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Cloudflare’s mission is to help build a better Internet. We’ve invested heavily in building the world’s most powerful cloud network to deliver a faster, safer and more reliable Internet for our users. Today, we’re taking a big step towards enhancing our ability to secure our customers.
Earlier today we announced that Cloudflare has agreed to acquire Area 1 Security. Area 1’s team has built exceptional cloud-native technology to protect businesses from email-based security threats. Cloudflare will integrate Area 1’s technology with our global network to give customers the most complete Zero Trust security platform available.
Why Email Security?
Back at the turn of the century I was involved in the fight against email spam. At the time, before the mass use of cloud-based email, spam was a real scourge. Clogging users’ inboxes, taking excruciatingly long to download, and running up people’s Internet bills. The fight against spam involved two things, one technical and one architectural.
Technically, we figured out how to use machine-learning to successfully differentiate between spam and genuine. And fairly quickly email migrated to being largely cloud-based. But together these changes didn’t kill spam, but they relegated to a box filled with junk that rarely needs to get looked at.
What spam didn’t do, although for a while it looked like it might, was kill email. In fact, email remains incredibly important. And because of its importance it’s a massive vector for threats against businesses and individuals.
And whilst individuals largely moved to cloud-based email many companies still have on-premise email servers. And, much like anything else in the cybersecurity world, email needs best-in-class protection, not just what’s built in with the email provider being used.
When Cloudflare was in its infancy we considered dealing with the email-borne threat problem but opted to concentrate on building defences for networks and the web. Over time, we’ve vastly expanded our protection and our customers are using us to protect the entirety of their Internet-facing world.
Whilst we can protect a mail server from DDoS, for example, using Magic Transit, that’s just one potential way in which email gets attacked. And far more insidious are emails sent into organizations containing scams, malware and other threats. Just as Cloudflare protects applications that use HTTP, we need to protect email at the application and content level.
If you read the press, few weeks go by without reading a news story about how an organization had significant data compromised because an employee fell for a phishing email.
Cyberthreats are entering businesses via email. Area 1 estimates that more than 90% of cyber security damages are the result of just one thing: phishing. Let’s be clear, email is the biggest exposure for any business.
Existing email security solutions aren’t quite cutting it. Historically, companies have addressed email threats by layering legacy box-based products. And layering they are, as around 1 in 7 Fortune 1000 companies use two or more email security solutions1. If you know Cloudflare, you know legacy boxes are not our thing. As businesses continue to move to the cloud, so does email. Gartner estimates 71% of companies use cloud or hybrid cloud email, with Google’s G Suite and Microsoft’s Office 365 being the most common solutions2. While these companies offer built-in protection capabilities for their email products, many companies do not believe they adequately protect users (more on our own experience with these shortfalls later).
Trying before buying
Email security is something that has been on our mind for some time.
Last year we rolled out Email Security DNS Wizard, our first email security product. It was designed as a tool to tackle email spoofing and phishing and improve the deliverability of millions of emails. This was just the first step on our email security journey. Bringing Area 1 onboard is the next, and much larger, step in that journey.
As a security company, we are constantly being attacked. We have been using Area 1 for some time to protect our employees from these attackers.
In early 2020, our security team saw an uptick in employee-reported phishing attempts. Our cloud-based email provider had strong spam filtering, but fell short at blocking malicious threats and other advanced attacks. Additionally, our provider only offered controls to cover their native web application, and did not provide sufficient controls to protect their iOS app and alternate methods of accessing email. Clearly, we needed to layer an email security solution on top of their built-in protection capabilities (more on layering later…).
The team looked for four main things in a vendor: the ability to scan email attachments, the ability to analyze suspected malicious links, business email compromise protection, and strong APIs into cloud-native email providers. After testing many vendors, Area 1 became the clear choice to protect our employees. We implemented Area 1’s solution in early 2020, and the results have been fantastic. With Area 1, we’ve been able to proactively identify phishing campaigns and take action against them before they cause damage. We saw a significant and prolonged drop in phishing emails. Not only that, the Area 1 service had little to no impact on email productivity, which means there were minimal false positives distracting our security team.
In fact, Area 1’s technology was so effective at launch, that our CEO reached out to our Chief Security Officer to inquire if our email security was broken. Our CEO hadn’t seen any phishing attempts reported by our employees for many weeks, a rare occurrence. It turns out our employees weren’t reporting any phishing attempts, because Area 1 was catching all phishing attempts before they reached our employee’s inboxes.
The reason Area 1 is able to do a better job than other providers out there is twofold. First, they have built a significant data platform that is able to identify patterns in emails. Where does an email come from? What does it look like? What IP does it come from? Area 1 has been in the email security space for nine years, and they have amassed an incredibly valuable trove of threat intelligence data. In addition, they have used this data to train state-of-the-art machine learning models to act preemptively against threats.
Layers (Email Security + Zero Trust)
Offering a cloud-based email security product makes sense on its own, but our vision for joining Area 1’s technology to Cloudflare is much larger. We are convinced that adding email security to our existing Zero Trust security platform will result in the best protection for our customers.
Just as Cloudflare had put Area 1 in front of our existing email solution, many companies put two or more layered email protection products together. But layering is hard. Different products have different configuration mechanisms (some might use a UI, others an API, others might not support Terraform etc.), different reporting mechanisms, and incompatibilities that have to be worked around.
SMTP, the underlying email protocol, has been around since 1982 and in the intervening 40 years a lot of protocols have grown around SMTP to make it secure, add spoof protection, verify senders, and more. Getting layered email security products to work well with all those add-on protocols is hard.
And email doesn’t stand alone. The user’s email address is often the same thing as their company log in. It makes sense to bring Zero Trust and email security together.
As we’ve discussed, email is a major vector for attacks, but it is not the only one. Email security is just one layer of an enterprise defense system. Most businesses have multiple layers of security to protect their employees and their assets. These defense layers reduce the risk that a system gets penetrated by an attacker. Now imagine all these layers were purpose-built to work with each other seamlessly, built into the same software stack, offered by a single vendor and available to you in 250+ locations around the world.
Imagine a world where you can turn on email security to protect you against phishing, but if for some reason an attacker were to get through to an employee’s inbox, you can create a rule to open any unrecognized link in an isolated remote browser with no text input allowed and scan all email attachments for known malware. That is the power of what we hope to achieve by adding Area 1’s technology onto Cloudflare’s Zero Trust security platform.
Bringing email and Zero Trust together opens up a world of possibilities in protecting email and the enterprise.
At Cloudflare, we’re fans of closely knit products that deliver more value together than they do apart. We refer to that internally as 1+1=3. Incorporating Area 1 into our Zero Trust platform will deliver significant value to our customers, but protecting email is just the start.
Area 1 has spent years training their machine learning models with email data to deliver world-class security. Joining email threat data and Cloudflare’s threat data from our global network will give us incredible power to deliver improved security capabilities for our customers across our products.
Together with the Area 1 team, we will continue to help build the world’s most robust cloud network and Zero Trust security platform.
On a final note, what struck us most about Area 1 is their shared vision for building a better (and more secure) Internet. Their team is smart, transparent, and curious, all traits we value tremendously at Cloudflare. We are convinced that together our teams can deliver tremendous value to our customers.
If you are interested in upcoming email security products, please register your interest here. You can learn more about the acquisition here or in Area 1’s blog.
The acquisition is expected to close early in the second quarter of 2022 and is subject to customary closing conditions. Until the transaction closes, Cloudflare and Area 1 Security remain separate and independent companies.
1Piper Sandler 1Q2021 Email Security Survey: Market Share
2Gartner, Market Guide for Email Security, 8 September 2020