Starting with Operation Aurora – the brazen 2009 cyber attacks on Google and other large enterprises – through to the recent high-profile data breach that shut down certificate authority (CA) DigiNotar and the recent breach of VeriSign hackers have learned to exploit a frightening and frequently ignored lapse in network security to gain control of victim networks.

It’s always easy with hindsight, but today it seems clear that the criminals behind recent, high-profile cyber attacks weren’t necessarily computer geniuses – just good opportunists. They were able to exploit human nature and then abuse an open door they knew they’d find. Let me explain.

These hackers utilise creative tactics such as highly targeted spear-fishing emails that lure unsuspecting users to open a malicious attachment, and then deploy zero-day malware onto a user’s computer. From that single computer inside an organisation, the attackers can then exploit weak, shared privileged accounts to take control of systems throughout the victims’ network, map its infrastructure and extract sensitive information. Simple, but highly effective.

Potentially vulnerable privileged accounts are found everywhere in the IT infrastructure – on host computer operating systems, in network appliances and backup systems, and in line-of-business software. Privileged accounts can be categorised into three primary groups:

  • Super-user login accounts utilized by individuals to configure, run and install applications; to change system settings; to handle routine administrative duties; and to perform emergency fire-call repairs
  • Service accounts that require privileged login IDs and passwords to run
  • Application-to-application passwords used by web services, line-of-business applications and custom software to connect to databases, middleware, and so on.

The passwords that control access to privileged accounts are ultimately the main obstacle standing between hackers and your organization’s private data. However, all too often these credentials are not adequately secured, monitored and audited.

Why Privileged Accounts are at Risk

Because privileged accounts aren’t even recognized by Identity Access Management (IAM) systems, most organisations have no automated way to manage these powerful accounts. Today’s IT security regulations – mandated by government and industry groups alike – require organizations to frequently update privileged account credentials and audit their use.

Yet updating these accounts with scripts or by hand often proves too time-consuming and error-prone to be practical. To further complicate the process, manual changes can cause service outages if personnel fail to account for interdependencies between different privileged accounts. Therefore, many organizations simply ignore the problem.

Unfortunately the security risks introduced by weak privileged account security don’t stop at your datacentre door. More and more of the shared services that your organization probably uses – including cloud services, certificate authorities, and financial service gateways, to name a few – have been exposed as having weak or non-existent privileged account security.

To a hacker the shared, cryptographically weak privileged logins used by service provider staff look like an incredibly attractive target – especially since in these environments a single compromised login can expose the private data of scores of corporate customers.

Secure the keys

While it might seem like a daunting prospect to secure your privileged accounts, you can start to take control with just three simple steps.

Step 1. Find the keys

You need to carry out a top-to-bottom audit of your entire network to determine exactly where all your privileged accounts reside. This should include cataloguing whether the logins are sufficiently unique and complex, and whether they are changed often enough to be secure.

At this point some readers might throw their arms up despair, since cataloguing potentially thousands of privileged logins in a typical datacentre is no easy task. Never fear, companies can provide point-in-time privileged account audits to qualified organisations, usually without charge.

Step 2. Lock the doors

If needed – and if it isn’t I’d question your auditors’ sanity – you should deploy the basic automation necessary to close any discovered security holes. There are cost-effective solutions available that can not only secure these accounts on very large networks but do so in hours or days, rather than months.

Step 3. Secure the Windows

There’s no point securing your network if critical external elements are left vulnerable. Demand that your key business partners – including cloud service providers, certificate authorities, and others –demonstrate that they’re in compliance with meaningful mandates like the Consensus Audit Guidelines. I’d argue that if they offer self-certifications like SAS70, they don’t take the problem seriously and will eventually leave you exposed.

Hackers have demonstrated that they can penetrate any corporate network. In the past few months the intruders seem to be gaining even more of an upper hand, as word has leaked out that perhaps four more certificate authorities have been compromised in attacks similar to that suffered by DigiNotar.

Many organisations seem to be reeling from the severity of the situation, and some have responded with panic and confusion as they hurry to latch the doors while leaving the keys in the locks. Your datacentre relies on privileged identities to function and that’s not going to change. However, failure to protect these accounts will leave your private data exposed. We’ve explained the risks but, at the end of the day, it’s up to you. Are you going to protect the keys to your kingdom?