You're One Misconfiguration Away from a Cloud-Based Data BreachYou're One Misconfiguration Away from a Cloud-Based Data Breach
Don't assume that cyberattacks are all you have to worry about. Misconfigurations should also be a top cause of concern.
April 14, 2020
Not all instances of data exposure in the cloud are the product of malicious intentions from either internal or external actors. In its "2019 Data Breach Investigations Report" (DBIR), for instance, Verizon Enterprise showed that errors constituted one of the top causes in the data breaches it examined. Verizon's researchers attributed 21% of those incidents to misconfigurations, which are now one of the most common ways by which digital criminals can gain a foothold into your infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) environment.
Let's take a look at what misconfigurations look like in the cloud, why they pose such a security risk, and how you can avoid them.
What Is a Cloud Misconfiguration?
A cloud misconfiguration occurs when you have not configured a cloud-related system, asset, or tool properly. This improper setup may in turn jeopardize the security of your cloud-based data depending on the affected system, asset, or tool.
McAfee provided a list of such misconfigurations affecting Amazon Web Services (AWS) in its "Cloud Native: The Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) Adoption and Risk Report":
● EBS data encryption is not turned on.
● There 's unrestricted outbound access
● Access to resources is not provisioned using IAM roles.
● EC2 security group port is misconfigured.
● Publicly exposed cloud resources.
● EC2 security group inbound access is misconfigured.
● Unencrypted AMI is discovered.
● Unused security groups are discovered.
● VPC Flow logs are disabled.
● Multifactor authentication is not enabled for IAM users.
● S3 bucket encryption is not turned on.
As you can see, misconfigurations are the product of human error. This means that you can remediate misconfigurations by setting the configurations of your systems and tools to a more stable and secure state.
Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. This is especially the case if you don't think you're responsible for fixing misconfigurations in your cloud environments. As I noted in an earlier blog post, you might be inclined to think that your cloud service providers automatically cover all of your security needs. In reality, you are responsible for securing your customer data in the public cloud, securing your applications, and protecting your operating systems.
As a result, it's not surprising that 99% of misconfigurations flew under the radar of McAfee's survey respondents using IaaS. They were aware of about 37 incidents involving misconfigurations per month. But because they weren't looking for these issues or they didn't have tools capable of auditing configurations, they didn't realize that they were actually experiencing closer to 3,500 incidents each month.
Such lack of awareness translated into an inadequate response. Indeed, nearly a quarter of McAfee's survey participants said that it took them longer than a day to correct an IaaS misconfiguration. This gave adversaries plenty of times to abuse the misconfiguration for malicious purposes.
Why It's Important to Fix Misconfigurations
All of this brings us to an important question: Why is it important for you to fix a misconfiguration? What can a malicious actor do with a misconfiguration?
Misconfigurations themselves are one of the most common ways by which digital criminals gain a foothold in your IaaS environment. They often do this by leveraging compromised or weak credentials as a legitimate user. Other times, they exploit a vulnerability in software that's deployed in your environment.
From there, digital criminals expand their reach beyond the landing node to target other parts of your environment. For instance, they leverage privileges within the compromised node to access other nodes remotely, probe for improperly secured apps and databases, or simply abuse weak network controls. They can then exfiltrate your data while remaining under the radar by copying data to an anonymous node on the Web or creating a storage gateway to access data from a remote location.
Here are a few examples that illustrate how malicious actors capitalized on organizations' cloud misconfigurations to steal their sensitive information:
● Capital One: Paige Thompson, a 33-year-old Seattle resident and former AWS software engineer, exploited a misconfigured web application firewall to access a server owned and operated by Capital One. That server contained 140,000 Social Security numbers, 1 million Canadian Social Insurance numbers, 80,000 bank account numbers, and an undisclosed number of customers' personal information. Thompson then attempted to share access to the information with others online, per CNN.
● Imperva: According to Threatpost, Imperva created an internal compute instance that was misconfigured and publicly accessible. That instance contained an AWS API key, a resource that enabled attackers to access a database snapshot and exfiltrate the information of some of its customers.
● CenturyLink: Security researchers found a third-party MongoDB database that was left unprotected on the web, reported SCMagazine. Upon taking a closer look, the researchers found that the database contained 2.8 million CenturyLink data records belonging to several hundred thousand of the tech company's customers.
Minimizing Misconfigurations in the Cloud
Per McAfee's survey, you can minimize the occurrence of misconfigurations in the cloud by training your security teams to understand cloud infrastructure at the same level as their DevOps counterparts. It also helps to build IaaS configuration auditing into your CI/CD process, preferably at the code check-in phase.
Invest in cloud-native security tools that allow you to monitor your networks for suspicious activity such as a malicious actor abusing a set of compromised credentials, moving laterally across the cloud environment, or attempting to exfiltrate information. [Editor's note: The author's company is one of many that offer such tools.] The key is to gain the necessary visibility of your environments, all without bogging you down with false positives.
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