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Countering the rise of credential-based attacks

By Contributor, Tue 12 Oct 2021

Article by Exabeam regional sales director Peter Kahrilas.


Every year, National Cyber Security Awareness Month provides organisations with the opportunity to examine the major issues facing security teams and arm themselves against potential threats to their business. 

With October now upon us, we are again faced with a distributed workforce predominantly working from home offices – and much of the threatscape is focused on the opportunities this provides to bad actors and rogue nation-states to expand credential theft.

In recent times, these credential thefts have targeted organisations across government, health care and education, with an intense focus on those working towards vaccine research.

New issues have emerged in this modern remote work landscape as employees connect to sub-par security on home networks, share their corporate devices among household members, and engage in other risky behaviours. This distributed enterprise forces organisations across sectors to ask themselves whether or not they are prepared to combat credential-based attacks.

As recent headlines can confirm, credential-based attacks don’t discriminate based on industry or company size. In September, the United States Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) published an analysis report detailing a malware attack on a federal agency’s enterprise network. In the report, CISA noted the threat actor leveraged compromised credentials to exploit weaknesses in the agency’s firewall.

Just as NCSAM began in 2020, Microsoft published the Digital Defense Report, showing the increasing sophistication of cyberthreats, which confirmed the effects of the pandemic on targeted industries and provided additional evidence pointing to a rise in credential-based attacks.

Closer to home, the government-run Australian Cyber Security Centre (ACSC) has reported a steep increase in attacks since July using stolen credentials, especially around the LockBit ransomware and affiliate bugs.

Credential-based attacks make it harder for a SOC to detect and respond to attackers, allowing adversaries to access private data and high-value assets. We’ve also seen credentials impacted mid-way through the attack by switching between user accounts or escalating a compromised user's privileges. 

Looking to remain one step ahead of security teams, hackers utilise these attacks to make it more difficult to detect and respond to their activity and to access other areas of the network.

Traditional cybersecurity investigation techniques are no longer enough to place organisations ahead of bad actors looking to compromise their systems and attack their data. Thus, more advanced approaches are needed today to prevent this dangerous lateral network movement. 

Organisations looking to modernise their systems and counter credential-based attacks can find success by adding intelligence to their SIEMs and implementing machine-learning-based analytics.

The static rules of a SIEM will typically not fire if an attacker logs into a network – using stolen credentials, or as a malicious insider. Moreover, even if the SIEM provides an alert, the security team cannot tie the events together to provide the security team with a complete picture of the attack chain. Threat actors can wait days, weeks, or even months before making their first lateral movement, making them extremely hard to detect without all the details.

By relying more on data analytics and machine learning, security teams can identify a user’s intent. Behavioural analytics first establish a baseline of the user’s typical behaviour, comparing typical behaviour to that which appears out of the norm, such as abnormal lateral movement. 

Their behaviour will also be analysed in comparison to their peers, thus establishing patterns across the organisation. Security teams can then automatically stitch together various log sources into a timeline to detect anomalous behaviour. In this fashion, behavioural analytics can also help combat insider threats, who may be engaging in permitted but unusual activity.

Employees outside of the SOC also have a role to play. In the 2020 Verizon Data Breach Investigations Report, credential theft accounted for 67% of breaches and raised concerns around the vulnerability of remote workers. Therefore, security teams must continue to stress and repeat best password practices such as never using the same password twice, using complex passwords, and turning on multi-factor authentication.

As credential-based attacks gain notoriety and organisations become increasingly aware of the risks and consequences associated with them, security teams have responded by establishing baseline industry best practices to arm employees with the knowledge required to combat these threats. 

These include continuous employee education around good password hygiene, reminders to look for suspicious links or email addresses and avoiding the co-mingling of personal and professional email accounts.

For security teams, prevention also involves closely monitoring user behaviours, allowing for early detection of malicious events and establishing rigorous access controls, especially for users with privileged access.

By implementing a combination of behavioural analytics and smart password practices, security teams will be better prepared to thwart current and future credential-based attacks across the organisation.

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