The dynamism of Artificial Intelligence (AI) is transforming not only the tech landscape but also various sectors of human activity at breakneck speeds. Unfortunately, with any progress in technology, these advances aren’t only being applied in beneficial ways.
The sad fact is that some of the most tech-savvy people have chosen a criminal path, combining the technological potential of AI with an attack method that’s aimed at what is usually the weakest link in a cybersecurity system — the human element. The result is AI-powered phishing attacks tailored toward specific personnel and capable of adapting on the go.
While this new threat vector is formidable, there are plenty of actionable steps that businesses and other organizations can take to keep up with the newfound capabilities of malicious actors. Tech and the human element can be leveraged to stay safe in the shifting cybersecurity landscape.
Historically, phishing attacks relied on fraudulent emails or messages that mimic real sources to trick users into giving away sensitive data. What makes AI so effective for phishing and other types of social engineering attacks is its ability to rapidly analyze vast quantities of data. Cybercriminals are using AI to gather and process personal information, often from multiple sources like social media, corporate websites, or even information from previous breaches.
This new use of AI in phishing campaigns has led to highly personalized and even “context-aware” attacks. These attacks are tailored to their targets, making them harder to detect and much more dangerous.
Another alarming advancement is AI’s ability to mimic writing styles. AI can analyze the past communications of an individual or an organization and then use algorithms to create messages that resemble the tone and style of the sender.
Traditional detection tools rely on identifying known phishing signatures and patterns. Unfortunately, they are often ineffective against these dynamic and evolving attacks. AI-driven phishing campaigns create unique and brand-new phishing content, rendering the old detection mechanisms obsolete.
Technological solutions are no doubt crucial, but the human element might be the most important component in defeating AI-powered phishing. Employees are the first line of defense against phishing attacks.
Cyber threats are constantly evolving, and therefore, so should training programs. Fortunately, most training programs have taken note. Modern training programs emphasize better critical thinking and vigilance among employees. They also simulate AI-generated phishing scenarios in order to teach employees to question and verify the authenticity of communications.
With this wave of advanced phishing techniques being implemented by malicious hackers, organizational education is more important than ever before. Organizations must commit to teaching employees how to prevent identity theft and recognize new methods of attack. Recognition of threats, such as synthetic identity fraud, vulnerabilities, such as using a free VPN, and how to report incidents properly can be the difference maker. Without that, even the best AI cyber-defense tools are worthless.
With new advanced threats comes a need for new strategies. Companies would be well served to adopt a defense strategy with multiple layers that combines technological solutions on top of a strong awareness and training program.
Investing in advanced detection systems that use Machine Learning (ML) is no longer optional. These systems can analyze emails in real-time and identify anomalies. They provide adaptable responses to new threats. Integrating behavioral analytics can give a significant boost to detection capabilities as well since they can help identify unusual patterns that can indicate a phishing attempt.
The same technology that powers sophisticated phishing attacks doubles as a great tool for defeating them. AI and ML technologies, when integrated into cybersecurity systems, can give us predictive analytics to find threats before they exist.
These systems can learn from each interaction as well and become smarter and more effective over time. In addition to AI powering both malware and defensive tools, it will also have an effect on cyber insurance and its costs, dramatically reducing them by enhancing risk assessment accuracy, reducing underwriting turnaround times, and utilizing predictive analytics. It would be reasonable to assume that insurance companies will have advanced ways of assessing risks to automatically adjust premiums. For a company that reduces its risks, this could result in cost savings.
Secure email gateways have become more sophisticated in modern times. They use advanced algorithms when they scrutinize incoming emails. The gateways will analyze different aspects of the emails, such as the sender's digital reputation, its links, and its attachments. They’re essential for filtering out a majority of phishing attempts before they even reach the end users.
Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) adds another great layer of security. Even if a phishing attack is successful in tricking an employee, MFA can still prevent access to sensitive data. MFA requires multiple forms of verification, making it a lot harder for attackers to gain access using stolen credentials alone.
No company can be an island when it comes to cyber security. Only by collaborating and sharing information can organizations and their experts stay ahead of the criminals.
Sharing intelligence about emerging threats helps to prevent them from happening to others and allows developers to create better tools for fighting them.
Although most discourse surrounding AI and ML tech still concerns the private sector, it would be foolhardy to assume that governments around the world don’t have a vested interest in regulating this new growth driver.
For one, AI’s potential to transform entire industries towards greater efficiency carries an inherent risk — those industries then gain an entirely new avenue from which they can be attacked. The typical perception about AI is one of digitally oriented companies or startups. However, manufacturing, which is slated to gain $3.8 trillion from AI adoption by 2035, will be one of the most enticing targets for cybercriminals.
Our lens is also quite often distorted when thinking about perpetrators — cybercriminals aren’t always extortionists, sole actors, or hacktivists. Microsoft’s 2021 Digital Defense Report stated that actors targeted private enterprises in 79% of their attacks. The 2023 report contains detailed breakdowns of the targets that the most notable malicious state actors are focusing on.
Now, picture a very near future in which malicious actors, state-affiliated or not, can inflict tens of billions of dollars in damage without engaging in any actual physical sabotage. Although nation-states have competing interests, this version of the future is in no one’s interest, and is preventable.
While AI legislation is proceeding quite slowly, the EU’s recent adoption of landmark AI regulation is a step in the right direction. Strict regulations can compel organizations to adopt robust cybersecurity measures and report breaches to regulatory bodies in a timely manner. This could not only help eliminate many attacks and their impacts but could also contribute positively to the collective intelligence network that surrounds new phishing techniques and trends.
If any conclusion can be derived with a high degree of certainty, it’s that the arms race is never-ending. While AI and ML are the newest components of arsenals, both offensive and defensive alike, with the increasing digitalization of everything, no organization, whether public or private, can afford to turn a blind eye to the future.
With technological advancements becoming ever-more rapid, it’s likely that we’re going to see the advent of technologies such as blockchain and quantum computing begin to play a real role in the security landscape while AI and ML are still affecting their own changes in cyberspace.
Blockchain technology could provide us with better methods of identity verification, and quantum computing has the potential to enable better security as well.
AI-powered phishing attacks will almost completely phase out traditional human phishing attempts in just a couple of years. The adoption and spread of AI tech have been breathtakingly fast. From a concept most associated with science fiction to a jarring reality, it has been the absolutely predominant societal and tech topic since November of last year. There appear to be no brakes on this train.
AI is only going to become more important, and while bad-faith actors are already adopting it for offensive purposes, cybersecurity manufacturers and professionals must be experts and not lag when it comes to rising to meet the challenge. Some hints of optimism, such as adaptive security awareness training and even the well-known basic security hygiene, will go a long way to preventing future AI-assisted attacks.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this guest author article are solely those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect those of Tripwire.