Cyber security training firm SANS Institute suffers data breach

phishing hook in water surrounded by "at" symbols
Phishing (Image credit: Shutterstock)

A US-based cyber security training company has said a phishing attack against one of its employees resulted in 513 emails being forwarded to an unknown external account.

The SANS Institute, which is based in Maryland, said that personal information, including names, work titles, and professional contact information, was contained in the emails, but that no financial or password data had been lost.

Upon a routine investigation of its email configuration, researchers spotted a suspicious forwarding rule that was directing emails from an internal account to an external source. The company, which specialises in information security, cyber security training and certification, said further investigation revealed that a phishing attack against an employee had led to approximately 28,000 records being shared with this external address.

Although the SANS Institute claims that the majority of the 513 emails were "harmless", it did say that some contained personally identifiable information.

An investigation into the incident is still ongoing, but SANS has attributed the hack to "consent phishing", a variant of an application-based attack. Victims are tricked into providing malicious Office 365 OAuth applications access to their Office 365 accounts. Once compromised, the attackers can obtain access to emails, files, contacts, notes, profiles, as well as sensitive information and resources stored on their SharePoint and OneDrive systems.


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The data taken from SANS included email addresses, work titles, first and last names, company contact details and physical address. The firm said it has identified the people whose accounts were compromised and will be contacting them by email, but it stressed that no passwords or financial data were acessed in the attack.

"Phishing scams remain extremely common and this latest breach shows that cyber criminals are not even afraid of cyber security institutes when targeting organisations," said ESET cyber security specialist, Jake Moore.

"Verifying authentic emails has never been more important but remains your best bet in beating the fraudsters. Companies that don't have the proper security procedures in place can often leave themselves and their customers vulnerable to a social engineering attack but constant delivery of training is vital to make people continually aware of the problem. Companies must limit the number of employees who have access to private information to reduce the possibility of a breach as well."

Bobby Hellard

Bobby Hellard is ITPro's Reviews Editor and has worked on CloudPro and ChannelPro since 2018. In his time at ITPro, Bobby has covered stories for all the major technology companies, such as Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook, and regularly attends industry-leading events such as AWS Re:Invent and Google Cloud Next.

Bobby mainly covers hardware reviews, but you will also recognize him as the face of many of our video reviews of laptops and smartphones.