Thought leadership. Threat analysis. Cybersecurity news and alerts.
Anatomy of a Breach
The fallout of a breach is serious.
In recent months, the seriousness of a breach fallout has been shown in the cyber incidents at SolarWinds, Colonial Pipeline, and Kaseya.
In December 2020, in a SEC filing, SolarWinds said it was a victim of a supply chain attack in which the company’s Orion software build system was breached. The company said 18,000 customers were affected. In its First Quarter 2021 Preliminary Financial Results, SolarWinds said it spent between $18 million and $19 million in the first quarter of 2021 to investigate and remediate the breach incident.
In May 2021, Colonial Pipeline disclosed that it responded to a ransomware attack on its system by proactively taking certain systems offline and temporarily halting all pipeline operations. The company also paid the ransomware attackers $5 million.
Just this month, Kaseya disclosed that 60 customers, all of which were using the Kaseya VSA on-premises product and many of which provide IT services to multiple other companies, were impacted by the ransomware attack on Kaseya.
The ransomware attack on Kaseya affected 1,500 downstreambusinesses. Swedish supermarket Coop, one of the affected businesses, for a time, temporarily stopped its operation due to the attack on Kaseya.
In a breach, the turmoil that happens in the background doesn’t make it to the breached company’s press statement. These include staff confusion of what happened and a barrage of customers trying to get hold of the company representative of what actually transpired.
How Hackers Break In
In the case of the SolarWinds breach, SolarWinds CEO Sudhakar Ramakrishna said a SolarWinds email account was compromised and used to programmatically access accounts of targeted SolarWinds personnel in technical and business roles. “By compromising credentials of SolarWinds employees, the threat actors were able to gain access to and exploit our Orion development environment,” Ramakrishna said.
In the case of the Colonial Pipeline breach, Charles Carmakal, senior vice president at cybersecurity firm Mandiant told Bloomberg that attackers were able to initially compromise Colonial Pipeline systems through a dormant VPN account.
The VPN account, which has since been deactivated, didn’t use multi-factor authentication (MFA), Carmakal said. It isn’t clear how the attackers got hold of the VPN account password. The password, however, is part of the leaked passwords on the dark web.
In the case of the Kaseya breach, researchers at Cisco Talos Intelligence Group reported that the initial compromise of Kaseya VSA servers appears to have been the result of the successful exploitation of an unpatched software vulnerability CVE-2021-30116. This vulnerability in Kaseya VSA before 9.5.7 allows credential disclosure. In the case of the Kaseya breach, the attackers used the credential disclosure to gain privileged access to vulnerable Kaseya VSA servers for the purposes of ransomware deployment.
Stages of a Breach
Stage 1: Initial Foothold
As shown in the above-mentioned breaches, attackers used different initial entry tactics in gaining an initial foothold of their victim’s systems. In the case of the Solarwinds breach, the attackers gained initial entry to the company’s systems by compromising an email account.
In the case of the Colonial Pipeline breach, the attackers gained initial entry to the company’s systems through a dormant VPN account thatwas unprotected by MFA. In the case of the Kaseya breach, the attackers gained initial entry to the company’s systems through unpatched software vulnerability.
Stage 2: Gaining Elevated Control
Once attackers gain an initial foothold on the victim’s systems, they then aim to escalate their privilege. Attackers may take control of the local system, or look for other systems that offer a greater chance ofgaining greater access to valuable data or administrative privileges.
Keylogger and network scanning are two tactics used by attackers in gaining elevated control. Keylogger is a type of malicious software (malware) that records the keyboard keys that the user presses. Attackers capture user’s other usernames and passwords through keylogger.
In network scanning, attackers catalog the systems that can be accessed. These include services, host machines, and resources that are active on the victim’s network.
Stage 3: Expanding to the Network
After gaining elevated control, attackers install a permanent backdoor or alternate mechanism for long-term access to the systems. Botnet and living off the land are two of the tactics often used by attackers at this stage.
In the botnet tactic, the compromised computer is infected withmalware and made part of a group of infected computers controlled by the attackers for malicious activities such as distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks. In living off the land, meanwhile, attackers utilize native resources, as opposed to malware, giving the attackersthe freedom to come and go and move around the networks undetected and staying off the radar of security systems.
Stage 4: Staying for the Short or Long Term
After expanding to the network, the attackers may stay either for short or long term. The length of the period depends on the attackers’ motivation, whether for fame, money, revenge, or political reasons.
For attackers who wish to stay for long term on the compromised network, a backdoor is often employed. A backdoor is an entry point into a network or system allowing the attackers continued access.
For attackers who wish to stay for short term only on the compromised network, attackers use the smash-and-grab technique, that is, after compromising the system, they steal data and quickly leave.
Growing SaaS Misconfiguration Threat
The 2021 SaaS Security Survey Report by Tel Aviv-based security company Adaptive Shield showed that SaaS misconfiguration is one of the top threats faced by today’s enterprises.
Adaptive Shield’s 2021 SaaS Security Survey, which surveyed 300 InfoSecurity professionals from North America and Western Europe in companies of 500+ employees, found that cybersecurity professionals recognize SaaS misconfiguration as the number 3 cloud risk, following account hijacking (number one) and data leakage (number two).
What is SaaS?
SaaS, short for software as a service, is a software that’s being delivered as a service over the internet. Traditional software needs to be bought, installed on the user’s computer, and must be maintained and updated.
SaaS, meanwhile, runs on the provider’s servers and the SaaS provider does all the maintenance required for security, making the software available to users, and improving the performance of the software. In SaaS, all that’s required from the user is to access the software over the internet.
SaaS misconfiguration is a product of human error: leaving the SaaS account accessible over the internet by everyone without authentication or adequate security.
Deeper Problems Behind SaaS Misconfiguration
SaaS misconfiguration threat is even greater as other cloud risks such as account hijacking and data leakage can also be the result of misconfiguration.
Adaptive Shield’s 2021 SaaS Security Survey showed that 85% of companies recognize SaaS misconfiguration as one of the top threats. The survey found that only 12% of companies with 50-99 applications check these apps on a weekly basis, showing that the more apps a company has, the less time they will check on security settings and permissions for misconfigurations.
The survey also found that 52% of companies delegate the task of securing the app to SaaS users, such as staff in the Sales, Marketing, or Product departments – individuals who are unlikely to be trained in SaaS security and compliance.
The survey also found that one in four companies reports that departments outside of IT security have access to SaaS app security settings. “Any human error by the SaaS owner, who is often not trained in security, can lead to an increase
in SaaS security misconfigurations,” Adaptive Shield said.
Prevalence of SaaS Misconfigurations
In a January 2019 disclosure, security researcher Avinash Jain found in NASA Jira a misconfiguration issue that caused the leakage of internal sensitive information of NASA, including internal user details, project details, employee names, and employees mail id.
Jira is a task tracking system/project management software used, not just by NASA but also by Fortune 500 companies and over a hundred thousand companies and organizations worldwide.
In an August 2019 disclosure, Jain said NASA wasn’t the only organization that leaked its data due to Jira misconfiguration. Jain said thousands of companies using JIRA inadvertently exposed their internal user data and internal project details.
“When the filters and dashboards for the projects/issues are created in JIRA, then by default the visibility is set to ‘All users’ and ‘Everyone’ respectively, which instead of sharing with everyone of the organizations (which people think and interpret), it shares them publically,” Jain said. “There is also a user picker functionality in Jira which gives a complete list of every user’s username and email address. This information disclosure is the result of an authorization misconfiguration in Jira’s Global Permissions settings.”
According to Jain, anyone with the link can access the exposed critical data over the internet and because said data are being indexed by all the search engines, anyone can easily search online these critical data with some simple search queries.
In another example of SaaS misconfiguration, in an April 2019 disclosure, Citrix said that it was contacted by the FBI, saying that they had reason to believe that cybercriminals gained access to the internal Citrix network.
Citrix added that the FBI has advised them that the hackers likely used a tactic known as password spraying. “Once they gained a foothold with limited access, they worked to circumvent additional layers of security,” Citrix said in a statement.
In password spraying, attackers acquire a list of usernames or accounts and attempt to sign into all of them using a set of the most popular or most likely passwords until they get the correct username and password combination. In the blog post "Protecting your organization against password spray attacks,” Diana Kelley Cybersecurity Field CTO at Microsoft said password spray is a popular tactic among attackers as they only need one successful password and username combination.
“Once they have it, they can access whatever the user has access to, such as cloud resources on OneDrive,” Kelley said. “Or use the exploited account to do internal reconnaissance on the target network and get deeper into the systems via elevation of privilege.”
Cybersecurity Best Practices
The COVID-19 restrictions imposed in different parts of the world prompted many companies and organizations to adopt SaaS with little consideration for security. Here are some of the cybersecurity best practices in preventing and mitigating the effects of SaaS misconfigurations:
Authorities Warn of Active Global Campaign Leveraging Brute Force Technique
Authorities in multiple countries, including Canada, the US and the UK have warned of an ongoing global campaign leveraging brute force technique targeting enterprise and cloud environments.
Cybersecurity centers in the UK (National Cyber Security Centre), Canada (Canadian Centre for Cyber Security), and the US (National Security Agency, Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, and Federal Bureau of Investigation) warned of the global brute force campaign that’s being carried out to gain access to enterprise and cloud environments of targeted organizations.
What Is Brute Force Attack?
Brute force is a type of cyberattack that uses the trial-and-error method in guessing the correct username and password combination.
Brute force is often used interchangeably with password spray. In the blog post "Protecting your organization against password spray attacks," Diana Kelley Cybersecurity Field CTO at Microsoft said that brute force is targeted, while password spray is the opposite.
In a brute force attack, a hacker goes after specific users and tries as many passwords as possible using either a full dictionary or one that’s edited to common passwords, Kelley said. In password spray, meanwhile, Kelley said a hacker acquires a list of accounts and attempts to sign into all of them using a small subset of the most popular, or most likely, passwords until a hit is made.
In a Joint Cybersecurity Advisory [PDF], UK’s National Cyber Security Centre and US security agencies (National Security Agency, Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, and Federal Bureau of Investigation), said that since at least mid-2019 through early 2021, attackers used a Kubernetes cluster to conduct “widespread, distributed, and anonymized brute force access attempts” against hundreds of organizations worldwide. To hide the attacks’ true origin, the attackers’ Kubernetes cluster normally routes brute force authentication attempts through TOR and commercial VPN services, including CactusVPN, IPVanish, NordVPN, ProtonVPN, Surfshark, and WorldVPN.
Kubernetes is an open-source software that allows the deployment and management of containerized applications at scale. A Kubernetes cluster, meanwhile, contains a control plane and one or more compute machines or nodes.
According to the Joint Cybersecurity Advisory, what was being brute force attacked were organizations using Microsoft Office 365 cloud services, and targeted as well were other service providers and on-premises email servers using a variety of different protocols.
“This brute force capability allows the … actors to access protected data, including email, and identify valid account credentials,” the Joint Cybersecurity Advisory said. “Those credentials may then be used for a variety of purposes, including initial access, persistence, privilege escalation, and defense evasion.”
The Joint Cybersecurity Advisory said the attackers collected email from Office 365 using a compromised valid service account with elevated Privileges, and that the attackers used certutil.exe, a known "Living Off the Land" technique, to transfer a file into a target environment.
Exploitation of Known Vulnerabilities
The Joint Cybersecurity Advisory pointed out that once the attackers obtained credentials through brute force, various other known vulnerabilities were exploited by the attackers to gain further access and move laterally through the target network. Publicly known vulnerabilities such as CVE 2020-0688 and CVE 2020-17144 were exploited by the attackers.
CVE 2020-0688 is a remote code execution vulnerability in Microsoft Exchange Server. This vulnerability exists when the server fails to properly create unique keys at install time. “Knowledge of a validation key allows an authenticated user with a mailbox to pass arbitrary objects to be deserialized by the web application, which runs as SYSTEM,” Microsoft, in an advisory said.
CVE 2020-17144, meanwhile, is another remote code execution vulnerability in Microsoft Exchange. The vulnerability is caused by improper validation of cmdlet arguments.
The Joint Cybersecurity Advisory said that the exploitation of Microsoft Exchange servers occurred after valid credentials were identified through brute force campaign as these vulnerabilities CVE 2020-0688 and CVE 2020-17144 require authentication as a valid user.
Cybersecurity Best Practices
The Canadian Centre for Cyber Security, for its part, said it is highlighting the Joint Cybersecurity Advisory detailing the global brute force campaign to compromise enterprise and cloud environments as it’s important for system owners and operators responsible to defend their systems and networks from cyber threats.
Brute force attacks can be prevented or mitigated through the following cybersecurity best practices:
Microsoft’s security updates address the security vulnerabilities CVE 2020-0688 and CVE 2020-17144. It’s, therefore, important to keep all software, in this case, Microsoft Exchange, up to date to prevent further escalation of the malicious actors’ attack once they are able to break into your organization’s network through brute force campaign.
It’s also important to consider denying all inbound activity from known TOR nodes and other public VPN services to exchange servers or portals where this inbound activity isn’t associated with typical use.
Steve E. Driz, I.S.P., ITCP