Skip to Content

A Security Scanner for Human Vulnerabilities

A tool designed to test key employees with benign phishing messages aims to reduce the risk of corporate data breaches.
August 7, 2015

Data breaches like the one that hit the Pentagon’s e-mail system this week often start when one person makes a simple mistake like opening a phishing message. But the computer security industry is mostly built on tools that probe, patch, or scrutinize software rather than human errors.

Laura Bell, CEO of SafeStack, a security company in Auckland, New Zealand, thinks she has a way to address that discrepancy. She’s developing a kind of security scanner for people, in the form of software called Ava. It sends people targeted e-mails or social-media messages to see how good they are at resisting the scams that lead to dangerous breaches.

“If I’m the attacker, I’m going after the people,” says Bell, who presented Ava at the Black Hat computer security conference Thursday. “People are the path of least resistance, and we have to do something about it.”

Ava takes in data from corporate IT systems to map out the permissions that employees have and assess how frequently they communicate with each other. It also looks for employees’ social-media profiles and the connections between them, which can highlight key relationships that might be valuable to an attacker.

Ava can then be used to send phishing-style messages to employees to test how they respond. There might be a message from a senior executive asking a junior employee for a password, for example, or one from a distant coworker dropping the name of a friend and asking for a work document to be shared via Facebook.

The security industry does have some established ways to try to rein in what are called social-engineering attacks. Security training has become standard at many large organizations, and some companies occasionally stage phishing attacks to drive home the risks of fake e-mail. But Bell says the continual stream of breaches caused by human slip-ups shows that education doesn’t work. Meanwhile, companies that perform phishing tests are rare, and they are generally one-off, manual exercises, she says.

Ava is intended to let organizations probe communication patterns and key relationships continually, says Bell—resulting in something more like an automated defense system such as a firewall. That could make it possible to track changes in a company’s level of human vulnerability over time, perhaps uncovering relationships to project deadlines or training events, she says.

However, Ava is still a work in progress. Bell has tested the software with a few small public- and private-sector organizations in New Zealand, and the team working on the software has grown. Now a newly formed ethics and privacy board is considering the legal and privacy issues that surround intentionally tricking people.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

still from Embodied Intelligence video
still from Embodied Intelligence video

These weird virtual creatures evolve their bodies to solve problems

They show how intelligence and body plans are closely linked—and could unlock AI for robots.

pig kidney transplant surgery
pig kidney transplant surgery

Surgeons have successfully tested a pig’s kidney in a human patient

The test, in a brain-dead patient, was very short but represents a milestone in the long quest to use animal organs in human transplants.

panpsychism concept
panpsychism concept

Is everything in the world a little bit conscious?

The idea that consciousness is widespread is attractive to many for intellectual and, perhaps, also emotional
reasons. But can it be tested? Surprisingly, perhaps it can.

We reviewed three at-home covid tests. The results were mixed.

Over-the-counter coronavirus tests are finally available in the US. Some are more accurate and easier to use than others.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.