Stopping Phishing for Developers: Techniques and Defenses

Stopping phishing for developers featured image


As Cybersecurity Month 2023 approaches this October, the spotlight is on recognizing and reporting phishing, one of the pivotal themes for this year. With the ever-evolving landscape of phishing attacks, developers find themselves at the forefront of this battle. Gone are the days when a poorly written email with misspellings signaled a phishing attempt. Today’s phishing schemes employ advanced technologies and an in-depth psychological understanding, challenging even the most astute users. In this complex digital era, developers have a unique role to play, wielding their expertise not just in building systems, but also in safeguarding them from these intricate threats.

Phishing Techniques: A Look Into the Tactics Targeting Developers and Their Code

While the standard advice to avoid opening attachments from unknown sources still holds true, hackers can now generate targeted attacks to get around standard security measures. 

→ Machine Learning in Phishing Attacks

Malicious actors have fully embraced the possibilities of AI. Machine learning now drives many phishing attacks. Cybercriminals use algorithms to optimize their attack strategies, from identifying the most vulnerable targets in an organization to tailoring phishing content based on user behavior and preferences. These algorithms can analyze massive datasets of user information, enabling attackers to make highly personalized and convincing attempts.

Spear Phishing

Spear phishing, a targeted form of phishing, now often incorporates data culled from social engineering. Cybercriminals scan social media platforms or corporate websites to gather detailed information about their target, such as job titles, work relationships, and even personal hobbies. Armed with this data, they craft incredibly relevant and trustworthy emails or messages. 

Real-Time Phishing

In real-time phishing, cybercriminals create a fake website that mimics the genuine website almost perfectly. During a parallel session, the user inputs login details into the fake website, and the hacker immediately uses those details to log into the actual website.

The process often happens so swiftly that the user doesn’t even realize they’ve been phished. This method dramatically increases the attack’s effectiveness by bypassing two-factor authentication and other security measures. 

SMS Phishing

The increasing use of mobile devices for work also opens new vectors for phishing attacks. SMS phishing — also called smishing — has seen a surge. Here, attackers sending text messages that direct users to malicious websites or prompt them to disclose sensitive information. 

Deepfake Phishing

Deepfake technology is still evolving, but that hasn’t stopped malicious actors from using it.  Hackers can create highly convincing fake videos or audio messages that appear to come from trusted figures within an organization. These deepfakes can trick employees into transferring funds or revealing confidential information. 

Defensive Coding: Techniques to Make Applications Resistant to Phishing

Although many phishing attacks rely on human error to bypass otherwise effective security measures, there are tactics developers can use to harden applications against attacks. Some code-based phishing defenses for developers include the following: 

  • Validating user input: Always use input validation techniques on both client and server sides. Double-check that all form submissions and URL parameters conform to expected formats. Input validation can filter out malicious code that attackers often use for phishing.
  • Employing content security policies: Implement content security policies to restrict the sources of content that an application can execute. By whitelisting trusted domains and blocking inline scripts, developers can prevent attackers from injecting malicious content into web pages.
  • Using multi-factor authentication: Implement multi-factor authentication (MFA) to add an extra layer of security. MFA makes it harder for phishers — although not impossible —  to gain unauthorized access even if they steal login credentials.
  • Applying role-based access control (RBAC): Assign permissions based on roles within the application. Limit the amount of privileged information each role can access. Doing so minimizes the damage that can occur, even if a phishing attack compromises a user account.
  • Implementing rate limiting: Cap the number of login attempts and password resets from a single IP address within a specific time frame. Rate limiting can thwart brute-force attacks often associated with phishing campaigns.
  • Using time-based restrictions: Add time-based restrictions for high-risk actions like fund transfers or changes to account settings. Require a waiting period or a secondary confirmation, which can deter real-time phishing attempts.
  • Leveraging machine learning: Integrate machine learning algorithms that analyze user behavior and traffic patterns. These algorithms can flag suspicious activity to proactively prevent phishing attacks.
  • Regularly updating and patching software: Keep all libraries, frameworks, and other software current. Security patches often fix vulnerabilities that attackers can exploit for phishing.

Secure Communication: Ensuring Secure and Authenticated Correspondence in Applications

You should also protect data communication to make it more difficult for hackers to steal and manipulate data for phishing attacks.  The following techniques can help developers safeguard user data and app integrity:  

  • Using HTTPS for all transactions: Secure URL practices encrypt all data in transit using HTTPS rather than HTTP. SSL/TLS certificates provide robust encryption and serve as the first defense against man-in-the-middle attacks, which can intercept and manipulate data.
  • Implementing end-to-end encryption: Only the communicating users can read the messages with end-to-end encryption. Even if an attacker intercepts the data packets, they cannot decrypt the information. This is particularly important for messaging apps and in email security protocols.
  • Digitally signing messages: Use digital signatures to verify the integrity of the messages. When a message is digitally signed, any alteration or tampering becomes evident, allowing users to disregard compromised messages.
  • Tokenizing sensitive information: Replace sensitive information with a non-sensitive equivalent, known as a token. Tokenization protects the data as it travels through various networks, reducing the risk associated with data exposure.
  • Securing API communication: For applications relying on APIs for internal or external communications, secure them with strong authentication and rate limiting. Make sure the API calls are also transmitted over HTTPS.
  • Implementing data loss prevention (DLP) measures: Use DLP tools to monitor and control data transfers. These tools can identify sensitive data and prevent unauthorized sharing, reducing the risk of leaks or exposure.
  • Isolating communication channels: Segment your network and isolate communication channels where sensitive data is transmitted. Use firewalls and other security measures to restrict access to these secure channels.

Case Study: A Successful Phishing Attempt and Its Implications for Developers

Twitter was attacked in one of the most high-profile spear phishing cases recently. In 2020, several Twitter staff members’ credentials were hacked and used to gain access to celebrity Twitter accounts, such as Elon Musk and Barack Obama. The hackers tweeted out pleas for Bitcoin and managed to collect $100,000 before they were locked out of the system. This case highlights the importance of recognizing phishing vulnerabilities within an organization. 

Though embarrassing for Twitter, the financial impact pales compared to some successful phishing attacks. Google and Facebook were fleeced out of $100 million over several years. The scammer repeatedly sent fake invoices from Quanta, a vendor both companies used. Since the bogus invoices seemed to originate from a trusted vendor, they were paid by the tech giants. 

Key Takeaways

As Cybersecurity Month 2023 emphasizes the crucial role of recognizing and reporting phishing, we developers emerge as unsung heroes, innovating tirelessly behind the scenes. While phishing attacks often target human vulnerabilities, we have the tools and skills to enhance our defenses, making it challenging for malicious actors to obtain data for targeted attacks or to mimic authentic websites. In this age of evolving threats, always remember: we developers are not just creators; we’re the frontline defense against phishing.

Curious about how PreEmptive empowers developers to stay ahead in cybersecurity? Check out our code security solutions.