The threats of the past focused on vulnerabilities and their corresponding exploits. Names like Code Red, Slammer, Heartbleed, and even Melissa hold significant milestones in IT security history. Today, we have significantly more advanced threats from Ransomware (which has no simple solution) to privileged accounts to worry about. The days of vulnerabilities and exploits are not over by any means, but other challenges are keeping security and operations teams entrenched in firming up defenses.
One of the most common threats – and serious vulnerabilities – is not related at all to software or applications, but rather human beings and our habits: password reuse. Password reuse is a problem where people try to remember multiple passwords for everything they interact with on a regular basis, but instead use the same password on multiple systems, tiers of applications, or even social sites. The vulnerability is in a person’s inability to remember dozens (or even hundreds) of passwords and exploitable using the same one on every router, switch, server, application, helpdesk account, or even social media.
If a password is compromised, it can be correlated by username or email address to other services that are potentially using the same password, thus propagating the threat. The recent disclosure of millions of Twitter accounts is a perfect example of this emerging threat. A common business practice of joining databases allowed for hackers to correlate (by email address) known users across multiple services and link their potential passwords for misuse. The results were staggering in terms of effectiveness to find a matching username and password pair due to password reuse.
Simple Passwords Don’t Cut It
What compounds the problem is the continued use of simple, default, dictionary based, or non-complex passwords for access to multiple systems. It does not take a breach to steal the password but rather old school techniques from brute force attacks to hash tables to identify the user’s password. While this threat is definitely not new, it represents another level of sophistication in attack vectors, and due to human weaknesses, an easy target to compromise services and assets.
Rotate All Passwords
Every system, every application, and every service should have a unique password all the way down to every router, switch, and IP camera in an organization. Spreadsheets and post-it notes are not the solution for storing this sensitive information. The Sony breach showed us the danger of documenting passwords in the clear.
Administrators should consider secure password storage solutions with automatic rotation of passwords and workflow. End users should consider personal password managers or even built in tools like MacOS iCloud Keychain.
Technologies exist to mitigate the impact of password reuse and solve the human element of the problem. Password reuse will continue pose a threat as long as breached data can be joined with other sources and expose other systems that can compromised based on the results.
For more on how you can mitigate the risks of unmanaged privileged account passwords, check out our short eBook - External Attacks and Privileged Accounts: 5 Steps to Control the Threat Potential.
Morey J. Haber, Chief Security Officer, BeyondTrust
Morey J. Haber is the Chief Security Officer at BeyondTrust. He has more than 25 years of IT industry experience and has authored three books: Privileged Attack Vectors, Asset Attack Vectors, and Identity Attack Vectors. He is a founding member of the industry group Transparency in Cyber, and in 2020 was elected to the Identity Defined Security Alliance (IDSA) Executive Advisory Board. Morey currently oversees BeyondTrust security and governance for corporate and cloud based solutions and regularly consults for global periodicals and media. He originally joined BeyondTrust in 2012 as a part of the eEye Digital Security acquisition where he served as a Product Owner and Solutions Engineer since 2004. Prior to eEye, he was Beta Development Manager for Computer Associates, Inc. He began his career as Reliability and Maintainability Engineer for a government contractor building flight and training simulators. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering from the State University of New York at Stony Brook.