Phishing concerns cause double trouble

Episode 1: Last week the administrators of 7,000 university websites were being called upon to change their .edu domain account passwords after a server security breach. Trouble was that the breach had been reported to the admins by Educause -- the non-profit higher-education IT group that runs .edu -- via an email that some recipients complained bore the familiar markings of a phishing attempt.

The notification was legit ... but so were the phishing concerns.

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The notification included links to a third-party website that made it "impossible to differentiate from a phishing e-mail," according to one Educause member. Another initially sounding the alarm was Purdue computer science professor and security expert Gene Spafford, who in a listserv reply called the email "a reasonably good fake and some people are likely to fall for it."

Spafford expounded on his concern in a subsequent email to me:

"Organizations should structure their email to reinforce avoidance of 'phishing' email," he said. "Thus, including clickable links and using links to unidentified third parties should be avoided, because these are standard in phishing email.

"The EDUCAUSE (password) reset message was especially egregious because it so resembled a standard phishing approach: 'Your password needs to be reset now! Click on the following!' where the embedded link went to a third-party site with 'educause' embedded in the URL along with a sequence of meaningless characters. Given what is known about phishing and user behavior, this was bad form. For an education-oriented organization to do this is particularly troubling."

Episode 2: Fed up with phishers using Google Forms to commandeer campus email accounts as spam engines, Oxford University recently blocked access to Google Docs for two-and-a-half hours in what it called an "extreme action" designed to get the attention of both its users and Google.

Well, the ill-conceived move generated attention, all right, mostly in the form of widespread complaints from those affected, as well as criticism from outside network professionals.

From a lengthy Oxford blog post attempting to explain the decision: "Seeing multiple such incidents the other afternoon tipped things over the edge. We considered these to be exceptional circumstances and felt that the impact on legitimate University business by temporarily suspending access to Google Docs was outweighed by the risks to University business by not taking such action. ... A temporary block would get users' attention and, we hoped, serve to moderate the 'chain reaction.' "

They apparently got more than they had bargained for.

"It is fair to say that the impact on legitimate business was greater than anticipated, in part owing to the tight integration of Google Docs into other Google services."

While there was no shortage of sympathy expressed regarding the reality of the problem, rejection of Oxford's chosen course of action was universal near as I could tell. Here's one example plucked from the comments on the university's blog post: "Aren't you guys closing the wrong door? If the spam problem is volume, why not implement an email quota for your users? 100 emails a day? Come on guys, if a university of your prestige can't deal with that, who can?"

So what have we learned here?

Don't put third-party links in your email asking users to reset their passwords. ... And don't throw Google out with the bath water.

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