To Err Is Human: Misconfigurations & Employee Neglect Are a Fact of Life

The cyber kill chain is only as strong as its weakest link, so organizations should reinforce that link with a properly equipped dedicated security team.

Liviu Arsene, Global Cybersecurity Researcher at Bitdefender

October 22, 2020

5 Min Read

Endpoint misconfigurations are responsible for a third of all security incidents, and poor remote management policies account for hundreds of thousands of vulnerable systems, according to Bitdefender telemetry. Making the situation worse, 93% of employees recycle old passwords, invalidating the work of security departments.

While pop culture and Hollywood productions depict hackers working tirelessly to compromise security systems and break down firewalls, only a handful of attacks require this level of intense work. In reality, the hackers' work is much simpler. Employees and misconfigured systems do most of the heavy lifting for these threat actors, creating vulnerable points of attack in any organization. The cyber kill chain is only as strong as its weakest link — which is often its people.

Misconfigurations and Human Risks Drive the Need for Security
Despite the myriad security precautions an organization has taken to stave off intrusions, it's a challenge to account for the human element. However, human error is not solely someone opening an attachment containing malware or an employee falling for a phishing scheme. Instead, it includes everything that had to go wrong for that message to reach the employee, for the malware to be able to take hold, or for the security event to go unnoticed.

The human risk element starts with misconfigurations of companywide security policies. There's nothing that hackers love more than IT errors caused by policy misconfiguration in software, such as patching, access control, and even services like Windows Remote Management (WinRM).

Analysis of Bitdefender telemetry shows that WinRM topped that list of misconfigurations in the first half of 2020, with 55.5% of all scanned endpoints. Attackers seek out WinRM vulnerabilities and misconfigured policies because they enable full remote control, allowing them to execute malicious code, change registry keys, grant PowerShell access, or simply remotely dial into machines.

And while WinRM is not an attack vector in and of itself, it can have a devastating impact if misconfigured. Policies such as "allow unencrypted traffic" or "allow basic authentication" should be disabled because attackers might use them to discover hosts running WinRM and brute-force access. Compromising a trusted account or system allows an attacker to access the device shell, plant ransomware, and move laterally across the organization.

Of course, WinRM is a necessary tool and simply disabling it entirely is not a feasible solution. Neither is limiting access to users to minimize the attack surface. Security is always a compromise between functionality and protection, with organizations choosing to provide its employees the right policies for the right job.

As we examine misconfiguration issues further, a recent ESG and Bitdefender report shows that endpoint misconfiguration accounts for 27% of entry points exploited by attackers. Exacerbating the problem, bad policies related to accounts, password storage, and password management are the most common endpoint misconfigurations caused by individuals.

Internet settings are another important and often-overlooked category of security policy, accounting for 73.1% of all endpoint misconfigurations. For example, users should not be able to run unsigned .NET framework components from Internet Explorer, but this happens frequently. Another problem arises with SSL 3.0 downgrade attacks, allowing attackers to perform man-in-the-middle attacks on what should otherwise be encrypted communication.

The Ignored Power of Companywide Policies
Setting up policies inside an organization should always be a priority, which sometimes can take precedence. So many problems stem from a gap in security policies, it's difficult to count them all. One thing is certain: Most security issues could be easily fixed by tailoring the users' access, tools, and operating systems so that they can't overstep their bounds.

Additionally, employees can increase organizational risk by skirting security policies in favor of more vulnerable procedures that feel faster. Policies to prevent employee interference in security procedures need to be enforced by IT and supported by senior leadership.

Also, one of the mistakes security teams often make is to enforce much too draconic policies and companywide measures, making the day-to-day operations difficult for employees. While it might sound counterintuitive, there is such a thing as too much security.

Password reuse is identified as one of the most common bad security practices, reigning supreme as the highest human risk in a company, with a whopping 93.1% of employees recycling old credentials. Reusing the same password over multiple services, including work, gives bad actors an easy "in."

According to Verizon's "2020 Data Breach Investigations Report," over 80% of breaches due to hacking involve brute-force attacks or lost or stolen credentials. And that takes us full circle to policies enforcement, which is especially necessary when it comes to users' passwords.

When It's Too Much for IT to Handle Security
With all of the possible misconfiguration looming on the horizon, companies have different choices, depending on their size and risk profile. In some situations, the IT department can have enough resources to deal with setting up policies and security. When they can no longer cover those tasks adequately, it's the organization's prerogative to expand those resources, either internally by building a security operations center or by using a third-party team.

As studies and the never-ending news of data breaches affecting millions show, misconfigurations and vulnerabilities are a fact of life, and organizations are rarely equipped to identify them and remediate. As the cyber kill chain is as strong as its weakest link, organizations should reinforce that link with a dedicated security team equipped to reduce the attack surface and take care of most of the issues that keep the CISO up at night, implementing the right policies, and filling the security gaps that are inevitable in any company.

About the Author(s)

Liviu Arsene

Global Cybersecurity Researcher at Bitdefender

Liviu Arsene is a Global Cybersecurity Researcher for Bitdefender, with a strong background in security and technology. Researching global trends and developments in cybersecurity, he focuses on advanced persistent threats and security incidents while assessing their impact in critical public and private infrastructures. His passions revolve around innovative technologies and gadgets, focusing on their security applications and long-term strategic impact. When he's not online, he's either taking something apart or putting it back together again.

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