Month: August 2017

Guidance on Strengthening Passwords Updated by NIST

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has updated its guidance on strengthening passwords, suggesting the standard of using a combination of capital letters, lower case letters, numbers and special characters may not be effective at improving password strength. The problem is not with this method of strengthening passwords, but with end users.

Hackers and other cybercriminals attempt to gain access to accounts by guessing passwords. They try many different passwords until the correct one is guessed. This process is often automated, with many thousands of guesses made using lists of commonly used passwords, dictionary words and passwords discovered from past data breaches.

By implementing password policies that force end users to use strong passwords, organizations can improve their resilience against these brute force attacks.

By using capital and lower-case letters, there are 52 possible options rather than 26, making the guessing process much more time consuming. Add in 10 numerals and special characters and guessing becomes harder still. There is no doubt that this standard practice for creating strong passwords is effective and makes passwords much less susceptible to brute force attacks.

The problem is that in practice, that may not be the case. Creating these strong passwords – random strings of letters, numbers and symbols – makes passwords difficult to guess but also virtually impossible to remember. When multiple passwords are required, it becomes harder still for end users and they get frustrated and cut corners.

A good example is the word ‘password’, which is still – alarmingly – used to secure many accounts, according to SplashData’s list of the worst passwords of the year. Each year, ‘password’ makes it onto the list, even though it is likely to be the first word attempted in any brute force attack.

When companies update their password polices forcing users to use at least one capital letter and number in a password, many end users choose Password1, or Passw0rd or P455w0rd. All would be high up on a password list used in a brute force attack.

Attempts such as these to meet company password requirements mean security is not actually improved by password policies. If this is going to happen, it would make more sense – from a security perspective – to allow employees to make passwords easier to remember in a more secure way.

NIST Tweaks its Guidance on Strengthening Passwords

As NIST points out in its guidance on strengthening passwords, “Analyses of breached password databases reveal that the benefit of such rules is not nearly as significant as initially thought.” With current standard password practices, “The impact on usability and memorability is severe.” That results in end users creating weak passwords that meet company password policies.

Rather than force end users to use special characters and end up with ‘Password!’, a better way would be to increase the length of passwords and allow the use of spaces. End users should be encouraged to choose easy to remember phrases.

The use of a space does not make a password any more secure, although increasing a password from 8 characters to say, 15 or 20 characters, certainly does. It also makes passwords much easier to remember. NIST suggests passwords must have a minimum of 8 characters, and that “Users should be encouraged to make their passwords as lengthy as they want, within reason.”

NIST also explains in its guidance on strengthening passwords that certain types of common cyberattacks involving passwords are unaffected by password strength. Take phishing for instance. It doesn’t matter whether a password is ‘12345678’ or ‘H19g46”&”^’ to a phisher. Provided the phishing email is well crafted, the password will still be disclosed. The same applies to keyloggers. A keylogger logs keystrokes and the strength of the password is irrelevant.

NIST’s guidance on strengthening passwords also suggests that rather than strengthening passwords further, there are far more effective ways of making brute force attacks much harder without frustrating end users. Limiting the number of failed login attempts before a user is blocked is one such option. Organizations should also combine this with blacklists of unacceptable passwords that should include dictionary words, other weak passwords and those revealed from past data breaches. NIST also recommends secured hashed storage of passwords

The NIST guidance on strengthening passwords can be found in – NIST Special Publication 800-63B – Appendix A – Strength of Memorized Secrets

New Disdain Exploit Kit Being Rented on the Cheap on Darknet Forums

Exploit kit activity has fallen considerably since last year, but new variants are being developed, one of the latest being the Disdain exploit kit.

An exploit kit is a web-based toolkit capable of probing web users’ browsers for vulnerabilities. If vulnerabilities are discovered, they can be exploited to silently download ransomware and malware.

All that is required for an attack to take place is for web users to be directed to the domain hosting the exploit kit and for them to have a vulnerable browser or out of date plugin. Currently, the author of the Disdain exploit kit claims his/her toolkit can exploit more than a dozen separate vulnerabilities in Firefox, IE, Edge, Flash and Cisco WebEx – Namely, CVE-2017-5375, CVE-2016-9078, CVE-2014-8636, CVE-2014-1510, CVE-2013-1710, CVE-2017-0037, CVE-2016-7200, CVE-2016-0189, CVE-2015-2419, CVE-2014-6332, CVE-2013-2551, CVE-2016-4117, CVE-2016-1019, CVE-2015-5119, and CVE-2017-3823. Many of those exploits are recent and would have a high chance of success.

No malware distribution campaigns have so far been identified using the Disdain exploit kit, although it is likely to just be a matter of time before attacks are conducted. The Disdain exploit kit has only just started being offered on underground forums.

Fortunately, the developer does not have a particularly good reputation on the forums, which is likely to slow the use of the exploit kit. However, it is being offered at a low price which may tempt some malware distributors to start conducting campaigns. The EK can be rented for as little as $80 a day, with discounts being offered for weekly and monthly use. The Disdain exploit kit is being offered for considerably less than some of the other exploit kits currently being touted on the forums, including the Nebula EK.

All that is required is for someone to rent the kit, provide the malicious payload, and direct traffic to the domain hosting the Disdain exploit kit – such as via a malvertising campaign or botnet. The price and capabilities of the EK mean it has potential to become a major threat.

Protecting Your Business from Online Threats

Cybercriminals may be favouring spam email over exploit kits for delivering malware, although the threat of web-based attacks should not be ignored. To a large extent, good patch management practices can reduce the risk of exploit kit attacks, although not entirely. Exploit kits are frequently updated with new vulnerabilities for which patches have yet to be released. If end users are directed to domains hosting exploit kits, malware and ransomware downloads can be expected.

Along with prompt patching, businesses should consider implementing a web filtering solution. A web filter can be configured to carefully control the websites that end users can visit. A web filter will block access to all webpages known to host malware or contain exploit kits. Risky categories of website, which end users have no work purpose for visiting, can also easily be blocked reducing the risk of phishing attacks and improving employee productivity.

An appliance-based web filter can be costly to implement and can have a negative effect on Internet speed. A DNS-based web filter on the other hand requires no hardware purchases and has no latency. Internet speed is unaffected. Since a web filter can also be used to restrict access to websites that take up a lot of bandwidth, Internet speeds for all can actually improve.

WebTitan Cloud – and WebTitan Cloud for WiFi – are DNS-based web filtering solutions for enterprises that allow precision control over the sites that can be accessed by end users and offer excellent protection against web-based threats such as exploit kits and phishing websites.

The solutions require no hardware purchases, no software downloads, there is no latency, and they are highly scalable. Implementing and configuring the solutions is quick and easy and they require minimal maintenance.

WebTitan is also ideal for MSPs, being available in full white-label form with a choice of hosting options – including hosting in an MSPs environment.

If you want to improve the productivity of your workforce and effectively manage online threats – or offer web filtering to your clients – contact the TitanHQ team today to discuss your options and register for a free trial.

Poor Patch Management Policies Result in Cyberattacks and Huge Settlement

The importance of implementing good patch management policies was clearly highlighted by the WannaCry ransomware attacks in May. The ransomware attacks were made possible due to poor patch management policies at hundreds of companies. The attackers leveraged a vulnerability in Windows Server Message Block (SMB) using exploits developed by – and stolen from – the U.S. National Security Agency.

The exploits took advantage of SMB flaws that had, by the time the exploits were made public, been fixed by Microsoft. Fortunately for the individuals behind the attacks, and unfortunately for many companies, the update had not been applied.

In contrast to the majority of ransomware attacks that required some user involvement – clicking a link or opening an infected email attachment – the SMB flaws could be exploited remotely without any user interaction.

WannaCry was not the only malware variant that took advantage of unpatched systems. The NotPetya (ExPetr) attacks the following month also used the same EternalBlue exploit. Again, these attacks required no user involvement. NotPetya was a wiper that was used for sabotage and the damage caused by those attacks was considerable. Entire systems had to be replaced, companies were left unable to operate, and the disruption continued for several weeks after the attacks for many firms. For some companies, the losses from the attacks were in the millions.

These attacks could have easily been prevented with something as simple as applying a single patch – MS17-010. The patch was available for two months prior to the WannaCry attacks. Even patch management policies that required software to be checked once a month would have prevented the attacks. In the case of NotPetya, companies affected had also not reacted to WannaCry, even though there was extensive media coverage of the ransomware attacks and the risk of not patching promptly was clearly highlighted.

The take home message is unaddressed security vulnerabilities will be exploited. Companies can purchase a swathe of expensive security solutions to secure their systems, but companies with poor patch management policies will experience data breaches. It is no longer a case of if a breach will occur, just a matter of when.

Poor Patch Management Policies Cost Insurer More than $5 Million

This month has shown another very good reason for patching promptly. A multi-state action by attorneys general in 32 states has resulted in a settlement with Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company and its subsidiary, Allied Property & Casualty Insurance Company. Nationwide has agreed to a $5.5 million settlement to resolve the investigation into its 2012 data breach.

The breach involved the theft of data relating to 1.27 million policy holders and individuals who obtained insurance quotes from the company. In that case, the data theft was possible due to an unaddressed vulnerability in a third-party application. Even though the vulnerability was rated as critical, the insurer did not update the application. The vulnerability remained unaddressed for three years. The update was only applied after data were stolen.

The investigation into the breach was jointly led by Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen. Announcing the settlement Jepsen said, “It is critically important that companies take seriously the maintenance of their computer software systems and their data security protocols.”

Unaddressed vulnerabilities will be exploited by cybercriminals. Attacks will result in data theft, hardware damage, law suits filed by breach victims, attorneys general fines and fines by other regulators. These costs can all be avoided with good patch management policies.

Mamba Ransomware Attacks Resume

In November last year, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (Muni) was attacked with Mamba ransomware. The attackers issued a ransom demand of 100 Bitcoin – $73,000 – for the keys to unlock the encryption. Muni refused to pay up, instead opting to recover files from backups. However, the Mamba ransomware attack still proved costly. The attack took its fare system out of action and passengers had to be allowed to travel for free for more than a day. The average take on fares on a weekend day is $120,000.

It has been relatively quiet on the Mamba ransomware front since that attack, although this month has seen several Mamba ransomware attacks, indicating the gang behind the malware is back in action. Those attacks are geographically targeted with businesses in Saudi Arabia and Brazil currently in the firing line, according to Kaspersky Lab researchers who first detected the attacks.

Mamba ransomware uses DiskCryptor for full disk encryption rather than searching for and encrypting certain file types. That means a Mamba ransomware attack will prevent the operating system from running.

Once installed, the malware forces a reboot of the system and modifies the Master Boot Record and encrypts disk partitions and reboots again, this time victims are presented with a warning screen advising data have been encrypted. The attacks share some similarities with the NotPetya (ExPetr) attacks of June.

The algorithms used to encrypt the data are strong and there is no known decryptor for Mamba Ransomware. If the disk is encrypted, victims face permanent file loss if they do not have a viable backup and refuse to pay the ransom demand. However, the latest attacks make no mention of payment of a ransom. Victims are just instructed to email one of two email addresses for the decryption key.

The reason for this approach is it allows ransoms to be set by the attackers on an infection by infection basis. Once the extent of encryption is determined and the victim is identified, the attackers can set the ransom payment accordingly.

It is currently unclear whether the attackers hold the keys to unlock the encryption and whether payment of the ransom will result in file recovery. Kaspersky reports that the group behind this ransomware variant has not been identified. This may be a criminal attack by an organized crime gang or a nation-state sponsored cyberattack where the intention is not to obtain ransoms but to sabotage businesses.

Businesses can enhance their defences against this and other malware variants by implementing WebTitan.

WebTitan is a web filtering solution for the enterprise that allows businesses to prevent end users from visiting malicious websites, such as those used for phishing and for downloading malware and ransomware. By blocking access to malicious sites and carefully controlling access to sites known to carry a high risk of malware delivery – file sharing websites for example – businesses can prevent web-based malware attacks.