Email Security

Email Threat Detection: What MSPs Need to Know

Adrien Gendre

July 21, 2022

18 min

Email Threat Detection: What MSPs Need to Know

The cybersecurity situation has escalated to a point where every organization needs to have advanced email security solutions in place. MSPs are well aware of the existence of email-borne cyber threats, but many are still underestimating the scope and complexity of modern attacks. This often leads to assumptions and complacency that leave vulnerabilities unaddressed.

What MSPs never want is to embrace—or deliver—a false sense of security. When a major security incident does take place, there can be a lot of hard questions to answer and problems to chase down. Just imagine an extremely common scenario like a successful ransomware attack.

The target organization doesn’t immediately know the source of this attack. Their MSP or IT department probably has next-generation firewalls, secure email gateways (SEGs), antivirus, and patch management. So what happened? Identifying the root origin of a cyberattack can be complicated and time-consuming. Security teams will have to comb through logs and data in search of security gaps.

After an exhaustive investigation, the cause of the ransomware attack is finally traced back to a single spear phishing email. But Microsoft 365 has built-in security features, so what could have gone wrong?

Integrated email security, and even many basic email security tools, simply can’t detect and protect against sophisticated spear phishing and social engineering attacks. What organizations now need are advanced email threat detection solutions that are designed to combat these advanced and ever-evolving types of attacks.

The evolution of email threats

As you know, phishing emails are one of the most effective and inexpensive means for an attacker to gain access to a target environment. According to Verizon’s 2022 Data Breach Investigations report, 82 percent of data breaches included a human element, including phishing.

Phishing attacks are becoming harder to detect with each passing day. Attackers now use countless domains, IP addresses, and URLs to carry out phishing campaigns. The infrastructure is getting more complex, which makes the attacks harder to anticipate and prepare for. This is because traditional detection software is only capable of identifying known threats.

To make things worse, hackers are now using AI and machine learning to improve their phishing scams. Software has been created that uses AI to create content that can pass through cybersecurity filters quickly and in large quantities. AI is also being used to gather behavioral data that can be used to create algorithms that help single out the best targets.

The cybersecurity community knows that threats have changed so much that antivirus and firewalls can barely slow down a determined attacker. So what solutions are experts turning to for protection?

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Endpoint security

Endpoint protection has become a vital part of cybersecurity planning for several reasons. First, data is a company’s most valuable asset, and numerous ransomware attacks have shown the world how devastating theft or loss of that data can be.

Second, organizations now have to contend with both a growing number of endpoints and a rise in the number of types of endpoints. The growing trend toward remote work and BYOD policies come together to make perimeter security less effective.

The most salient reason for a focus on endpoint security goes back to the evolution of the threats themselves. Because hackers are always coming up with new ways to gain access, steal information, or manipulate employees into giving out sensitive information, it makes more sense to secure a client’s devices than to keep pushing resources toward shoring up an indefensible perimeter.

There are several different tools and solutions that fall under the category of endpoint security. One that has come to the forefront as nearly indispensable is advanced email threat detection.

Email threat detection and cybersecurity

Threat detection is preemptive, and rather than looking for signs of an attack-in-progress, it looks for signs of intrusion, or behaviors that are associated with a bad actor or attempted breach. Traditional threat detection uses previously identified signatures and deviations from network traffic baseline behavior to identify threats. This is what’s known as identifying “known threats.” Because of the progressive nature of modern attacks, the best email threat detection tools don’t just stop there.

 Known threats vs. unknown threats

As mentioned above, most traditional threat detection systems protect emails through signatures and comparative analysis. These tools collect signatures or identifiers that are used as red flags to determine if a certain activity or traffic is potentially harmful.

Advanced email security systems also integrate machine learning to enable more efficient detection and prevention of even unknown threats. They learn over time how to spot potentially malicious activity without needing to compare it directly against known threats.

Sophisticated machine learning is capable of rapidly learning and understanding an environment so that it can quickly recognize and isolate unusual behavior.

If you’re an MSP looking to make use of threat detection, you should be looking for several important features:

  • Real-time detection of malicious file attachments and URLs.
  • Current and frequently-updated intelligence database which includes threats, threat actors, and their targets.
  • Full-spectrum analysis of senders, domains, embedded HTML code, and links.
  • Flexible and simple deployment at scale; easy to use across multiple clients.
  • Cost-effective and covers a wide range of email security functions to minimize the number of tools needed.

Email threat detection ultimately provides a dynamic and responsive approach to detecting and restraining persistent threats, and should be a part of every MSP’s security stack.

Conclusion

Cybercriminals are aggressively improving their tools and techniques. They have gone to great lengths to protect their malware and add enhancements to increase the effectiveness of their attacks. Even ransomware code is evolving, and new strains have employed complex encryption algorithms that are extremely difficult to crack.

There is an ongoing battle between cybersecurity professionals and bad actors. It could be likened to an arms race or a Cold War, but we must not let the ruthless innovation of criminal operators outpace our security solutions. MSPs and their vendors need to be just as fast and effective, and we must stay ahead of the curve.

White Paper Microsoft 365: Protecting Your Business in the New Threat Landscape