At the core of every phishing scam is a combination of a bunch of lies and (sometimes) a few truths. A new focus on better defining the misuse of information provides insight into why phishing works.

We’ve long known that phishing scams are all based on the sender pretending they are someone they’re not, asking for something they don’t need, sent to someone they don’t know. Add in spear phishing and some of the “truths” begin to show up – seemingly legitimate requests being appropriately made of the right person within an organization. Add in BEC attacks and you might even see the “truth” of the phishing email coming from the sender’s actual email account.

In the world of phishing, this misuse of information is what makes these attacks so effective. But it’s tough to attack something that is more a concept. So, I loved it when I saw that the Council of Europe has provided some definitions around what they call “Information Disorder”. There are three types of information disorder, of which two apply in the work of cyber attacks:

  • Mis-information – when false information is shared, but no harm is meant.
  • Dis-information – when false information is knowingly shared to cause harm.
  • Mal-information – when genuine information is shared to cause harm, often by moving information designed to stay private into the public sphere.

In phishing, we see LOTS of disinformation; everything from the senders identity, email address, company, purpose for the email, and need for a response are all examples. In ransomware campaigns that involve a data extortion component (which most do today), we see the use of malinformation, where stolen data is posted to a publicly-accessible site.

The EU’s DisinfoLab even raises the red flag, citing disinformation as a cybersecurity threat. They point out the context established by the information disorder is a primary factor in users falling for phishing attacks.

Individuals and users within organizations need to become well-educated on how the basic factors of an email we assume to be true (e.g., sender, company, purpose, etc.) should remain under scrutiny – especially in cases when the email is unsolicited. Organizations can put employees through continual Security Awareness Training as an effective way to educate them on what to look for and how to spot a scam a mile away, helping to elevate vigilance and lower the risk of successful attack.