How could feds be fooled by Google phishing attack?

I feel like one of those scientists in an old black-and-white sci-fi movie, kneeling on the ground as the world explodes all around, yelling madly at the sky, “Why! Why! Why!”

Why do people fall for phishing attacks? They are the easiest attack to defend against, and the only one that does not require any special technology. It just requires common sense, or a lack of carelessness.

And yet, they have the highest probability of succeeding, as evidenced by the targeted attack on Google’s Gmail, which apparently snagged quite a few government officials, including one at the Cabinet level.

I’ve spoken with several people who got the phishing e-mail apparently used in the Google attack, and it seemed to come from Google, but there was still good reason not to click the link contained in the e-mail. More on that in a minute.

A phishing attack, named because it uses bait like in real fishing but with a nod to the old phone phreaking of yesteryear, is a social engineering type of attack. In other words, the e-mail tricks the user into doing something instead of trying to use an exploit in a computer’s code. You would think that people would simply ignore these hack attempts, but a surprising number of people still fall for them.

A few weeks ago representatives from a company called FireEye were in the GCN Lab demonstrating their product, which can protect networks from most phishing attacks. An engineer told me a story about a company he knew that would run phishing drills with their employees. They would tell everyone in the company that a phishing scam (created internally for just this purpose) would be delivered at noon the next day. They told them what the scam would attempt to get them to do and what the scam would look like. They told everyone to treat it like a real phishing scam, and to delete or ignore the e-mail. For extra points, they were told they could alert the tech staff about the attack, though this wasn’t required.

Sounds simple, right? According to the engineer telling the story, even with all those precautions, 60 percent of the people in the company still clicked on the e-mail the next day and about 30 percent entered their network passwords into the “hacker site.” I can’t help but wonder how many of those same people must touch their red hot stove burner every day just to make sure it’s heating properly.

I’m sorry, but people can’t really be that stupid, can they? Almost every phishing scam breaks down if users put even a tiny bit of thought into what they’re doing.

Why would your bank e-mail and ask for your account information? They’re your bank. They know who you are and how much money they’re holding for you. How is it that the U.S. Postal Service is not be able to find your house to deliver a letter but becomes a team of super sleuths when it comes to figuring out your e-mail address?

And do you really think the IRS needs to contact you in regard to that huge refund you’re owed? It’s June. If you were owed a refund, you probably would already have it. And I’m pretty sure they know how to find you, just in case.

Although Google didn’t say how the attack occurred, I talked with a few people who got the suspect e-mail and deleted it, thinking that it was either spam or an attack. According to my sources, the letter that went to Gmail users seemed to come from Google itself. It cited security concerns and asked them to click on a fake link that looked like it was directing them to a Google page and confirm their passwords and user names.

My sources didn’t follow the link, but most likely the page looked like the Google site and probably had the big colorful logo on there somewhere. So people “confirmed” their e-mails and passwords, got thanked for their efforts, and didn’t realize they had just been robbed.

In terms of hacks, it’s an easy one to perform. More advanced phishing e-mails contain malware that users are tricked into installing, though these can run into problems with most computer’s internal security, so the “divert and collect info” method is often more successful.

There seems to be some research behind this hack too, as feds were specifically targeted. And a team of hackers was probably standing by to read all the e-mails once the passwords were entered.

There is a lot of evidence that the attack came from China. But security experts I talked with said that does not mean that the Chinese government is actually behind the effort, though it’s possible. Hackers from around the world tend to use Chinese IP address to launch attacks because of the lack of security on that country’s networks and an almost total lack of law enforcement when it comes to cyber crime.

Regardless of who did the hack and why, it’s pitiful that it was so successful.

Here is your ultimate defense: Never, ever follow an e-mail asking for your personal information.

That’s it. Plain and simple. It’s the cyber equivalent of telling kids “don’t talk to strangers” or “don’t get into a van with a strange man.” But no matter how many times the lesson is given, some people just won’t listen.

And although it’s easy to say they deserve what they get, when those people are government officials with access to important files and information, their carelessness affects all of us, and requires just a smidgen more vigilance on their part.



About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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Reader Comments

Fri, Jul 15, 2011 George New York City

I didn't get around to reading this column until today, but here is my take on it. It may well be that some of the seemingly gullible staffers slept through the warnings or have very short attention spans and bad memories. But I am sure that some of them were similar to some of the people in my division. They just want to create an uproar and tweak the higher bureaucrats noses by doing exactly the opposite of what they are asked to do. They do so because they know it's a test that has no direct consequences for them.

Mon, Jun 20, 2011

The assumption that all phishing attacks require the duped user to fill in forms on a bad website is inaccurate. Many of the attacks directed at the government use bad attachments. When the duped user clicks on the bad attachment, malware is installed on the user's machine. The advice to never follow an email asking for personal information is ineffective when the threat is a bad attachment.

Fri, Jun 10, 2011 DocG DC

Access to "free" personal email accounts should be banned in the Federal Government. These services allow anonymous registration without any user identity verification. They are by nature avenues for fraud. These services all violate NIST standards for network security on a Federal system. Why then is a government employee allowed to access them from a Federal system?

Mon, Jun 6, 2011 Walter Washington DC

I am not sure what the big deal is. This happens all the time. I am sure some feds got caught up in attacks on other systems, like Yahoo and so on. Why is this such a big deal. This is a personal email account and subject to the same foolishness as any person using the internet. If any of these people was doing official business on their personal account that might cause real trouble, then they should get in trouble. But if all they got was a peak at them sending love letters to a mistress or wife/husband, or a shopping list, or whatever, then who cares. Yes, they should have been more careful, and they may have some personal issues to deal with in the near future, but I for one, don't care. Phishing is a fact of the internet, crap happens, lets move on. Any population of people large enough is going to mess up from time to time.

Mon, Jun 6, 2011 Walter Washington DC

But that is the nature of phishing. You send out a thousand emails, maybe you get one or two people that for one reason of another falls for it. Maybe they are not that bright, or they are distracted, or they are too tired, whatever. You send out 10 thousand emails, maybe you get a dozen or more, you send out a hundred thousand and you catch a few dozen. You can reduce the numbers with training, but you can't get rid of all of them. That is why the government does business on isolated systems, with added security.

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