Credential Stealing as Attack Vector

Opinion

Traditional computer security concerns itself with vulnerabilities. We employ antivirus software to detect malware that exploits vulnerabilities. We have automatic patching systems to fix vulnerabilities. We debate whether the FBI should be permitted to introduce vulnerabilities in our software so it can get access to systems with a warrant. This is all important, but what’s missing is a recognition that software vulnerabilities aren’t the most common attack vector: credential stealing is.

The most common way hackers of all stripes, from criminals to hacktivists to foreign governments, break into networks is by stealing and using a valid credential. Basically, they steal passwords, set up man-in-the-middle attacks to piggy-back on legitimate logins, or engage in cleverer attacks to masquerade as authorized users. It’s a more effective avenue of attack in many ways: it doesn’t involve finding a zero-day or unpatched vulnerability, there’s less chance of discovery, and it gives the attacker more flexibility in technique.

Rob Joyce, the head of the NSA’s Tailored Access Operations (TAO) group—basically the country’s chief hacker—gave a rare public talk at a conference in January. In essence, he said that zero-day vulnerabilities are overrated, and credential stealing is how he gets into networks: “A lot of people think that nation states are running their operations on zero days, but it’s not that common. For big corporate networks, persistence and focus will get you in without a zero day; there are so many more vectors that are easier, less risky, and more productive.”

This is true for us, and it’s also true for those attacking us. It’s how the Chinese hackers breached the Office of Personnel Management in 2015. The 2014 criminal attack against Target Corporation started when hackers stole the login credentials of the company’s HVAC vendor. Iranian hackers stole U.S. login credentials. And the hacktivist that broke into the cyber-arms manufacturer Hacking Team and published pretty much every proprietary document from that company used stolen credentials.

As Joyce said, stealing a valid credential and using it to access a network is easier, less risky, and ultimately more productive than using an existing vulnerability, even a zero-day.

Our notions of defense need to adapt to this change. First, organizations need to beef up their authentication systems. There are lots of tricks that help here: two-factor authentication, one-time passwords, physical tokens, smartphone-based authentication, and so on. None of these is foolproof, but they all make credential stealing harder.

Second, organizations need to invest in breach detection and—most importantly—incident response. Credential-stealing attacks tend to bypass traditional IT security software. But attacks are complex and multi-step. Being able to detect them in process, and to respond quickly and effectively enough to kick attackers out and restore security, is essential to resilient network security today.

Vulnerabilities are still critical. Fixing vulnerabilities is still vital for security, and introducing new vulnerabilities into existing systems is still a disaster. But strong authentication and robust incident response are also critical. And an organization that skimps on these will find itself unable to keep its networks secure.

Bruce Schneier is the Chief Technology Officer of Resilient, an IBM company. Follow @schneierblog

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