A recent study conducted by CyberArk has revealed that enterprises now face a high level of risk of privileged account hacking. In fact, the majority of enterprises are at risk of being hacked. Many companies are underestimating the risk, although IT professionals have long been aware of the danger of privileged account hacking.

The study suggests 88% of enterprise networks are susceptible to attack. A complete compromise of the corporate network is possible via 40% of Windows machines. The researchers predict that all it would usually take is for one privileged account to be hacked to allow the attackers to gain access to most accounts and systems. The researchers also determined that any enterprise that has Windows hosts is susceptible to attack via privileged account hacking.

To produce the report “Analyzing Real-World Exposure to Windows Credential Theft Attacks” CyberArk surveyed 51 organizations of varying sizes to determine the level of risk faced from privileged account hacking and the extent to which networks could be compromised should hackers manage to gain access to super-user and/or service accounts.

The results of the survey paint an incredibly worrying picture. The hacking of privileged accounts is not just a problem that must be dealt with by large corporations. Small to medium-sized businesses are also being targeted. Hackers are gaining access to their systems and are using them to launch attacks on their supply chain partners.

The privileged account hacking risk is often underestimated

Many organizations are not even aware how substantial the privileged account hacking risk is. An organization employing 500 individuals may have 1500 or more privileged accounts according to the researchers. The risk of attack is greatest with servers and lower with workstations. This is because servers can be used to gain access to a much wider range of systems and data than workstations. If any one server is compromised, attackers can use that machine for privileged account hacking and can gain access to many other Windows hosts on the network.

Attackers have months to analyze the network infrastructure and exfiltrate data

Mandiant recently estimated the median number of days for enterprises to discover their networks have been compromised is 229 days. The latest report from CyberArk also suggests a similar timescale for detection – placing the time frame at between 6 to 8 months. Once attackers have gained access to a network, they are exceptionally good at hiding and covering their tracks, and have months to browse the network.

How are hackers gaining access to privileged account login credentials?

In many cases, user credentials are stolen via phishing campaigns. Oftentimes, the attacks are highly sophisticated and highly targeted. Individual users are selected and a campaign is developed to fool them into visiting a malicious website and downloading malware or opening an infected email attachment.

Information about the target is obtained via social media networks such as Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn. Their contacts are identified, and a phishing email is either sent from a hacked colleagues account or is masked to make it appear that it has been sent from a trusted individual.

All too often a sophisticated attack is not necessary. If malware can be installed on just one single computer, shared-privilege accounts can be used to gain access to a wide range of systems.

What can enterprises do to protect their networks from privileged account hacking?

Protecting against the hacking of privileged accounts is difficult. It is not possible to eliminate privileged accounts as they essential to the functioning of the business. Since these accounts cannot be eliminated, efforts must be made to make accounts more secure. Unfortunately, the management of privileged accounts is complicated and is difficult to automate.

A survey recently conducted by Dimensional Research/Dell highlights the extent of the current problem. 560 IT professionals were asked about privileged access management and 41% revealed that they did not use any software at all or rely on Excel or other spreadsheet software packages to manage their accounts.

Fewer than half of respondents did not log or monitor privileged account access. 23% did not have a defined account management process. 28% did not have a defined process for changing default passwords on new equipment and software. Passwords were also found not to be changed frequently. Only a quarter of organizations changed admin passwords every month.

Make it harder for networks to be compromised by privileged account hacks

In order to improve security and prevent  the hacking of privileged accounts, IT professionals should:

  • Develop a defined process for managing privileged accounts
  • Conduct a full audit of the network to locate all privileged accounts
  • Ensure all passwords are unique, complex, and very difficult to guess
  • Monitor and audit account passwords
  • Use different passwords for different systems
  • Change default passwords on all new devices and software
  • Change passwords at least once a month
  • Implement an automated solution to manage privileged accounts
  • Ensure that a full risk assessment is conducted and any security holes are plugged rapidly (Hours rather than weeks or months)
  • Conduct an audit of all suppliers and business partners to ensure they have sufficient security in place
  • Implement solutions to protect users from phishing and spear phishing attacks, such as anti-spam software with anti-phishing controls
  • Implement a web filter to reduce the probability of a user downloading malware to the network from malicious websites.

Fail to secure your login credentials, and privileged account hacking will not be only be a risk; it will be a reality.