Dark Reading is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them.Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.


09:00 AM
Ralph Pisani, President, Exabeam
Ralph Pisani, President, Exabeam
Sponsored Article

Time to Focus on Compromised Credentials

Use of compromised credentials to penetrate and move laterally through networks is nothing new, but it's getting worse.

Last year's infamous SolarWinds APT attack breached more than 200 federal agencies, Microsoft, and FireEye, with ongoing damage even today. This year, a ransomware attack took down the Colonial Pipeline, the largest fuel pipeline in the US and a major supplier of the East Coast, for several days. What did both attacks have in common? They both got the keys to the kingdom through compromised credentials.

While use of compromised credentials to penetrate and move laterally through networks is nothing new, it is getting worse. I've read hundreds of breach reports in the past few years, and just about all of them involve compromised credentials. And I'm not alone. To quote Verizon's "2020 Data Breach Investigations Report," "Criminals are clearly in love with credentials, and why not, since they make their jobs much easier?" The DBIR report points out that use of credentials has been on a "meteoric rise," while reliance on Trojans, malware, and other attack strategies are down. According to the report, more than 80% of hacking breaches happen through the use of brute force or the use of lost or stolen credentials.

Which raises the question: Why are organizations continuing to focus cyber resources on threat prevention tools, anti-malware, encryption, VPNs, and other decade-old perimeter-style attack strategies when credential theft is where it's at today? While attackers ramp up in sophistication and adjust to fit new working styles, cybersecurity seems to be moving much more slowly and in a perpetual game of catchup.

Shift Resources to Detection
Compromised credentials are not only the way adversaries get keys to the kingdom and all its valuable data. It's also one of the key tactics they use to stay hidden on the network once inside, gaining access to and moving laterally among systems undetected for months or even years at a time. That's why it's no longer enough simply to prevent attacks with threat prevention tools. Organizations need comprehensive, effective strategies for detecting, mitigating, and remediating the inevitable, often hidden, intrusions when they happen.

Cybersecurity teams and security operation centers (SOCs) need to shift focus and pay more attention to credentials, how they are used in security breaches, and how to detect and address their compromise. SOCs should be spending less time fielding thousands of isolated alerts from threat detection tools, an inefficient strategy more focused on treating symptoms than the illness, which is often compromised credentials. Creating and updating hundreds or thousands of rigid correlation rules can't possibly keep up with the sophisticated and constantly changing hacking strategies used today.

Global Pandemic to Cyber Pandemic
The situation only got worse with the past year's COVID-19 pandemic and the cyber pandemic that followed as organizations sent their entire staff home to work at unsecured locations. If the security perimeter was already disappearing at that time — and it was — it all but vanished in the past year with the expected results. The use of supposedly secure VPNs wasn't any help, as VPNs offer no protection when an attacker obtains the user's VPN login information to get into the network, where they get networkwide access. The National Security Agency issued a cybersecurity advisory in July 2020 warning that VPNs "are prone to network scanning, brute force attacks, and zero-day vulnerabilities."  

In April 2020, the FBI said that reported cybersecurity attacks had grown by 400% compared with pre-COVID-19 days. That same month, activists stole nearly 25,000 email addresses and passwords belonging to the National Institutes of Health, the World Health Organization, and the Gates Foundation, according to the Washington Post. The next month, Shiny Hunters, a hacking group, claimed the theft of 200 million records with credentials from more than 13 organizations, according to Wired.

And compromised credentials are not a brand-new attack strategy. In April 2019, Dominion Healthcare discovered a breach using unauthorized access that had happened almost a decade before. GoDaddy, Twitter, Amtrak, and the US Department of Justice have all suffered from credential-enabled attacks.

IT organizations must begin a major shift of their security strategy to equip themselves with the tools and tactics needed to detect credential compromise. This involves a combination of people, processes, and technology focused on learning what normal, standard user behavior looks like and how IT can detect anomalous behavior indicating that credentials have been compromised. Security teams should also look at frameworks such as MITRE ATT&CK to learn and understand the behaviors and tactics of attackers.

The earlier they can detect attacks using compromised credentials, privilege escalation, and lateral movement, the quicker they can stop these attacks and contain the damages before they become a disaster.

About the Author

Ralph Pisani is President of security analytics and automation company Exabeam. He's a passionate, high-energy leader who thrives on challenging the status quo and helping customers succeed. Pisani is a cybersecurity veteran and investor with a history of forging and leading high-performing go-to-market teams with industry expertise across SaaS, security, cloud computing, enterprise software, and managed services. Follow him on Twitter at @RalphRpisani.

Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
I Smell a RAT! New Cybersecurity Threats for the Crypto Industry
David Trepp, Partner, IT Assurance with accounting and advisory firm BPM LLP,  7/9/2021
Attacks on Kaseya Servers Led to Ransomware in Less Than 2 Hours
Robert Lemos, Contributing Writer,  7/7/2021
It's in the Game (but It Shouldn't Be)
Tal Memran, Cybersecurity Expert, CYE,  7/9/2021
Register for Dark Reading Newsletters
White Papers
Current Issue
The Promise and Reality of Cloud Security
Cloud security has been part of the cybersecurity conversation for years but has been on the sidelines for most enterprises. The shift to remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic and digital transformation projects have moved cloud infrastructure front-and-center as enterprises address the associated security risks. This report - a compilation of cutting-edge Black Hat research, in-depth Omdia analysis, and comprehensive Dark Reading reporting - explores how cloud security is rapidly evolving.
Flash Poll
How Enterprises are Developing Secure Applications
How Enterprises are Developing Secure Applications
Recent breaches of third-party apps are driving many organizations to think harder about the security of their off-the-shelf software as they continue to move left in secure software development practices.
Twitter Feed
Dark Reading - Bug Report
Bug Report
Enterprise Vulnerabilities
From DHS/US-CERT's National Vulnerability Database
PUBLISHED: 2023-01-29
loadAsync in JSZip before 3.8.0 allows Directory Traversal via a crafted ZIP archive.
PUBLISHED: 2023-01-29
Weak Password Requirements in GitHub repository froxlor/froxlor prior to 2.0.10.
PUBLISHED: 2023-01-28
A vulnerability has been found in NYUCCL psiTurk up to 3.2.0 and classified as critical. This vulnerability affects unknown code of the file psiturk/experiment.py. The manipulation of the argument mode leads to improper neutralization of special elements used in a template engine. The exploit has be...
PUBLISHED: 2023-01-28
A vulnerability was found in PHPGurukul Bank Locker Management System 1.0. It has been rated as critical. Affected by this issue is some unknown functionality of the file index.php of the component Login. The manipulation of the argument username leads to sql injection. The attack may be launched re...
PUBLISHED: 2023-01-28
A vulnerability classified as problematic has been found in PHPGurukul Bank Locker Management System 1.0. This affects an unknown part of the file add-locker-form.php of the component Assign Locker. The manipulation of the argument ahname leads to cross site scripting. It is possible to initiate the...