The commercialization of the internet in the mid-90’s, not only established a platform for the creation of websites which catapulted society into the digital age, but also produced the network which enabled email to become the primary form of business communication. Even though collaborative solutions, social media platforms, and instant messaging apps have infiltrated modern corporate communications, email remains an essential business tool and organizations still need to implement measures to secure it.
Why You Need to Secure Email
Email has always been a primary target due to its universal deployment across business and society. Malicious actors leverage the popularity and commonality of this service to spread malware, steal user credentials, and compromise systems. Because email is a user-centric solution, where an attacker can effectively reach unhindered into a corporate network, exploiting this essential platform remains a genuine risk which organizations need to mitigate.
The human element is the weakest link in the security chain. Users click on links and download attachments every day, and attackers use this routine familiarity to their advantage. Although the implementation of safeguards in email clients and servers has lessened the threat of malware-infested attachments, users are still at risk from links in emails which take them to malicious websites created to compromise their device or, through using a specially crafted phishing campaign, steal their login credentials.
How to Implement Email Security
As with any security solution, securing email requires a “defense in depth” approach, meaning that there are multiple layers of defense which provide redundancy in case any individual level of security is breached. A multi-layered strategy can help organizations not only secure their email services but can also prevent malicious actors from leveraging email for social engineering attacks. This defensive strategy involves the use of multiple technologies, the implementation of effective process management, and the advancement of user education, which together form an effective defense against modern email threats.
1. Secure Authentication
Any online system in operation today needs to ensure it can securely authenticate its users. However, an authentication solution serving an email service is vital due to the central role email plays in the password reset functionality found in modern online systems. If an attacker can compromise a user’s email account, they can use this access to reset the user’s passwords on other systems which connect to the same email address for authentication. The deployment of a secure authentication solution, such as two-factor authentication, is therefore recommended as a best practice for email security.
2. Mail Filtering
Spam has been an issue which has plagued email services for decades. Not only does spam flood user inboxes with unsolicited emails which contain security risks such as malware and links to compromised websites, but the flood of spam mail also has a detrimental effect on infrastructure resources, consuming processing power on servers and congesting networks. An enterprise-grade mail filtering service, hosted by a third-party service provider, can help prevent spam and malware from ever reaching an organization’s mail server, and because it filters email offsite, it can keep internet links free from unnecessary traffic.
3. Spam and Anti-Malware Protection
As mentioned, email security requires a defense in depth approach. Even if an organization has invested in an email filtering service, best practice dictates the deployment of anti-malware and anti-spam solutions on its mail servers. This additional measure ensures protection from any malicious email that has managed to evade the offsite mail filtering solution. Furthermore, to ensure total security, anti-malware solutions deployed on end-user devices should also be set to scan email in end-user mailboxes automatically. In this way, if any malicious attachments or links have eluded the upstream protection measures, the user has another layer of defense to ensure complete protection.
4. Security Awareness Training
The human element may be the weakest link, but it is also the last line of defense in the security chain. Even with mail filtering and spam and anti-malware protection on servers and end-user devices, some malicious emails still make their way into user mailboxes. It is, therefore, a good practice for organizations to educate their users on the potential threats they may receive via email and the measures they need to take to protect themselves and the business. Educational awareness campaigns should include elements such as what to look for in a phishing email, identifying malicious links, and not downloading and running any executable attachments—including macros embedded in office documents.
5. User Deprovisioning
In today’s technology-driven environment, users access multiple disparate systems on a daily basis. If an organization has not deployed a centralized Identity and Access Management (IAM) solution, user accounts need to be commissioned and decommissioned on each system as users join, change their roles, or ultimately leave the organization. Email plays a crucial role in managing identity across multiple systems, so disabling user email accounts when an employee leaves an organization is a crucial process which must be followed to enhance email security. Smaller organizations can manage this process manually, but for larger organizations, the deployment of an IAM solution can help automate and orchestrate this process. Furthermore, an IAM solution can provide additional security benefits such as Single Sign-On (SSO), consolidated user directories, and built-in multi-factor authentication.
6. Proactive Monitoring and Alerting
The ability to monitor and proactively respond to system alerts in real time is an essential operational requirement for technology-driven enterprises. You cannot manage what you cannot measure, and with email systems, monitoring health and security is vital in ensuring the service remains operational. Due to its critical role as a central communication mechanism in modern enterprises, any downtime affecting email has a detrimental effect on organizational and employee productivity. Organizations should monitor their mail servers, mail filtering service, anti-spam, and anti-malware solutions, and respond proactively to any incidents or alerts which have the potential to impact their email service.
7. Data Leakage Prevention
Because email is a service which can send data externally, organizations who need to monitor the movement and dissemination of confidential information may require solutions which prevent the unauthorized transmission of sensitive data. Data Leakage Prevention (DLP) solutions can help organizations manage this risk. These solutions monitor outbound data transmissions for confidential data and can prevent sensitive information from leaving the organization without authorization. DLP solutions should not only be limited to monitoring email activity, but should also include any chat messaging, uploads to websites, and distributing data via social media and file sharing services.
A Multi-Layered, Defense in Depth Approach
Implementing best practices for email security requires a multi-layered, defense in depth approach. Mail filtering, anti-spam, anti-malware, and end-user security awareness training are all needed to mitigate email-borne threats. Furthermore, secure authentication and user management processes should be implemented to secure mail services, and data leakage prevention solutions should be deployed to mitigate the risk of confidential information leaving the organization.
JMARK has been helping businesses of all sizes implement best practices in email and computer security for 30 years (since the days when “electronic mail” still seemed like futuristic sci-fi to most of us. To learn more about how you can put our experience to work for your, contact us today.