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DBIR Makes a Case for Passwordless

Verizon's "2022 Data Breach Investigations Report" repeatedly makes the point that criminals are stealing credentials to carry out their attacks.

Credentials, phishing, exploiting vulnerabilities, and botnets "pervade all areas of the DBIR, and no organization is safe without a plan to handle them all," Verizon's team of researchers wrote in this year's "Data Breach Investigations Report."

Attackers don't have to bother with zero-day vulnerabilities or build out elaborate attack tools when they can just steal credentials and log right in. Whether the report is looking at Web application attacks, email scams such as business email compromise, or malware, the theme was consistent: Stolen credentials played a role. 

DBIR is chock-full of charts and visualizations, so it is difficult to pick just one -- though the chart about what types of data attackers are stealing is a particularly striking. For a long time, criminals were interested in personal data -- data that could be used for identity theft or other types of financial fraud. While that is still the case, that is not the complete story. Attackers are focusing heavily on obtaining stolen credentials, since those credentials make carrying out other attacks even easier and harder to detect. The report considers 180 different actions that lead to data breaches, and the use of stolen credentials is the most common.

"We've long held that credentials are the favorite data type of criminal actors because they are so useful for masquerading as legitimate users on the system," the report says.

Consider how ransomware gets onto the targeted system: 40% of ransomware incidents involve the use of desktop sharing software, such as remote desktop protocol. And the easiest way to access RDP is via weak passwords.

While third-party breaches represent just 1% of breaches in the 2022 dataset, about half of them involved the use of stolen credentials. 

Phishing and stolen credentials were the top two actions in data breaches involving social engineering attacks. The third is "pretexting," almost all of which are business email compromises. A quarter of BECs used stolen credentials against the victim organization, according to the report.

And finally, in the area of web application attacks, the vast majority of incidents use stolen credentials as their entry point. Over 80% of the breaches that was categorized under web application attacks in this year's DBIR can be attributed to stolen credentials. In comparison, the second most common action, exploiting vulnerabilities, is less than 20%.

"There’s been an almost 30% increase in stolen credentials since 2017, cementing it as one of the most tried-and-true methods to gain access to an organization for the last four years," the report says.

"Even if passwordless authentication isn't ready for prime time in your organization, the report findings can be used to help fund and implement multi-factor authentication," says Rick Holland, CISO and vice-president of strategy at Digital Shadows.