Cyber security: Understanding spear phishing and defense techniques

Since defending against social engineering is more training than technical, your people have to learn to recognize when it’s happening.


Spear phishing is a social engineering tactic used to prey upon individuals who have access to resources that a hacker has targeted. It has a high success rate and has become a preferred method where the hacker entices a victim to click on a link, open a spreadsheet, or access some other document. This simple click opens the electronic door to the attacker after he has already mapped out your internal vulnerabilities. He can now reach the vulnerabilities because you just let him in, and he can begin mining for information and authorized access. How do hackers do this, and how can you defend yourself against this tactic?

The U.S. ICS-CERT has become aware of and notified the public regarding a recent rash of spear phishing campaigns targeting a variety of personnel and industrial control system sectors. Ultimately the attacking entity wants to gain a foothold in the facility—the closer the foothold is to the target the better, but often any foothold will do. Therefore, no one can be considered immune from a targeted spear phishing campaign:

  • A process engineer receives an e-mailed notice from an automation partner or vendor that appears legitimate
  • A financial analyst receives e-mailed spreadsheets pertaining to a current project’s analytical data, or
  • An executive receives a link to a website containing information about a competitor’s recent acquisition.

The goal of the attacker is to lure the victim to an untrusted cyber location, typically by opening a malicious PDF, text document, spreadsheet, Java application, or website. The process engineer’s, financial analyst’s, and executive’s data request transits outbound from the protected networks to the untrusted zones of the Internet allowing the intruder to get in. The attacker chooses his victims by using resources like LinkedIn and Facebook to understand social relationships; job and message board websites to understand vendor relationships, roles, and responsibilities; and even technical tools to scrub authorized files located on public websites to understand what versions and security patch levels of Microsoft Office, Adobe Acrobat, and Java are used in the targeted organization.

Other open-source intelligence (OSINT) sources and topics can include:

  • PR and media releases
  • Business M&A, stock, and financial statements
  • Natural disasters
  • Government and industry events and conferences
  • Government databases
  • International or political events
  • Vendor success stories and awarded contracts
  • Social media websites, and
  • Job and message boards.

If you realize you have been targeted, make certain you retain the e-mails. Also monitor your e-mail and network activity. Don’t assume that the thing you have identified is an isolated incident—it is most likely only one instance of a much broader campaign within your organization. Recently PhishMe and Critical Intelligence teamed up for a study and released their results at the annual S4 conference in January 2013. You can watch the presentation of their results, but the point is spear phishing works.

Defending yourself

The only practical defense is training your people to recognize when it’s happening. You can’t keep such messages out, so you must jump ahead and attempt to target your own workforce before real attacks commence. You must attempt to fool your own people and see who falls victim. Individuals who open the bogus attachments need to be trained on what they did wrong. This exercise will provide active security awareness for your personnel. Someone or many will fall victim, and then it will be up to you to ensure that the real education process begins. Immediately you have a choice: Do you outsource the process to an organization like PhishMe or do it internally?

If you choose to keep it in-house, here are a few tools you can try:

Of course, don’t just start using these tools without the appropriate training and authority—it may even be simpler to contract an outside consulting company to perform the more targeted campaign.    

Security vendors such as PhishMe provide a structured mechanism to target organizational e-mails and produce result reports. You can then couple this activity with security awareness initiatives such as the SANS Institute’s Securing the Human.

Matt Luallen is the founder of Cybati, a security training and consulting organization


Go to Control Engineering's media library to see a cyber security training series with Matt Luallen.

No comments
The Top Plant program honors outstanding manufacturing facilities in North America. View the 2013 Top Plant.
The Product of the Year program recognizes products newly released in the manufacturing industries.
The Engineering Leaders Under 40 program identifies and gives recognition to young engineers who...
Sister act: Building on their father's legacy, a new generation moves Bales Metal Surface Solutions forward; Meet the 2015 Engineering Leaders Under 40
2015 Mid-Year Report: Manufacturing's newest tool: In a digital age, digits will play a key role in the plant of the future; Ethernet certification; Mitigate harmonics; World class maintenance
2015 Lubrication Guide: Green and gold in lubrication: Environmentally friendly fluids and sealing systems offer a new perspective
Drilling for Big Data: Managing the flow of information; Big data drilldown series: Challenge and opportunity; OT to IT: Creating a circle of improvement; Industry loses best workers, again
Pipeline vulnerabilities? Securing hydrocarbon transit; Predictive analytics hit the mainstream; Dirty pipelines decrease flow, production—pig your line; Ensuring pipeline physical and cyber security
Cyber security attack: The threat is real; Hacking O&G control systems: Understanding the cyber risk; The active cyber defense cycle
Designing positive-energy buildings; Ensuring power quality; Complying with NFPA 110; Minimizing arc flash hazards
Building high availability into industrial computers; Of key metrics and myth busting; The truth about five common VFD myths
New industrial buildings: Greener, cleaner, leaner; New building designs for industry; Take a new look at absorption cooling; Offshored jobs start to come back

Annual Salary Survey

After almost a decade of uncertainty, the confidence of plant floor managers is soaring. Even with a number of challenges and while implementing new technologies, there is a renewed sense of optimism among plant managers about their business and their future.

The respondents to the 2014 Plant Engineering Salary Survey come from throughout the U.S. and serve a variety of industries, but they are uniform in their optimism about manufacturing. This year’s survey found 79% consider manufacturing a secure career. That’s up from 75% in 2013 and significantly higher than the 63% figure when Plant Engineering first started asking that question a decade ago.

Read more: 2014 Salary Survey: Confidence rises amid the challenges

Maintenance and reliability tips and best practices from the maintenance and reliability coaches at Allied Reliability Group.
The One Voice for Manufacturing blog reports on federal public policy issues impacting the manufacturing sector. One Voice is a joint effort by the National Tooling and Machining...
The Society for Maintenance and Reliability Professionals an organization devoted...
Join this ongoing discussion of machine guarding topics, including solutions assessments, regulatory compliance, gap analysis...
IMS Research, recently acquired by IHS Inc., is a leading independent supplier of market research and consultancy to the global electronics industry.
Maintenance is not optional in manufacturing. It’s a profit center, driving productivity and uptime while reducing overall repair costs.
The Lachance on CMMS blog is about current maintenance topics. Blogger Paul Lachance is president and chief technology officer for Smartware Group.