JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO – Air Forces Cyber conducted a mock spear-phishing test on European bases in November to assess Air Force Network users’ cyber awareness.
The test, coordinated with U.S. Air Forces in Europe leaders, incorporated techniques known to be employed by adversary actors against U.S. and partner nations, for the purpose of gaining a foothold inside our networks.
“Spear-phishing attacks are a persistent threat to the integrity of our networks,” said Col. Anthony Thomas, AFCYBER Operations director. “Even one user falling for a spear-phishing attempt creates an opening for our adversaries. Part of mission resiliency is ensuring our Airmen have the proficiency to recognize and thwart adversary actions.”
Spear-phishing attacks differ from normal phishing attempts because they target a specific recipient and appear to be from a trusted source.
For the test, AFCYBER’s threat emulation team sent several emails from non-Department of Defense email addresses to network users. These emails included legitimate-looking content, mirroring tactics used by cyber adversaries. The emails provided a variety of scenarios, urging Airmen to follow certain steps.
One email appeared to come from an Airman & Family Readiness Center, asking users to update a hyperlinked spreadsheet for an upcoming sale. Another email claimed to be from a legal office, and requested users to provide data in a hyperlinked document for a court-martial jury panel.
If users followed the hyperlink, then downloaded and enabled macros in the documents, embedded code would be activated. This allowed the threat emulation team access to their computer.
According to Maj. Ken Malloy, AFCYBER’s primary planning coordinator for the assessment, attacks by state-sponsored groups are sophisticated and can catch users unaware if they’re not paying attention.
“We chose to conduct this threat emulation (test) to gain a deeper understanding of our collective cyber discipline and readiness,” said Malloy. “Lessons from our efforts in USAFE will inform data-driven decisions for improving policy, streamlining processes and enhancing threat-based user training to achieve mission assurance and promote the delivery of decisive air power.”
Results from the test showed most recipients did not fall for the emails. According to the team, the test did not collect individual user information, as it was designed to improve the network’s overall defensive posture.
To protect the network from cyber threats, users should verify every email’s source by verifying that emails from official sources have valid digital signatures. Any embedded links should produce a secure connection, represented by a padlock icon in the browser’s search bar. Users should not enable macros in Microsoft Office documents downloaded from non-DOD sources.
While this initial assessment was conducted specifically in the European theater, Malloy said spear-phishing attempts remain a constant threat to all AFNet users. Users should always be cautious and vigilant. If a malicious email is suspected, users should contact their local communications focal point for guidance.