The Sleeping Dragon of e-Mail Security

Charl van der Walt

Charl van der Walt

New research conducted by SecureData suggests that today’s enterprise risk model seriously underestimates the soft underbelly of the attack surface created by each employee, their password behaviour and repertoire of common online applications. Charl van der Walt explains how attackers might compromise corporate networks through simple, low-cost exploits… and with potentially devastating effect.

Employees have long been singled out as the weak link in the corporate security chain, with the finger of blame typically falling on phished communications and lack of awareness. Today, however, we see a new threat vector being posed to corporate networks that comes with a serious multiplier effect.

Our own recent study identified almost one thousand ‘at risk’ UK organisations in a matter of weeks, based on running our program through a freely available and ever-growing supply of compromised e-mail addresses, hashed passwords and, unfortunately, yet more poor security practices from employees.

People behave like people. The 2015 PwC report proved that people are just as likely to cause a breach as malware, for instance. People are time-poor, prone to memory failure and in need of context and cues for recall. They’re unable to generate and remember unique passwords for the typical universe of 25 online applications they frequently use. On that basis, they cheat. They modify or often re-use the same password across their personal applications, and you’ve guessed it, across their corporate accounts as well.

From the hacker’s perspective, this online repertoire of applications is a sweet shop full of possibilities if just one password can be cracked. The prize here isn’t necessarily nefarious posting on Facebook pages, but using the same set of keys to access corporate cloud applications, e-mail and systems.

What’s the perfect remedy?

What should the remedy be? Prevent users from accessing online applications? Outlaw home or personal Internet use? No. What’s needed (in the absence of password-free security measures) is a rethink of corporate vulnerabilities from an attacker’s perspective.

Businesses have learned how to manage employee-related threats and vulnerabilities in a professional context, but few have considered how their employees’ personal online behaviour impacts their corporate security. Attackers, on the other hand, are rubbing their hands with the vastly extended attack surface that social media, personal e-mail and a host of other applications presents as possible entry points to corporate systems. Hackers don’t respect perimeters, and end users don’t either.

To draw attention to this fundamental miscalculation of the cyber criminal mindset and the breadth of opportunity it presents, we focused on the security ‘no man’s land’ between personal and professional passwords to demonstrate the efficacy of this type of attack vector.

With a sample of 1.5 million compromised e-mail addresses and hashed passwords from the public Internet, we scanned them to identify Outlook Web Application (OWA) accounts, unearthing a total of 1,226 UK businesses. With 92% of passwords able to be cracked, and the industry benchmark of 77% re-use of passwords across multiple applications, we calculate that we have 868 UK organisations that could be hacked right now through OWA.

The hacker strikes gold once inside with the ability to write Outlook rules to phone home with data and gain access to other areas of the network. In our research, we found that 0.5% of UK businesses are immediately at risk. This is staggering for one single, next to no cost exploit.

The problem with passwords 

There’s further evidence to suggest that hackers are already exploiting the personal password vulnerability vector. In May, a security firm discovered a botnet built for the sole purpose of locating and using account credentials to gain entry into online bank accounts.

Hackers gravitate towards the biggest returns for minimum effort. The rate of compromised e-mails accumulating on the web, with 400 million posted in one mega breach last month (Source: leakedsource.com), suggests that this type of attack will grow in significance. Certainly, recent breaches suggest a growing appetite for revealing e-mail addresses amongst the cyber criminal community. Look at the recent Ashley Madison, Amazon and Vtech episodes.

With freely available supply and the multiplied potential from cracking any one of 25 or so personal applications with minimal effort, security managers must rethink what they consider to be included inside their digital footprint. They need to map all of the possible entry points an attacker would look at if they really were focused on a target.

The overlap between personal and professional security presents a new frontier for where (and whether) organisations establish a security perimeter. At the very least, security professionals must be careful not to underestimate the potential issues that supposedly benign elements of corporate IT can generate as the e-mail attack vector environment evolves.

Two-factor authentication may keep some applications safe, but it’s not a silver bullet where the overlap between corporate and personal passwords exists. Most businesses build security architectures and processes around a threat model that reflects their own view of the world. Mapping your digital footprint gives you the attacker’s perspective on where and how they might attempt a compromise.

Our research on OWA gives an insight into the new ways in which attackers can abuse the features within corporate applications for gain. Take a minute to tune in to how cyber criminals might look at your organisation and then ask yourself: ‘What e-mail and password credentials is my CEO using on LinkedIn?’

Charl van der Walt is Head of Security Strategy at SecureData

About the Author
Brian Sims BA (Hons) Hon FSyI, Editor, Risk UK (Pro-Activ Publications) Beginning his career in professional journalism at The Builder Group in March 1992, Brian was appointed Editor of Security Management Today in November 2000 having spent eight years in engineering journalism across two titles: Building Services Journal and Light & Lighting. In 2005, Brian received the BSIA Chairman’s Award for Promoting The Security Industry and, a year later, the Skills for Security Special Award for an Outstanding Contribution to the Security Business Sector. In 2008, Brian was The Security Institute’s nomination for the Association of Security Consultants’ highly prestigious Imbert Prize and, in 2013, was a nominated finalist for the Institute's George van Schalkwyk Award. An Honorary Fellow of The Security Institute, Brian serves as a Judge for the BSIA’s Security Personnel of the Year Awards and the Securitas Good Customer Award. Between 2008 and 2014, Brian pioneered the use of digital media across the security sector, including webinars and Audio Shows. Brian’s actively involved in 50-plus security groups on LinkedIn and hosts the popular Risk UK Twitter site. Brian is a frequent speaker on the conference circuit. He has organised and chaired conference programmes for both IFSEC International and ASIS International and has been published in the national media. Brian was appointed Editor of Risk UK at Pro-Activ Publications in July 2014 and as Editor of The Paper (Pro-Activ Publications' dedicated business newspaper for security professionals) in September 2015. Brian was appointed Editor of Risk Xtra at Pro-Activ Publications in May 2018.

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