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Protecting your organization against password spray attacks

April 23rd, 2020 No comments

When hackers plan an attack, they often engage in a numbers game. They can invest significant time pursing a single, high-value target—someone in the C-suite for example and do “spear phishing.” Or if they just need low-level access to gain a foothold in an organization or do reconnaissance, they target a huge volume of people and spend less time on each one which is called “password spray.” Last December Seema Kathuria and I described an example of the first approach in Spear phishing campaigns—they’re sharper than you think! Today, I want to talk about a high-volume tactic: password spray.

In a password spray attack, adversaries “spray” passwords at a large volume of usernames. When I talk to security professionals in the field, I often compare password spray to a brute force attack. Brute force is targeted. The hacker goes after specific users and cycles through as many passwords as possible using either a full dictionary or one that’s edited to common passwords. An even more targeted password guessing attack is when the hacker selects a person and conducts research to see if they can guess the user’s password—discovering family names through social media posts, for example. And then trying those variants against an account to gain access. Password spray is the opposite. Adversaries acquire a list of accounts and attempt to sign into all of them using a small subset of the most popular, or most likely, passwords. Until they get a hit. This blog describes the steps adversaries use to conduct these attacks and how you can reduce the risk to your organization.

Three steps to a successful password spray attack

Step 1: Acquire a list of usernames

It starts with a list of accounts. This is easier than it sounds. Most organizations have a formal convention for emails, such as firstname.lastname@company.com. This allows adversaries to construct usernames from a list of employees. If the bad actor has already compromised an account, they may try to enumerate usernames against the domain controller. Or, they find or buy usernames online. Data can be compiled from past security breaches, online profiles, etc. The adversary might even get some verified profiles for free!

Step 2: Spray passwords

Finding a list of common passwords is even easier. A Bing search reveals that publications list the most common passwords each year. 123456, password, and qwerty are typically near the top. Wikipedia lists the top 10,000 passwords. There are regional differences that may be harder to discovery, but many people use a favorite sports teams, their state, or company as a password. For example, Seahawks is a popular password choice in the Seattle area. Once hackers do their research, they carefully select a password and try it against the entire list of accounts as shown in Figure 1. If the attack is not successful, they wait 30 minutes to avoid triggering a timeout, and then try the next password.

Protecting your organization against password spray attacks

Figure 1:  Password spray using one password across multiple accounts.

Step 3: Gain access

Eventually one of the passwords works against one of the accounts. And that’s what makes password spray a popular tactic—attackers only need one successful password + username combination. Once they have it, they can access whatever the user has access to, such as cloud resources on OneDrive. Or use the exploited account to do internal reconnaissance on the target network and get deeper into the systems via elevation of privilege.

Even if the vast majority of your employees don’t use popular passwords, there is a risk that hackers will find the ones that do. The trick is to reduce the number of guessable passwords used at your organization.

Configure Azure Active Directory (Azure AD) Password Protection

Azure AD Password Protection allows you to eliminate easily guessed passwords and customize lockout settings for your environment. This capability includes a globally banned password list that Microsoft maintains and updates. You can also block a custom list of passwords that are relevant to your region or company. Once enabled, users won’t be able to choose a password on either of these lists, making it significantly less likely that an adversary can guess a user’s password. You can also use this feature to define how many sign-in attempts will trigger a lockout and how long the lockout will last.

Simulate attacks with Office 365 Advanced Threat Protection (Office 365 ATP)

Attack Simulator in Office 365 ATP lets you run realistic, but simulated phishing and password attack campaigns in your organization. Pick a password and then run the campaign against as many users as you want. The results will let you know how many people are using that password. Use the data to train users and build your custom list of banned passwords.

Begin your passwordless journey

The best way to reduce your risk of password spray is to eliminate passwords entirely. Solutions like Windows Hello or FIDO2 security keys let users sign in using biometrics and/or a physical key or device. Get started by enabling Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) across all your accounts. MFA requires that users sign in with at least two authentication factors: something they know (like a password or PIN), something they are (such as biometrics), and/or something they have (such as a trusted device).

Learn more

We make progress in cybersecurity by increasing how much it costs the adversary to conduct the attack. If we make guessing passwords too hard, hackers will reduce their reliance on password spray.

Bookmark the Security blog to keep up with our expert coverage on security matters. Also, follow us at @MSFTSecurity for the latest news and updates on cybersecurity. For more information about our security solutions visit our website. Or reach out to me on LinkedIn or Twitter.

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NERC CIP Compliance in Azure vs. Azure Government cloud

April 20th, 2020 No comments

As discussed in my last blog post on North American Electric Reliability Corporation—Critical Infrastructure Protection (NERC CIP) Compliance in Azure, U.S. and Canadian utilities are now free to benefit from cloud computing in Azure for many NERC CIP workloads. Machine learning, multiple data replicas across fault domains, active failover, quick deployment and pay for use benefits are now available for these NERC CIP workloads.

Good candidates include a range of predictive maintenance, asset management, planning, modelling and historian systems as well as evidence collection systems for NERC CIP compliance itself.

It’s often asked whether a utility must use Azure Government Cloud (“Azure Gov”) as opposed to Azure public cloud (“Azure”) to host their NERC CIP compliant workloads. The short answer is that both are an option.  There are several factors that bear on the choice.

U.S. utilities can use Azure and Azure Gov for NERC CIP workloads. Canadian utilities can use Azure.

There are some important differences that should be understood when choosing an Azure cloud for deployment.

Azure and Azure Gov are separate clouds, physically isolated from each other. They both offer U.S. regions. All data replication for both can be kept within the U.S.

Azure also offers two Canadian regions, one in Ontario and one in Quebec, with data stored exclusively in Canada.

Azure Gov is only available to verified U.S. federal, state, and local government entities, some partners and contractors. It has four regions: Virginia, Iowa, Arizona and Texas. Azure Gov is available to U.S.-based NERC Registered Entities.

We are working toward feature parity between Azure and Azure Gov. A comparison is provided here.

The security controls are the same for Azure and Azure Gov clouds. All U.S. Azure regions are now approved for FedRAMP High impact level.

Azure Gov provides additional assurances regarding U.S. government-specific background screening requirements. One of these is verification that Azure Gov operations personnel with potential access to Customer Data are U.S. persons. Azure Gov can also support customers subject to certain export controls laws and regulations. While not a NERC CIP requirement, this can impact U.S. utility customers.

Azure Table 1

Under NERC CIP-004, utilities are required to conduct background checks.

Microsoft U.S. Employee Background Screening

Microsoft US Employee Background Screening

Microsoft’s background checks for both Azure and Azure Gov exceed the requirements of CIP 004.

NERC is not prescriptive on the background check that a utility must conduct as part of its compliance policies.

A utility may have a U.S. citizenship requirement as part of its CIP-004 compliance policy which covers both its own staff and the operators of its cloud infrastructure. Thus, if a utility needs U.S. citizens operating its Microsoft cloud in order to meet its own CIP-004 compliance standards, it can use Azure Gov for this purpose.

A utility may have nuclear assets that subject it to U.S. Department of Energy export control requirements (DOE 10 CFR Part 810) on Unclassified Controlled Nuclear Information. This rule covers more than the export of nuclear technology outside the United States, it also covers the transmission of protected information or technology to foreign persons inside the U.S. (e.g., employees of the utility and employees of the utility’s cloud provider).

Since access to protected information could be necessary to facilitate a support request, this should be considered if the customer has DOE export control obligations. Though the NERC assets themselves may be non-nuclear, the utility’s policy set may extend to its entire fleet and workforce regardless of generation technology. Azure Gov, which requires that all its operators be U.S. citizens, would facilitate this requirement.

Azure makes the operational advantages, increased security and cost savings of the cloud available for many NERC CIP workloads. Microsoft provides Azure and Azure Gov clouds for our customers’ specific needs.  Microsoft continues its work with regulators to make our cloud available for more workloads, including those requiring compliance with NERC CIP standards. The utility (Registered Entity) is ultimately responsible for NERC CIP compliance and Microsoft continues to work with customers and partners to simplify the efforts to prepare for audits.

Thanks to Larry Cochrane and Stevan Vidich for their leadership on Microsoft’s NERC CIP compliance viewpoint and architecture. Bookmark the Security blog to keep up with our expert coverage on security matters. Also, follow us at @MSFTSecurity for the latest news and updates on cybersecurity. To learn more about our Security solutions visit our website.

 

(c) 2020 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved. This document is provided “as-is.” Information and views expressed in this document, including URL and other Internet Web site references, may change without notice. You bear the risk of using it. This document is not intended to communicate legal advice or a legal or regulatory compliance opinion. Each customer’s situation is unique, and legal and regulatory compliance should be assessed in consultation with their legal counsel.

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Guarding against supply chain attacks—Part 2: Hardware risks

February 3rd, 2020 No comments

The challenge and benefit of technology today is that it’s entirely global in nature. This reality is brought into focus when companies assess their supply chains, and look for ways to identify, assess, and manage risks across the supply chain of an enterprise. Part 2 of the “Guarding against supply chain attacks” blog series examines the hardware supply chain, its vulnerabilities, how you can protect yourself, and Microsoft’s role in reducing hardware-based attacks.

Unpacking the hardware supply chain

A labyrinth of companies produces mobile phones, Internet of Things (IoT) devices, servers, and other technology products that improve our lives. Product designers outsource manufacturing to one or more vendors. The manufacturer buys components from known suppliers. Each supplier buys parts from its preferred vendors. Other organizations integrate firmware. During peak production cycles, a vendor may subcontract to another company or substitute its known parts supplier with a less familiar one. This results in a complex web of interdependent companies who aren’t always aware that they are connected.

Tampering with hardware using interdiction and seeding

Tampering with hardware is not an easy path for attackers, but because of the significant risks that arise out of a successful compromise, it’s an important risk to track. Bad actors compromise hardware by inserting physical implants into a product component or by modifying firmware. Often these manipulations create a “back door” connection between the device and external computers that the attacker controls. Once the device reaches its final destination, adversaries use the back door to gain further access or exfiltrate data.

But first they must get their hands on the hardware. Unlike software attacks, tampering with hardware requires physical contact with the component or device.

So how do they do it? There are two known methods: interdiction and seeding. In interdiction, saboteurs intercept the hardware while it’s on route to the next factory in the production line. They unpackage and modify the hardware in a secure location. Then they repackage it and get it back in transit to the final location. They need to move quickly, as delays in shipping may trigger red flags.

As hard as interdiction is, it’s not nearly as challenging as seeding. Seeding attacks involve the manipulation of the hardware on the factory floor. To infiltrate a target factory, attackers may pose as government officials or resort to old fashioned bribery or threats to convince an insider to act, or to allow the attacker direct access to the hardware.

Why attack hardware?

Given how difficult hardware manipulation is, you may wonder why an attacker would take this approach. The short answer is that the payoff is huge. Once the hardware is successfully modified, it is extremely difficult to detect and fix, giving the perpetrator long-term access.

  • Hardware makes a good hiding place. Implants are tiny and can be attached to chips, slipped between layers of fiberglass, and designed to look like legitimate components, among other surreptitious approaches. Firmware exists outside the operating system code. Both methods are extremely difficult to detect because they bypass traditional software-based security detection tools.
  • Hardware attacks are more complex to investigate. Attackers who target hardware typically manipulate a handful of components or devices, not an entire batch. This means that unusual device activity may resemble an anomaly rather than a malicious act. The complexity of the supply chain itself also resists easy investigation. With multiple players, some of whom are subcontracted by vendors, discovering what happened and how can be elusive.
  • Hardware issues are expensive to resolve. Fixing compromised hardware often requires complete replacement of the infected servers and devices. Firmware vulnerabilities often persist even after an OS reinstall or a hard drive replacement. Physical replacement cycles and budgets can’t typically accommodate acceleration of such spending if the hardware tampering is widespread.

For more insight into why supply chains are vulnerable, how some attacks have been executed, and why they are so hard to detect, we recommend watching Andrew “bunny” Huang’s presentation, Supply Chain Security: If I were a Nation State…, at BlueHat IL, 2019.

Know your hardware supply chain

What can you do to limit the risk to your hardware supply chain? First: identify all the players, and ask important questions:

  • Where do your vendors buy parts?
  • Who integrates the components that your vendor buys and who manufactures the parts?
  • Who do your vendors hire when they are overloaded?

Once you know who all the vendors are in your supply chain, ensure they have security built into their manufacturing and shipping processes. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) recommends that organizations “identify those systems/components that are most vulnerable and will cause the greatest organizational impact if compromised.” Prioritize resources to address your highest risks. As you vet new vendors, evaluate their security capabilities and practices as well as the security of their suppliers. You may also want to formalize random, in-depth product inspections.

Microsoft’s role securing the hardware supply chain

As a big player in the technology sector, Microsoft engages with its hardware partners to limit the opportunities for malicious actors to compromise hardware.

Here are just a few examples of contributions Microsoft and its partners have made:

  • Microsoft researchers defined seven properties of secure connected devices. These properties are a useful tool for evaluating IoT device security.
  • The seven properties of secure connected devices informed the development of Azure Sphere, an IoT solution that includes a chip with robust hardware security, a defense-in-depth Linux-based OS, and a cloud security service that monitors devices and responds to emerging threats.
  • Secured-core PCs apply the security best practices of isolation and minimal trust to the firmware layer, or the device core, that underpins the Windows operating system.

Project Cerberus is a collaboration that helps protect, detect, and recover from attacks on platform firmware.

Learn more

The “Guarding against supply chain attacks” blog series untangles some of the complexity surrounding supply chain threats and provides concrete actions you can take to better safeguard your organization. Read Part 1: The big picture for an overview of supply chain risks.

Also, download the Seven properties of secure connected devices and read NIST’s Cybersecurity Supply Chain Risk Management.

Stay tuned for these upcoming posts:

  • Part 3—Examines ways in which software can become compromised.
  • Part 4—Looks at how people and processes can expose companies to risk.
  • Part 5—Summarizes our advice with a look to the future.

In the meantime, bookmark the Security blog to keep up with our expert coverage on security matters. Also, follow us at @MSFTSecurity for the latest news and updates on cybersecurity.

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Data privacy is about more than compliance—it’s about being a good world citizen

January 28th, 2020 No comments

Happy Data Privacy Day! Begun in 2007 in the European Union (E.U.) and adopted by the U.S. in 2008, Data Privacy Day is an international effort to encourage better protection of data and respect for privacy. It’s a timely topic given the recent enactment of the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA). Citizens and governments have grown concerned about the amount of information that organizations collect, what they are doing with the data, and ever-increasing security breaches. And frankly, they’re right. It’s time to improve how organizations manage data and protect privacy.

Let’s look at some concrete steps you can take to begin that process in your organization. But first, a little context.

The data privacy landscape

Since Data Privacy Day commenced in 2007, the amount of data we collect has increased exponentially. In fact we generate “2.5 quintillion bytes of data per day!” Unfortunately, we’ve also seen a comparable increase in security incidents. There were 5,183 breaches reported in the first nine months of 2019, exposing a total of 7.9 billion records. According to the RiskBased Data Breach QuickView Report 2019 Q3, “Compared to the 2018 Q3 report, the total number of breaches was up 33.3 percent and the total number of records exposed more than doubled, up 112 percent.”

In response to these numbers, governments across the globe have passed or are debating privacy regulations. A few of the key milestones:

  • Between 1998 and 2000, The E.U. and the U.S. negotiated Safe Harbor, which were privacy principles that governed how to protect data that is transferred across the Atlantic.
  • In 2015, the European Court of Justice overturned Safe Harbor.
  • In 2016, Privacy Shield replaced Safe Harbor and was approved by the courts.
  • In 2018, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) took effect in the E.U.
  • On January 1, 2020, CCPA took effect for businesses that operate in California.

Last year, GDPR levied 27 fines for a total of € 428,545,407 (over $472 million USD). California will also levy fines for violations of CCPA. Compliance is clearly important if your business resides in a region or employs persons in regions protected by privacy regulation. But protecting privacy is also the right thing to do. Companies who stand on the side of protecting the consumer’s data can differentiate themselves and earn customer loyalty.

Don’t build a data privacy program, build a data privacy culture

Before you get started, recognize that improving how your organization manages personal data, means building a culture that respects privacy. Break down siloes and engage people across the company. Legal, Marketing, SecOps, IT, Senior Managers, Human Resources, and others all play a part in protecting data.

Embrace the concept that privacy is a fundamental human rightPrivacy is recognized as a human right in the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, among other treaties. It’s also built into the constitutions and governing documents of many countries. As you prepare your organization to comply with new privacy regulations, let this truth guide your program.

Understand the data you collect, where it is stored, how it is used, and how it is protected—This is vital if you’re affected by CCPA or GDPR, which require that you disclose to users what data you are collecting and how you are using it. You’re also required to provide data or remove it upon customer request. And I’m not just talking about the data that customers submit through a form. If you’re using a tool to track and collect online user behavior that also counts.

This process may uncover unused data. If so, revise your data collection policies to improve the quality of your data.

Determine which regulations apply to your business—Companies within the E.U. that do business with customers within the E.U., or employ E.U. citizens, are subject to GDPR. CPPA applies to companies doing business within California and meet one of the following requirements:

  • A gross annual revenue of more than $25 million.
  • Derive more than 50 percent of their annual income from the sale of California consumer personal information or
  • Buy, sell, or share the personal information of more than 50,000 California consumers annually.

Beyond California and the E.U., India is debating a privacy law, and Brazil’s regulations, Lei Geral de Proteção de Dados (LGPD), will go into effect in August 2020. There are also several privacy laws in Asia that may be relevant.

Hire, train, and connect people across your organization—To comply with privacy regulations, you’ll need processes and people in place to address these two requirements:

  1. Californians and E.U. citizens are guaranteed the right to know what personal information is being collected about them; to know whether their personal information is sold or disclosed and to whom; and to access their personal information.
  2. Organizations will be held accountable to respond to consumers’ personal information access requests within a finite timeframe, for both regulations.

The GDPR requires that all companies hire a Data Protection Officer to ensure compliance with the law. But to create an organization that respects privacy, go beyond compliance. New projects and initiatives should be designed with privacy in mind from the ground up. Marketing will need to include privacy in campaigns, SecOps and IT will need to ensure proper security is in place to protect data that is collected. Build a cross-discipline team with privacy responsibilities, and institute regular training, so that your employees understand how important it is.

Be transparent about your data collection policies—Data regulations require that you make clear your data collection policies and provide users a way to opt out (CCPA) or opt in (GDPR). Your privacy page should let users know why the data collection benefits them, how you will use their data, and to whom you sell it. If they sell personal information, California businesses will need to include a “Do not sell my personal information” call to action on the homepage.

A transparent privacy policy creates an opportunity for you to build trust with your customers. Prove that you support privacy as a human right and communicate your objectives in a clear and understandable way. Done well, this approach can differentiate you from your competitors.

Extend security risk management practices to your supply chain—Both the CCPA and the GDPR require that organizations put practices in place to protect customer data from malicious actors. You also must report breaches in a timely manner. If you’re found in noncompliance, large fees can be levied.

As you implement tools and processes to protect your data, recognize that your supply chain also poses a risk. Hackers attack software updates, software frameworks, libraries, and firmware as a means of infiltrating otherwise vigilant organizations. As you strengthen your security posture to better protect customer data, be sure to understand your entire hardware and software supply chain. Refer to the National Institute of Standards and Technology for best practices. Microsoft guidelines for reducing your risk from open source may also be helpful.

Microsoft can help

Microsoft offers several tools and services to help you comply with regional and country level data privacy regulations, including CCPA and GDPR. Bookmark the Security blog and the Compliance and security series to keep up with our expert coverage on security matters. Also, follow us at @MSFTSecurity for the latest news and updates on cybersecurity and connect with me on LinkedIn.

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