares the target email addresses with the service provider and pays for the service itself or enters into a revenue-sharing contract with the provider.
7. Cloud-based computing
Corporations recognized the enormous efficiency advantages they stood to reap if they moved from an on-premises setup to a cloud-based one. Email servers that were previously on-site shifted to the cloud. With that came the loss of the traditional network perimeter.
Now, for an attacker to gain access to your email server, they no longer had to first breach your local area network. They could, for instance, steal your Microsoft 365 credentials and, after that, establish rules that monitor and divert emails. It would give them insights into your business, customers, vendors, and employees.
8. More sophisticated attacks
In the past, malware employed a predictable execution pattern whose signatures could be identified by antivirus engines. Presently, malware uses sophisticated algorithms and formulas to evade detection by traditional signature-based engines. It exhibits a wide range of behaviors depending on multiple factors, including the environment within which it is deployed.
Phishing emails also use multiple tactics to evade detection, including varying the sender, subject, text, and URL. An attacker can impersonate multiple different parties within the same phishing campaign to make the message more believable to a victim.
From WannaCry to Petya, ransomware has plagued the world in unprecedented fashion. Losing access to critical systems and data has pushed many organizations into paying out the ransom. The result of attacks was downtime, loss of customer trust, data loss, financial loss, and diminished reputation.
Ransomware is primarily propagated via email. So any attempt at preventing such attacks must emphasize email security importance.
10. Increase in threats with the pandemic
A Cloudflare report found that online threats increased by 500 percent above their usual levels shortly after the pandemic. It makes sense because the dramatic shift in the work environment from on-premises to remote working created new vulnerabilities that did not exist before. Worse still, this had to take place in weeks, and some companies had no prior experience with managing or supporting a remote workforce.
Attackers stepped up their aggression as they sought to exploit new opportunities such as insecure connections, misconfigured applications, and uninformed employees. Phishing attacks, in particular, are up, and this has only further emphasized the email security importance.
Email security: Still an important core of IT security
Threat actors depend on the numerous opportunities availed to them by unsecured email systems to spread malware and break enterprise IT security defenses. It is vital that organizations ensure email security is at the heart of the overall integrated IT security strategy.
Featured image: Shutterstock