Retail CISOs and the areas they must focus on

In this interview, Matt Cooke, cybersecurity strategist, EMEA at Proofpoint, discusses the cybersecurity challenges for retail organizations and the main areas CISOs need to focus on.

retail CISOs

Generally, are retailers paying enough attention to security hygiene?

Our research has shown that the vast majority of retailers in the UK and Europe-wide simply aren’t doing enough to protect their customers from fraudulent and malicious emails – only 11% of UK retailers have implemented the recommended and strictest level of DMARC protection, which protects them from cybercriminals spoofing their identity and decreases the risk of email fraud for customers.

Despite this low and worrying statistic, it’s promising to see that a small majority of UK retailers have at least started their DMARC journey – with 53% publishing a DMARC record in general. When we look at the top European-wide online retailers, 60% of them have published a DMARC record.

If we compare this to the largest organisations in the world (the Global 2000), only 51% of these brands have published a DMARC record. This illustrates the retail industry is slightly ahead of the curve – therefore certainly is paying attention to security hygiene – but there’s still a long way to go.

Unfortunately, starting your DMARC journey isn’t quite enough – without having the ‘reject’ policy in place cyber criminals can still pretend to be you and trick your customers.

What areas should a CISO of a retail organization be particularly worried about?

Business Email Compromise (BEC) and Email Account Compromise Attacks (EAC), are on the rise, targeting organisations in all industries globally. Dubbed cyber-security’s priciest problem, social engineering driven cyber threats such as BEC and EAC are purpose-built to impersonate someone users trust and trick them into sending money or sensitive information.

These email-based threats are a growing problem. Recent Proofpoint research has shown that since March 2020, over 7,000 CEOs or other executives have been impersonated. Overall, more money is lost to this type of attack than any other cybercriminal activity. In fact, according to the FBI, these attacks have cost organisations worldwide more than $26 billion between June 2016 and July 2019.

The retail industry has a very complex supply chain. When targeting an organisation in this sector, cyber criminals don’t only see success from tricking consumers/customers, they can also target suppliers, with attacks such as BEC, impersonating a trusted person from within the business.

We have seen cases within the retail sector where cyber criminals are compromising suppliers’ email accounts in order to hijack seemingly legitimate conversations with someone within the retail business. The aim here is to trick the retailer into paying an outstanding invoice into the wrong account – the cybercriminals’ account, as opposed to the actual supplier.

In addition, due to the pandemic, global workforces have been thrusted into remote working – and those in the retail sector are not exempt. As physical stores have closed worldwide, customer service and interaction has shifted to digital communication more so than ever. Those employees that were used to talking directly to customers, are now using online platforms and have new cloud accounts – expanding the attack surface for cybercriminals.

The retail industry – along with all other industries – need to ensure employees are adequately trained around identifying the risks that might be delivered by these different communication channels and how to securely handle customer data.

Domain spoofing and phishing continue to rise, what’s the impact for retail organizations?

Threat actors are constantly tailoring their tactics, yet email remains the cybercriminals’ attack vector of choice, both at scale and in targeted attacks, simply because it works.

Cybercriminals use phishing because it’s easy, cheap and effective. Email addresses are easy to obtain, and emails are virtually free to send. With little effort and little cost, attackers can quickly gain access to valuable data. As seen in recent breaches, emails sent from official addresses that use the domains of known international companies, seem trustworthy both to the receiver and spam-filters, increasing the number of potential victims. However, this has a detrimental effect on both the brands’ finances and reputation.

Organisations have a duty to deploy authentication protocols, such as DMARC to protect employees, customers, and partners from cybercriminals looking to impersonate their trusted brand and damage their reputation.

Opportunistic cyber criminals will tailor their emails to adapt to whatever is topical or newsworthy at that moment in time. For example, Black Friday-themed phishing emails often take advantage of recipients’ desire to cash in on increasingly attractive deals, creating tempting clickbait for users.

These messages may use stolen branding and tantalising subject lines to convince users to click through, at which point they are often delivered to pages filled with advertising, potential phishing sites, malicious content, or offers for counterfeit goods. As with most things, if offers appear too good to be true or cannot be verified as legitimate email marketing from known brands, recipients should avoid following links.

Do you expect technologies like AI and ML to help retailers eliminate most security risks in the near future?

Today, AI is a vital line of defence against a wide range of threats, including people-centric attacks such as phishing. Every phishing email leaves behind it a trail of data. This data can be collected and analysed by machine learning algorithms to calculate the risk of potentially harmful emails by checking for known malicious hallmarks.

While AI and ML certainly help organisations to reduce risks, they are not going to eliminate security risks on their own. Organisations need to build the right technologies and plug the right gaps from a security perspective, using AI and ML as just part of this overall solution.

Organisations should not outsource their risk management entirely to an AI engine, because AI doesn’t know your business.

There is no doubt that artificial intelligence is now a hugely important line of cyber defence. But it cannot and should not replace all previous techniques. Instead, we must add it to an increasingly sophisticated toolkit, designed to protect against rapidly evolving threats.




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