Proper Network Segmentation & Configuration Control Keys to Resisting Ransomware

In the news this week was an article about a successful ransomware attack. It detailed how network access was achieved using email phishing and then went on to explain how the attackers leveraged this low-level network access to compromise the entire network. It was done by breaking password hashes in an attempt to gain access to local admin accounts, then trying these passwords on other hosts and domain administrator accounts. Compromise of a domain admin account then allowed the attackers to take control of the domain, which led to game over. This kind of attack scenario has been around for years and continues to work for a variety of reasons, two of which are inadequate network segmentation and configuration control.

Many of the networks we see are “flat.” In other words, there is no appreciable network segmentation in place. This woeful state of affairs allows any user on the network to see the entire setup, including “server space.” It also provides cyber criminals with many attack surfaces and helps them maneuver around the network. Such network implementations make it very difficult indeed to meet two of the hallmark principles of information security: need to know and least privilege.

By properly segmenting the network, you are allowing users access to only those network assets and information they need to perform their jobs. You are also giving yourself interfaces to implement access controls and monitoring. By employing internal firewalls between network segments, you can strictly control what enters and leaves each segment. This allows you to design appropriate security controls for each network segment, which can reduce cost and administration time. Another benefit of network segmentation can be reduced congestion and improved performance.

Another key to reducing the ability of attackers to compromise networks and the private information they contain is proper system configuration. One of the configuration problems we see very often has to do with the way network administrators onboard and administer network systems. We see administrators using the same admin passwords for whole groups of systems across the network. When an attacker compromises a user system and breaks the local admin password hash, they can then use that same password to access other systems and move laterally across the network. That is why it is best practice to use unique admin passwords for each different system. This intimidates network administrators who are often overworked and understaffed in the first place. However, unique passwords for each network entity are another hallmark security control that should be applied universally to meet best practices recommendations.

This situation is often exacerbated by network administrators that use the same password for administrator access and simple network access. If an attacker compromises the administrators network account, they can then sign in as a domain admin and, once again, game over. That is why we advocate strict control of privileged accounts on the network. Ideally, privileged accounts should require very strong access controls such as multipart authentication and should be monitored and alarmed.

Implementing proper network segmentation and configuration control makes your organization a hard target for attackers who are out to compromise your private information and systems. These controls are definitely worth the extra money and worker time to implement.

Crisis Highlights Need for MFA

Since World Password Day is the big news this week, there are a ton of study reports about password woes in the news. According to a Balbix study report, 99% of enterprise users reuse passwords either across work accounts, or between work and personal accounts. The report goes on to give statistics about password sharing, and states that the rapid uptick of remote working due to the Covid19 crisis has shifted the balance of control away from IT and towards employees.

Another report, released by SecureAuth, shows that management is worse than junior staff at practicing good password hygiene. Their survey states that 53% percent of people admitted to reusing passwords across multiple accounts. Among respondents using the same password, 62% said that they are using it across three to seven accounts; 10% said that they are using over 10 accounts with the same password. The article also highlights that people are so bad about this simply because keeping track of a number of different passwords is difficult and time consuming. Not to mention the fact that users need to change all those passwords regularly!

Another article sites the results of several password practices studies to state that, due to the Covid19 crisis, remote workers may be exposing their personal and business accounts to the risk of takeover due to poor password security. One study cited in this article also goes on to report that 17% of users share their work device password with a child or spouse, and that 36% of respondents admit to not having changed their home Wi-Fi password in over a year.

Another thing to consider is the ready compromise of even compliant, unique passwords due to phishing techniques. Phishing has proven itself to be the most successful password attack vector over recent years. Even veteran system users can occasionally be taken in by a clever phishing ploy.

Considering all of this, don’t you think it’s about time to bite the bullet and implement strong multi-factor authentication (MFA) techniques across the board!? Working with some of the most talented white-hat hackers in the world has shown me how easily a cyber criminal can compromise systems and move laterally across networks simply because of weak and shared passwords. It also has shown me how properly implemented MFA can thwart most of those attacks. There are only three factors one can use to identify oneself: something you know, something you have and something you are. I suggest using at least two of these factors. Better yet, why not use of all three?

Uptick in Covid19 Related Attacks Makes Strong Security Measures and IR Planning Even More Important

Every week during the last couple of months I have seen an ever-increasing number of cyber-attacks designed to exploit the present Covid19 crisis. Some recent instances include:

Fake websites that promise to provide vital information about Covid19 include videos that contain the Grandoreiro Trojan. Attempting to play the videos leads to a nasty and sophisticated payload being installed on visitor devices. A variety of techniques such as keystroke logging, blocking access to websites, unwanted restarts, access credential thefts and more are possible. This trojan is also very difficult to detect and remove.

Phishing emails supposedly from popular package carriers such as FedEx and UPS claim to be notifying customers about delivery delays due to a variety of reasons. These emails ask the recipient to open an attachment to fill in missing details or to follow links, but they actually contain the Remcos RAT or Bsymem Trojan.

The huge increase in remote working has prompted a ten-fold increase in brute-forcing campaigns against Microsoft’s Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP). It is no coincidence that a new module in the TrickBot malware called rdpScanDll has been added to aid attackers in this effort. These attacks are currently measured in the millions per week.

These are just a few of the huge number of Covid19 attacks that are currently being promulgated. So how are organizations to fight these attacks? One answer is the use of stronger security measures.

Probably the number one control that should implemented is multi-factor authentication (MFA). Proper use of MFA would virtually eliminate the danger of brute-force attacks. As for helping to further help secure against RDP attacks, organizations should use Network Level Authentication and only make RDP available through a corporate VPN. In addition, organizations should ensure that port 3389 is closed if RDP is not being used.

Another security control that organizations should ramp up is log monitoring. Monitoring is one of the only protections that can be effective if zero-day exploits are employed (which they almost certainly will be). Also, comprehensive user awareness training is a control that will pay big dividends if properly implemented and emphasized. Your system users can be your greatest security detriment or your greatest security asset; training and motivation make the difference.

However, organizations should not become complacent even if they do a good job of implementing strong security controls. History has repeatedly shown us that security compromises will occur even in the most tightly controlled networks. That is why it is equally important to ensure that your security incident response (IR) mechanisms are ready for the challenge.

Your IR plans should be fully up to date, and your IR teams should be fully trained. One idea is to perform table-top IR exercises often throughout the emergency. It would be a good idea for these exercises to not only incorporate scenarios taken from the real-world attacks that are currently being seen, but also from attacks that are predicted and likely to occur.

Organizations should also ensure that proper backups are being made. There should be multiple backups being made using different mechanisms. These backups should be encrypted while being transmitted or at rest. And because ransomware is so prevalent now, proper key management should be strictly enforced. Ensure that keys never reside on the systems they are meant to protect. Keys should also be air gapped from other systems or the Internet to the fullest extent possible. However, at the same time, these keys must be made accessible to properly authorized personnel. This means multiple key mechanisms and methods of storage and retrieval.

Security Measures Need to Tighten During a Pandemic

One thing that cyber-criminals love to see is businesses operating outside of their normal routines. Non-routine operations can cause confusion and chaos. New ways of operating must be developed and fielded on the fly. Personnel are often required to work from remote locations and may need to undertake duties that are new and unfamiliar to them. This is almost sure to cause IT personnel to become overwhelmed, which can cause delays that can seriously affect business operations.

And when it becomes a question of providing services or maintaining security, most businesses will opt for continuing services and dealing with security matters later. Such situations not only greatly increase the number of attack surfaces and vectors available for cyber-criminals to exploit, it also increases their chances of success in any given attack. The current pandemic situation has them all licking their chops!

Outside of war, I can’t think of more widespread and disruptive disaster scenario than a pandemic response of this magnitude. Unlike earthquakes or hurricanes or floods or most other catastrophes, pandemic interruptions are anything but localized; they affect virtually every business and person on the planet.

People are afraid of getting the flu, and of course they are also afraid of losing income and not being able to pay their bills. They fear that perhaps their employer companies will fold, and that they won’t be able to catch up once things settle back down. Such fears can lead to mistakes and security failures. That is why businesses should be increasing their security efforts, not letting them fall along the wayside.

Businesses should ensure that all their systems have logging enabled, and that monitoring of those logs is being undertaken. If possible, the number of employees dedicated to security monitoring should be increased. This effort will be much easier to implement if cross-training of personnel and full written operating procedures are in place; a lesson that should be learned from the current emergency and implemented in written pandemic planning.

In addition, businesses should ensure that secure mechanisms for remote working are in place. It is important that not only secure connection mechanisms are in place, but that multipart authentication techniques are used to the greatest extent possible. Whitelisting of authorized devices, tokens, digital certificates and biometrics should all be considered.

Just as important as technical security, businesses should ensure that all personnel are receiving security and awareness training. They should be fully trained in how to secure their laptops and home computers, how to connect to business assets securely and how to respond if they suspect they are vulnerable or being hacked. Responding to incidents quickly and correctly are key factors in minimizing damage from a security event.

Pandemic Planning: Different Types of Businesses Need Different Types of Plans

Pandemics are fairly rare, so organizations may not give them as much attention as other kinds of potential business interruptions. That means that pandemics such as COVID-19 (Coronavirus) can catch them unprepared. Of course, pandemic planning is highly dependent on the type of organization that is involved. This makes appropriate policies and procedures very different for different organizations.

Close contact (within 6 feet) between individuals is the number one factor in the spread of pandemic viruses. Any business environment that brings people into close contact are the most susceptible to the flu. For example, essential job types such as health care workers and first responders are obviously at very high risk since they are dealing directly with affected persons in many instances. Other businesses that are essential for day to day living such as banks, grocery stores and other retail organizations also pose a high risk of infection to customers and employees. After all, people in these businesses pass closely by one another, and what is worse, must stand in line to pay for their purchases or to do their banking business. Employees such as tellers or check out/counter workers have it worse since they must come in close contact with a large number of different people during the day.

Protecting yourself and your staff is most problematic for such organizations and workers. This is largely because of the manner in which flu viruses are transmitted. The number one vector is droplets from coughs or sneezes. These are introduced into the environment by people that don’t or can’t cover their mouths and noses when they cough or sneeze. If these droplets are inhaled or get in your eyes you may become infected. More insidiously, coughs or sneezes can also produce micro-droplets or aerosols. These can be so small that they are largely unaffected by gravity and may waft about the environment for some distance, and can even be small enough to penetrate dust masks and tissues. These are very hard to protect against, requiring high efficiency respirators/masks and face shields or goggles. In addition, infection may also be possible from touching infected surfaces and then touching your eyes, nose or mouth.

There are also many non-essential organizations or businesses that pose a high to medium risk of infection by pandemic viruses. These include concert venues, airlines, conventions, casinos, cruise ships, churches, and other venues where people are in close contact. There is an answer for these organizations, as unsavory as it is: simply cancel these types of gatherings. Unfortunately, the economic consequences of canceling such things can be very high (as can be seen in the recent downturns of the stock market). On the bright side, pandemics are usually of fairly short duration. This allows most businesses and organizations to recover once the threat has passed.

In contrast to these types of organizations are those that have little or no interaction with the public or suppliers. For example, offices and organizations that provide services over the internet or telephone are considered to be at low risk. They basically have to worry most about infection spreading among their employees. Fixes for these types of organizations include teleworking (preferred), employee awareness training, putting barriers or distance between employees, mandating that workers who are sick (or who suspect that they may have been infected) take sick leave/work remotely and ensuring that basic health and sanitation measures are in place at the workplace. In addition, anyone who becomes sick at work should be provided with a face mask and sent home or to a health care facility immediately. Businesses should also pay special attention to personnel that live with or have close contact with those who are at very high risk such as health care professional. These personnel should work remotely or should be tested for infection if at all possible. The latest studies suggest that Coronavirus may possibly be spread by infected people that do not yet have symptoms, or those whose symptoms have disappeared.

The number one rule for all people is this: if you are sick or think you may have been exposed to a pandemic virus, stay away from other people. If you must interact, wear a face mask (N95 or better if possible) and clean your hands often. And remember, you should continue to be careful for some time after your symptoms disappear. You may still be infectious.

The Importance of Information Sharing Among IT Departments

One thing I notice while doing information security work is that organizations tend to segment IT responsibilities into separate departments or areas of responsibility. There will be employees or groups responsible for networks, applications, servers, desktops, databases, help desks and information security. This is perfectly understandable given the complexity of handling even modestly-sized information systems. Such specialization allows individuals or groups to concentrate on their areas of responsibility and become efficient and expert in their specialties.

However, this very segmentation of duties usually has a big downside for information security at such organizations. The problem is that for an information security program to be successful it must be managed in a holistic manner, accounting for and amalgamating each mechanism and process in the entire program. If not, neglected systems or systems that are misconfigured for the environment occur and suddenly there are exploitable security holes in the network. And like a dike holding back the sea, just one hole can lead to disaster. That is why it is imperative that each IT function be fully aware of what all the other IT functions are doing. In other words, they need to communicate among themselves in an inclusive and professional manner.

Unfortunately, human weaknesses such as ego, hubris, complacency and ignorance come into play when trying to facilitate such intercommunication. Often in the organizations I’ve worked with, the information security department is well aware of the problems I detailed above but are helpless to correct them. This is because IT security departments are usually treated like poor relatives by the other IT departments and senior management. They just don’t have the clout needed to get their programs and processes implemented in an effective manner. To other IT departments and management, information security processes are just a roadblock to functionality and a drain on the budget.

Or perhaps, even if IT and senior management are interested in backing information security, the corporate processes in place for requesting and implementing changes to network systems and processes are so ponderous and full of contention that they lose all effectiveness. It may take weeks or months to implement one simple policy change for example.

That is why I champion the need for a C-level individual (or group) to deal with the problem. I would call them information security coordinators or something similar. Their job would be to bring departments together to discuss what they do and how it could affect the security of systems and information. It would also be their job to coordinate this information and identify holes in the information security program. With C-level authority, they can then better remediate the identified problems without undue bureaucratic entanglement or having to deal with rice-bowl mentality. One thing I learned well when I first started in this profession is that without senior management backing and approval, an information security program is going nowhere!

Mobile Device Security a Must

More and more businesses are allowing the use of mobile devices for business purposes. Mobile/portable devices used for business are not only laptops and smart phones, but include devices such as meter readers, bar code scanners, medical devices and PDAs. Most of these devices communicate remotely using wi-fi, Bluetooth or cellular communications. They can also contain a variety sensors and mechanisms such as microphones, cameras, radios and GPS systems. Just looking at this list of capabilities, it is obvious that mobile devices can be very dangerous to the security of private business information.

Whether these devices are the property of the individual user or are issued by the business, robust security mechanisms must be maintained to provide any sort of proper data protection. That means designing and implementing both mobile device security policies and technical security mechanisms.

Mobile devices security policies should address the responsibilities of both the hosting organization and the individual users. The hosting organization is responsible for determining what types of mobile devices are acceptable in their environment, which individuals/job types should be allowed to use them, which individuals will implement and oversee the program, proper training programs for providers and users, acceptable and unacceptable use of devices, security and monitoring techniques and discipline measures for failure to comply. They should also ensure that mobile device use is included in their incident response and disaster recovery programs.

Technical security measures may vary according to the types of devices in question and how they are to be used. On the less dangerous side are personal mobile devices such as smart phones used by individuals for tasks such as web surfing and social media. To protect their information, the organization should set up separate networks for such use that in no way connect to their production networks. They should employ security mechanisms adequate to protect the network and users, and should ensure that users understand the acceptable and unacceptable uses of this privilege.

On the other side are those mobile devices that are used for processing, storing or transmitting private business information. Use of these devices should employ security mechanisms commensurate with those used on the internal network. There are many mobile device management (MDM) solutions out there designed to aid businesses in this endeavor. However, ultimately, information security is the responsibility of the organization itself, not the managed services or application providers. Because of this, those executives and line personnel responsible for the program should have a clear understanding of the capabilities of the mobile devices and security solutions that are available, and the particular uses that mobile devices will be performing in their environment. To be sure that your business is getting this right, I suggest taking the time to perform research of the devices and security solutions available followed by risk assessment and business impact analysis. Like a good pair of shoes, they should be a perfect fit!

 

If you have any questions, comments or would just like to talk more about it you can reach us at info@microsolved.com.

“Smart” Gadgets a Threat to Privacy

Used to be that you had to be rich to afford servants. And what a perk they were! They would perform all types of services for you which gave you more leisure time and less toil. However, servants came with a price beyond their paychecks and livery. With servants around all the time, you could never be really sure of your privacy. You had to watch what you said and where you said it. You also had to be careful of your state of dress, actions and personal hygiene. If you failed to be discrete, you might get nasty surprises in the form of ridicule and embarrassment. If you were a military man or government official, you could even face such consequences as loss of secret information and official censure.

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Leverage Risk Assessment to Inform Your Annual Security Budget

If yours is like most organizations, you have a policy or requirement of periodic (usually annual) risk assessment. Financial organizations and medical concerns, for example, fall under this requirement. Also, many organizations that have no regulatory requirement to perform risk assessment, perform one as a matter of best practice. And since you are doing one anyway, you might as well get maximum use from it.

It is the season when many concerns are allocating resources for the coming year. The information security budget is usually limited, even if it is adequate to protect the system and the information it contains. It is therefore very important that information security dollars be allocated wisely, and to maximum effect. To make a wise decision, you need to have the best and most current information. The results of an enterprise-level risk assessment are an excellent source of such information.

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