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Privileged Accounts are Sources of Vulnerabilities – Part 1

Privileged accounts have been a key asset in each of the most significant security breaches in the last couple of years.

This is Mr Lavi Lazarovitz’s claim. Lavi is based in Israel and works as CyberArk Research Lab Team Leader. In his line of work, he’s seen some of the greatest heists in the 21st Century – credential theft. While no blood is shed in this transgression, he believes that when credit card information is stolen, and personal data is misused, hackers essentially control the keys to the kingdom.

Fittingly, his group explores new innovative defensive and offensive approaches which are then translated into cybersecurity tools and products. In his research, he studies the methods and tactics employed by hackers to penetrate and exploit organizational networks. Lavi is an expert in hacks owing to compromised privileged accounts and cloud shadow admins. He shares with us how the strongest might actually be the weakest link in a network operating system.

Tumbling the Walls of Jericho from the Inside

Privileged accounts are held by high ranking executives in an organisation, and consequently have access to more sensitive information. Take an IT manager for example. To do the job well, the IT manager would need greater levels of access to perhaps manage applications, software and server hardware. Access to client or company information is a privilege which only the IT manager and other selected appointees can access. Appointees might also include non-human privileged accounts. These are application accounts which require specific permissions.

Organisations typically have many sets of accounts and permissions associated with privileged accounts. The number of such accounts increase in larger organisations such as governments. With the adoption of new technologies and automated environments such as cloud, these sets of accounts increase in tandem. The problem is, these accounts are managed by third parties.

Subcontractors and subordinates are allowed some access, visibility or functionality within the network. Although well intentioned to lower the cost of public service delivery, third parties may compromise system integrity. Third parties do not necessarily comply with internal standards perhaps out of ignorance or compliance their own organisation’s standards which might be lower.

Furthermore, passwords which barricade sensitive information from prying eyes can be easily uncovered. Combined with the growing number of third-party credentials, hackers can easily access or compromise the organisation’s network and the information they possess. Usernames and passwords are used for infiltration, lateral movement, or data exfiltration. Even more worrying is the attacker’s ability to clean up the trail of evidence. Credential theft becomes child’s play.

“Emperor’s” New Clothes

A second move of stealth is the use of cloud shadow admins, dovetailing from poorly managed privileged accounts. Cloud shadow admins are prevalent in organisations which rely on cloud infrastructure.

Lavi provides some context, “Organisations that adopt cloud security are very well aware of privileged account security especially governments and banks, intelligence agencies…The guy who has the privilege to change the security configuration or run a hundred new instances, probably knows what he has in his hands and how important the username and passwords are. Organisations [too] are well aware of how important the accounts are. There are a whole set of accounts and permissions associated with [privileged] accounts, that organisations which [require high] security in some cases ignore or are not really aware of the [privileged] accounts. This is where shadow admins come into play.”

To explain what a cloud shadow admin is and its potency, Lavi first delineates two types of administrative accounts. Only the latter is of interest.

The first is an all-admin account can perform almost any function and most organisations are aware of how to handle it. The other administrative account operates under a more restrictive policy, where only perhaps four to five actions or angles can be made. A user may continue to launch a new instance or machine. Despite the limited access, hackers can escalate their access rights to possess an equivalent level of control comparable to an all admin account. This goes one step further from just a privileged admin account.

A one minute and thirteen second demonstration on the CyberArk microsite shows how easy it is to break into an account and alter the policy settings.

“Cloud shadow admins are accounts that attackers use to compromise the account in 4-5 steps, but on the other hand, the accounts do not look like privileged accounts.”

Attackers look for accounts which are unmonitored, typically owned by developers and engineers, rather than for full admin accounts. Reaching for the lowest hanging fruit is enough to cause damage.

The combination of permissions given to an authorised user and instance can be manipulated to gain privileged access and take over the entire system. For example, a DevOps engineer could have permission to launch a new instance. It could be as simple as to take an image and launch it on the cloud infrastructure. The engineer simultaneously assigns the machine a role while enabling the sensors to handle the database entry. These are necessary to create cloud infrastructure stability.

However in the process, an entire operating system can be easily taken over. The combination of permissions assigned to the developer and the instance provide multiple low barrier gateways to access privileges. The manoeuvres are so simple that cloud shadow admin attacks are all too common.

If so, then how does one avoid being pawned? Read the second half of this interview here.


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