It is accepted within the cyber security industry that good training / awareness of staff, good anti-virus / anti-malware and good patching practices are all effective means of tackling a large percentage of potential breaches in our systems today. Do the simple things well and the risk is decreased substantially.
However, I think there’s an important area that gets missed when looking at the simple things, because it seems or feels difficult. In my role I get to speak to a lot of different people in all sorts of different industries. I also read a lot of reports and posts on news channels, social media (including LinkedIn) etc, and one area that seems to be consistently overlooked is that relating to privileged accounts - root, admin, whatever you choose to call them.
In this piece I’ll mostly refer to admin, but I really mean all of these accounts with the highest level of access within a system. I also won’t differentiate between those accounts used to control an Operating System or those used to control software eg Database Admin accounts. I’m also including routers, switches, firewalls, and any other device which has some form of access control.
I’ve seen numerous occasions where default admin passwords are not changed, even though the industry has been telling us we should have been doing that for years. In the business world, I have seen routers with a username of admin and a password of admin because “it’s too difficult to maintain a record of all the passwords”.
A simple search online will bring up the default admin passwords for home routers provided by many of the big service providers, yet how many of you don’t change the default admin password immediately? I’m not talking about the WiFi code, but the actual password for the admin account on the hub / router.
The recent revelations about Talk Talk and the Post Office attacks show this is one of the methods used to gain access, along with other simple to use tools.
Once the bad guys get access to a system, my understanding from ethical hacking courses I’ve attended, from discussions with pen testers and from my own background reading, is that one of the first things the bad guys do is try to escalate their privileges so that they can get access as admin, root, or whatever name you use for your highest level accounts.
Every year, for many years, security reports have come out talking about how users abuse their privileges to get access to data which they are not entitled to. For example, in the 2016 Data Breach Investigations Report from Verizon, they devote an entire section to the Insider Threat and Privilege Misuse. In that report 152 incidents out of 172 (over 88%) with confirmed data breach were due to privilege escalation. (Note that there were 10 489 incidents in total, but only 172 confirmed a data breach - but that’s another story.)
88% is a huge figure, and in my experience is not particularly surprising. Yet a lot of businesses ignore privileged account management completely, or pay lip service to the process. My advice is to use one of the privileged account management tools out there, and reduce the risk to your business massively.
It may be a daunting challenge, but there are tools out there (eg the free DNA Discovery and Audit tool from CyberArk) which can help you find all the privileged accounts on your systems (including databases, cloud providers and custom code).
Once you’ve found out where they are, take a risk based approach to addressing them, and make sure you implement good password hygiene while you’re at it ie ensure passwords are changed regularly to something complex and greater than 15 characters: if you’re using a good tool that password change could be every 3 - 6 months, or every time the device is accessed, whatever is appropriate for your business.
Use the results from your toolset to track progress, to review your risk profile and to react accordingly.
In my opinion, the prevalence of privileged accounts in a business is something that is easy to check (with the right tools checking may only take a matter of minutes) so why wouldn’t you do it on a regular basis?
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