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How poor data-stripping can expose organisations to Spear Phishing attacks

Written by SRM

18th August 2017

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Spear phishing

A survey for the BBC has discovered that poor data-stripping on websites leaves information in place which provides valuable intelligence for Spear Phishing attackers. By not removing key metadata, organisations are providing potential hackers with a doorway into systems which are otherwise well-defended.

This survey comes at a time when the number and extent of breaches continues to rise, with hacking reportedly accounting for 41% of disclosed breaches. At the same time, organisations are racing to comply with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which comes into effect on 25th May 2018. With significantly larger fines in prospect, many organisations will do well to include data-stripping in their information security defence strategy or risk being unknowing victims of a sophisticated breach.

In the BBC’s research, target websites were ‘scraped’ for several days, with samples taken from files, pictures, PDFs, spreadsheets and other publicly available documents. During this process, metadata was retrieved which betrayed key information about the people who created the files, when they did it, and the version of the software and machine which they used.

This type of data cache provides a perfect starting point for a sophisticated Spear Phishing attacker to relate the names buried in the documents to real people. Using social media, useful information on individuals can be obtained. The more information hackers can obtain, the better they will be able to customise their attack.

Emails are then sent out which appear to the majority of recipients to be authentic. But they contain booby-trapped attachments. In some cases, the virus code that attackers bury in the malicious attachments can lurk until it hits the device used by a particular target.

This is because Chief Executives and senior directors are rarely targeted directly. It is much more usual for their assistants or teams to be the first point of contact. These people are often in positions where they will have access to company sensitive information or records as well as direct online access to the real targets. Sometimes even passwords are secured this way and all this happens long before any breach is discovered. Emails requesting information will not in these instances be seen as suspicious and once armed with details a range of criminal activities can be undertaken from re-directing payments to the criminals’ bank accounts to demanding ransomware payment from the organisation itself.

It is, of course, wise to include meta-searching for information from website files and stripping out data as part of routine security. While it is policy in many firms to do so, however, there is not always the due diligence and process to do it. A public information search can, however, be included as a phase within a penetration test. Penetration tests conducted by qualified experts will provide intelligence on specific areas of weakness within a system. If included in the scope, meta-searching and data-stripping can ensure that the company’s digital footprint leaves no traces for potential hackers to exploit.

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