Five predictions for email security in 2021

Dan Fein, Director of Email Security Products | Thursday January 14, 2021

In 2020, we saw cyber-criminals take advantage of collective uncertainty with ‘fearware’ phishing attacks, and continue to shrink the lifespan of their attack campaigns by purchasing cheap domains in their thousands and regularly updating their attack infrastructure. As organizations began to rely heavily on SaaS collaboration tools, we also saw a marked increase in account compromise and phishing from the inside.

What new tactics and techniques can we expect email attackers to deliver this year – and how will companies react? This blog presents five predictions for security teams to keep an eye on in 2021.

1. Supply chain fraud will overtake CEO fraud

Targeting the C-Suite is a well-known tactic that has brought attackers success due to both the sensitive and valuable data these executives are exposed to and the authority they hold within a company. But with special protections increasingly put in place, it can be hard for an attacker to get to these individuals. The alternative for attackers? Go after whoever an organization trusts.

When an attacker can take over the legitimate email account of a trusted third-party supplier, they can net a big return without ever interacting with a C-level executive. Because of the implicit trust between established contacts, it’s likely that suppliers and contractors with large client bases will become ever more tempting targets. Why work hard to compromise 500 companies separately, when you can compromise just one and send fraudulent invoices to a thousand?

There are signs already hinting in this direction. Research earlier this year found that spoofing attacks that target the C-suite were decreasing. Meanwhile, the high-profile SolarWinds hack has shown just how effective cyber-attacks that come through the supply chain can be.

2. Email security solutions and third-party gateways that deploy via MX Records will be phased out

This is not so much a threat from attackers themselves, but rather a risk posed by existing email security tools – in particular, how they are deployed. Many email security solutions and third-party gateways currently sit right within the mail flow, directing traffic by way of mail exchanger records (MX records), which specify the mail server responsible for accepting email messages.

The trouble with this method isn’t really a security problem: it’s an operational issue. If the security tool sits within the mail flow, it can become a potential obstacle. If something goes wrong with the security gateway – an outage, for example – it can disrupt, or block, the entire flow of mail.

This disruption to business inevitably results in heightened pressure on security teams. Even when fully functioning, this deployment method can introduce latency, which is becoming less tolerable as remote work becomes more prevalent.

For this reason, we’re likely to see security teams continue to shift away from this deployment method, to API-based solutions that don’t require configuration changes and alleviate the risk of downtime.

3. The email attack cycle will continue to shorten

Once upon a time, attack infrastructure lasted for weeks or months. Darktrace research found that the average lifespan of fraudulent email dropped from 2.1 days in March 2018 to just 12 hours in 2020. Attackers can easily purchase new email domains with just a few pennies, and a brand-new domain, with no malicious activity on its record, will pass most email security reputation checks with ease.

It’s a worrying trend for legacy security tools reliant on signatures and blacklisting. And this lifespan will continue to trend towards zero. In the near future, we can expect attackers to reach a stage where a new domain is created, a single targeted email is sent, and the attack infrastructure is then retired before the cycle repeats.

4. Phishing will become even more targeted

The overwhelming, rapid proliferation of ‘fearware’ this year has shown how effective targeted and topical phishing lures could be. The sheer availability of information online and across a plethora of social media platforms allows attackers to move from a ‘spray and pray’ approach to sending well-researched, tailored emails that have a considerably higher chance of succeeding. And as the technology becomes available to automate much of this reconnaissance, it is natural to assume attackers will take advantage of these tools.

5. Hackers will target identities rather than devices

For attackers going after businesses that have expanded remote working, targeted cloud services might be favorable to going after centralized, on-premise infrastructure. Email-borne fraudulent invoices could prove a quieter and more lucrative alternative for the money-minded cyber-criminal than ransomware. Successful impersonations of trusted suppliers frequently enable successful wire fraud attacks. And since these attacks involve ‘clean’ emails – containing no links or attachments – they usually skip past legacy security tools with ease.

The next wave of email attacks

Cyber-criminals continue to find new ways to skirt by the traditional, legacy-based email security tools commonly relied on today. Organizations must prepare now for the next wave of email attacks by turning to a new email security approach capable of neutralizing novel and sophisticated attacks that gateways miss.

Hundreds of organizations have adopted a self-learning approach that doesn’t rely on hard-coded rules and signatures, but uses AI to spot unusual patterns in email communications indicative of a threat. As attackers continue to innovate, having an adaptive email security technology that continuously reassesses emails in light of new evidence will be crucial for security teams.

Learn more about email security

Dan Fein

Based in New York, Dan is the Director of Email Security Products for the Americas. He joined Darktrace’s technical team in 2015, helping customers quickly achieve a complete and granular understanding of Darktrace’s world-leading Cyber AI Platform and products. Dan has a particular focus on Antigena 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.