AA22-137A: Weak Security Controls and Practices Routinely Exploited for Initial Access

Cybersecurity
Original release date: May 17, 2022 Summary Best Practices to Protect Your
Systems: • Control access. • Harden Credentials. • Establish centralized log
management. • Use antivirus solutions. • Employ detection tools. • Operate
services exposed on internet-accessible hosts with secure configurations. •
Keep software updated. Cyber actors routinely exploit poor security
configurations (either misconfigured or left unsecured), weak controls, and
other poor cyber hygiene practices to gain initial access or as part of other
tactics to compromise a victim’s system. This joint Cybersecurity Advisory
identifies commonly exploited controls and practices and includes best
practices to mitigate the issues. This advisory was coauthored by the
cybersecurity authorities of the United States,[1 ],[2 ],[3 ] Canada,[4 ] New
Zealand,[5 ],[6 ] the Netherlands,[7 ] and the United Kingdom.[8 ] Download
the PDF version of this report (pdf, 430kb). Technical Details Malicious
actors commonly use the following techniques to gain initial access to victim
networks.[TA0001] Exploit Public-Facing Application [T1190] External Remote
Services [T1133] Phishing [T1566] Trusted Relationship [T1199] Valid Accounts
[T1078] Malicious cyber actors often exploit the following common weak
security controls, poor configurations, and poor security practices to employ
the initial access techniques. Multifactor authentication (MFA) is not
enforced. MFA, particularly for remote desktop access, can help prevent
account takeovers. With Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) as one of the most
common infection vector for ransomware, MFA is a critical tool in mitigating
malicious cyber activity. Do not exclude any user, particularly adminstrators,
from an MFA requirement. Incorrectly applied privileges or permissions and
errors within access control lists. These mistakes can prevent the enforcement
of access control rules and could allow unauthorized users or system processes
to be granted access to objects. Software is not up to date. Unpatched
software may allow an attacker to exploit publicly known vulnerabilities to
gain access to sensitive information, launch a denial-of-service attack, or
take control of a system. This is one of the most commonly found poor security
practices. Use of vendor-supplied default configurations or default login
usernames and passwords. Many software and hardware products come “out of the
box” with overly permissive factory-default configurations intended to make
the products user-friendly and reduce the troubleshooting time for customer
service. However, leaving these factory default configurations enabled after
installation may provide avenues for an attacker to exploit. Network devices
are also often pre-configured with default administrator usernames and
passwords to simplify setup. These default credentials are not secure—they may
be physically labeled on the device or even readily available on the internet.
Leaving these credentials unchanged creates opportunities for malicious
activity, including gaining unauthorized access to information and installing
malicious software. Network defenders should also be aware that the same
considerations apply for extra software options, which may come with
preconfigured default settings. Remote services, such as a virtual private
network (VPN), lack sufficient controls to prevent unauthorized access. During
recent years, malicious threat actors have been observed targeting remote
services. Network defenders can reduce the risk of remote service compromise
by adding access control mechanisms, such as enforcing MFA, implementing a
boundary firewall in front of a VPN, and leveraging intrusion detection
system/intrusion prevention system sensors to detect anomalous network
activity. Strong password policies are not implemented. Malicious cyber actors
can use a myriad of methods to exploit weak, leaked, or compromised passwords
and gain unauthorized access to a victim system. Malicious cyber actors have
used this technique in various nefarious acts and prominently in attacks
targeting RDP. Cloud services are unprotected. Misconfigured cloud services
are common targets for cyber actors. Poor configurations can allow for
sensitive data theft and even cryptojacking. Open ports and misconfigured
services are exposed to the internet. This is one of the most common
vulnerability findings. Cyber actors use scanning tools to detect open ports
and often use them as an initial attack vector. Successful compromise of a
service on a host could enable malicious cyber actors to gain initial access
and use other tactics and procedures to compromise exposed and vulnerable
entities. RDP, Server Message Block (SMB), Telnet, and NetBIOS are high-risk
services. Failure to detect or block phishing attempts. Cyber actors send
emails with malicious macros—primarily in Microsoft Word documents or Excel
files—to infect computer systems. Initial infection can occur in a variety of
ways, such as when a user opens or clicks a malicious download link, PDF, or
macro-enabled Microsoft Word document included in phishing emails. Poor
endpoint detection and response. Cyber actors use obfuscated malicious scripts
and PowerShell attacks to bypass endpoint security controls and launch attacks
on target devices. These techniques can be difficult to detect and protect
against. Mitigations Applying the following practices can help organizations
strengthen their network defenses against common exploited weak security
controls and practices. Control Access Adopt a zero-trust security model that
eliminates implicit trust in any one element, node, or service, and instead
requires continuous verification of the operational picture via real-time
information from multiple sources to determine access and other system
responses.[9 ],[10 ] Zero-trust architecture enables granular privilege access
management and can allow users to be assigned only the rights required to
perform their assigned tasks. Limit the ability of a local administrator
account to log in from a remote session (e.g., deny access to this computer
from the network) and prevent access via an RDP session. Additionally, use
dedicated administrative workstations for privileged user sessions to help
limit exposure to all the threats associated with device or user compromise.
Control who has access to your data and services. Give personnel access only
to the data, rights, and systems they need to perform their job. This role-
based access control, also known as the principle of least priviledge, should
apply to both accounts and physical access. If a malicious cyber actor gains
access, access control can limit the actions malicious actors can take and can
reduce the impact of misconfigurations and user errors. Network defenders
should also use this role-based access control to limit the access of service,
machine, and functional accounts, as well as the use of management privileges,
to what is necessary. Consider the following when implementing access control
models: Ensure that access to data and services is specifically tailored to
each user, with each employee having their own user account. Give employees
access only to the resources needed to perform their tasks. Change default
passwords of equipment and systems upon installation or commissioning. Ensure
there are processes in place for the entry, exit, and internal movement of
employees. Delete unused accounts, and immediately remove access to data and
systems from accounts of exiting employees who no longer require access.
Deactivate service accounts, and activate them only when maintenance is
performed.[11 ] Harden conditional access policies. Review and optimize VPN
and access control rules to manage how users connect to the network and cloud
services. Verify that all machines, including cloud-based virtual machine
instances do not have open RDP ports. Place any system with an open RDP port
behind a firewall and require users to use a VPN to access it through the
firewall.[12 ] Implement Credential Hardening Implement MFA. In particular,
apply MFA on all VPN connections, external-facing services, and privileged
accounts. Require phishing-resistant MFA (such as security keys or PIV cards)
for critical services. Where MFA is not implemented, enforce a strong password
policy alongside other attribute-based information, such as device
information, time of access, user history, and geolocation data. See NSA’s
Cybersecurity Information on Selecting Secure Multi-factor Authentication
Solutions , the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) Special
Publication 800-63B – Digital Identity Guidelines: Authentication and
Lifecycle Management , and CCCS’s Information Technology Security Guidance –
User Authentication Guidance for Information Technology Systems for additional
steps to take to enable in-depth authentication security. Change or disable
vendor-supplied default usernames and passwords. Enforce the use of strong
passwords. (See guidance from NIST.) Set up monitoring to detect the use of
compromised credentials on your systems. Implement controls to prevent the use
of compromised or weak passwords on your network. Establish Centralized Log
Management Ensure that each application and system generates sufficient log
information. Log files play a key role in detecting attacks and dealing with
incidents. By implementing robust log collection and retention, organizations
are able to have sufficient information to investigate incidents and detect
threat actor behavior. Consider the following when implementing log collection
and retention: Determine which log files are required. These files can pertain
to system logging, network logging, application logging, and cloud logging.
Set up alerts where necessary. These should include notifications of
suspicious login attempts based on an analysis of log files. Ensure that your
systems store log files in a usable file format, and that the recorded
timestamps are accurate and set to the correct time zone. Forward logs off
local systems to a centralized repository or security information and event
management (SIEM) tools. Robustly protect SIEM tools with strong account and
architectural safeguards. Make a decision regarding the retention period of
log files. If you keep log files for a long time, you can refer to them to
determine facts long after incidents occur. On the other hand, log files may
contain privacy-sensitive information and take up storage space. Limit access
to log files and store them in a separate network segment. An incident
investigation will be nearly impossible if attackers have been able to modify
or delete the logfiles.[13 ] Employ Antivirus Programs Deploy an anti-malware
solution on workstations to prevent spyware, adware, and malware as part of
the operating system security baseline. Monitor antivirus scan results on a
routine basis. Employ Detection Tools and Search for Vulnerabilities Implement
endpoint and detection response tools. These tools allow a high degree of
visibility into the security status of endpoints and can help effectively
protect against malicious cyber actors. Employ an intrusion detection system
or intrusion prevention system to protect network and on-premises devices from
malicious activity. Use signatures to help detect malicious network activity
associated with known threat activity. Conduct penetration testing to identify
misconfigurations. See the Additional Resources section below for more
information about CISA’s free cyber hygiene services, including remote
penetration testing. Conduct vulnerability scanning to detect and address
application vulnerabilities. Use cloud service provider tools to detect
overshared cloud storage and monitor for abnormal accesses. Maintain Rigorous
Configuration Management Programs Always operate services exposed on internet-
accessible hosts with secure configurations. Never enable external access
without compensating controls such as boundary firewalls and segmentation from
other more secure and internal hosts like domain controllers. Continuously
assess the business and mission need of internet-facing services. Follow best
practices for security configurations, especially blocking macros in documents
from the internet.[14 ] Initiate a Software and Patch Management Program
Implement asset and patch management processes to keep software up to date.
Identify and mitigate unsupported, end-of-life, and unpatched software and
firmware by performing vulnerability scanning and patching activities.
Prioritize patching known exploited vulnerabilities . Additional Resources
NCSC-UK Guidance – Phishing Attacks: Defending Your Organisation Open Web
Application Security Project (OWASP) Proactive Controls: Enforce Access
Controls References [1] United States Cybersecurity and Infrastructure
Security Agency [2] United States Federal Bureau of Investigation [3] United
States National Security Agency [4] Canadian Centre for Cyber Security [5] New
Zealand National Cyber Security Centre [6] New Zealand CERT NZ [7] Netherlands
National Cyber Security Centre [8] United Kingdom National Cyber Security
Centre [9] White House Executive Order on Improving the Nation’s Cybersecurity
[10] NCSC-NL Factsheet: Prepare for Zero Trust [11] NCSC-NL Guide to Cyber
Security Measures [12] N-able Blog: Intrusion Detection System (IDS):
Signature vs. Anomaly-Based [13] NCSC-NL Guide to Cyber Security Measures [14]
National Institute of Standards and Technology SP 800-123 – Keeping Servers
Secured Contact U.S. organizations: To report incidents and anomalous activity
or to request incident response resources or technical assistance related to
these threats, contact CISA at report@cisa.gov . To report computer intrusion
or cybercrime activity related to information found in this advisory, contact
your local FBI field office at www.fbi.gov/contact-us/field , or the FBI’s
24/7 Cyber Watch at 855-292-3937 or by email at CyWatch@fbi.gov . For NSA
client requirements or general cybersecurity inquiries, contact
Cybersecurity_Requests@nsa.gov . Canadian organizations: report incidents by
emailing CCCS at contact@cyber.gc.ca . New Zealand organizations: report cyber
security incidents to incidents@ncsc.govt.nz or call 04 498 7654. The
Netherlands organizations: report incidents to cert@ncsc.nl . United Kingdom
organizations: report a significant cyber security incident:
ncsc.gov.uk/report-an-incident (monitored 24 hours) or, for urgent assistance,
call 03000 200 973. Caveats The information you have accessed or received is
being provided “as is” for informational purposes only. CISA, the FBI, NSA,
CCCS, NCSC-NZ, CERT-NZ, NCSC-NL, and NCSC-UK do not endorse any commercial
product or service, including any subjects of analysis. Any reference to
specific commercial products, processes, or services by service mark,
trademark, manufacturer, or otherwise, does not constitute or imply their
endorsement, recommendation, or favoring. Purpose This document was developed
by CISA, the FBI, NSA, CCCS, NCSC-NZ, CERT-NZ, NCSC-NL, and NCSC-UK in
furtherance of their respective cybersecurity missions, including their
responsibilities to develop and issue cybersecurity specifications and
mitigations. This information may be shared broadly to reach all appropriate
stakeholders. Revisions May 17, 2022: Initial version This product is provided
subject to this Notification and this Privacy & Use policy.Original release date: May 17, 2022 Summary Best Practices to Protect Your
Systems: • Control access. • Harden Credentials. • Establish centralized log
management. • Use antivirus solutions. • Employ detection tools. • Operate
services exposed on internet-accessible hosts with secure configurations. •
Keep software updated. Cyber actors routinely exploit poor security
configurations (either misconfigured or left unsecured), weak controls, and
other poor cyber hygiene practices to gain initial access or as part of other
tactics to compromise a victim’s system. This joint Cybersecurity Advisory
identifies commonly exploited controls and practices and includes best
practices to mitigate the issues. This advisory was coauthored by the
cybersecurity authorities of the United States,[1 ],[2 ],[3 ] Canada,[4 ] New
Zealand,[5 ],[6 ] the Netherlands,[7 ] and the United Kingdom.[8 ] Download
the PDF version of this report (pdf, 430kb). Technical Details Malicious
actors commonly use the following techniques to gain initial access to victim
networks.[TA0001] Exploit Public-Facing Application [T1190] External Remote
Services [T1133] Phishing [T1566] Trusted Relationship [T1199] Valid Accounts
[T1078] Malicious cyber actors often exploit the following common weak
security controls, poor configurations, and poor security practices to employ
the initial access techniques. Multifactor authentication (MFA) is not
enforced. MFA, particularly for remote desktop access, can help prevent
account takeovers. With Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) as one of the most
common infection vector for ransomware, MFA is a critical tool in mitigating
malicious cyber activity. Do not exclude any user, particularly adminstrators,
from an MFA requirement. Incorrectly applied privileges or permissions and
errors within access control lists. These mistakes can prevent the enforcement
of access control rules and could allow unauthorized users or system processes
to be granted access to objects. Software is not up to date. Unpatched
software may allow an attacker to exploit publicly known vulnerabilities to
gain access to sensitive information, launch a denial-of-service attack, or
take control of a system. This is one of the most commonly found poor security
practices. Use of vendor-supplied default configurations or default login
usernames and passwords. Many software and hardware products come “out of the
box” with overly permissive factory-default configurations intended to make
the products user-friendly and reduce the troubleshooting time for customer
service. However, leaving these factory default configurations enabled after
installation may provide avenues for an attacker to exploit. Network devices
are also often pre-configured with default administrator usernames and
passwords to simplify setup. These default credentials are not secure—they may
be physically labeled on the device or even readily available on the internet.
Leaving these credentials unchanged creates opportunities for malicious
activity, including gaining unauthorized access to information and installing
malicious software. Network defenders should also be aware that the same
considerations apply for extra software options, which may come with
preconfigured default settings. Remote services, such as a virtual private
network (VPN), lack sufficient controls to prevent unauthorized access. During
recent years, malicious threat actors have been observed targeting remote
services. Network defenders can reduce the risk of remote service compromise
by adding access control mechanisms, such as enforcing MFA, implementing a
boundary firewall in front of a VPN, and leveraging intrusion detection
system/intrusion prevention system sensors to detect anomalous network
activity. Strong password policies are not implemented. Malicious cyber actors
can use a myriad of methods to exploit weak, leaked, or compromised passwords
and gain unauthorized access to a victim system. Malicious cyber actors have
used this technique in various nefarious acts and prominently in attacks
targeting RDP. Cloud services are unprotected. Misconfigured cloud services
are common targets for cyber actors. Poor configurations can allow for
sensitive data theft and even cryptojacking. Open ports and misconfigured
services are exposed to the internet. This is one of the most common
vulnerability findings. Cyber actors use scanning tools to detect open ports
and often use them as an initial attack vector. Successful compromise of a
service on a host could enable malicious cyber actors to gain initial access
and use other tactics and procedures to compromise exposed and vulnerable
entities. RDP, Server Message Block (SMB), Telnet, and NetBIOS are high-risk
services. Failure to detect or block phishing attempts. Cyber actors send
emails with malicious macros—primarily in Microsoft Word documents or Excel
files—to infect computer systems. Initial infection can occur in a variety of
ways, such as when a user opens or clicks a malicious download link, PDF, or
macro-enabled Microsoft Word document included in phishing emails. Poor
endpoint detection and response. Cyber actors use obfuscated malicious scripts
and PowerShell attacks to bypass endpoint security controls and launch attacks
on target devices. These techniques can be difficult to detect and protect
against. Mitigations Applying the following practices can help organizations
strengthen their network defenses against common exploited weak security
controls and practices. Control Access Adopt a zero-trust security model that
eliminates implicit trust in any one element, node, or service, and instead
requires continuous verification of the operational picture via real-time
information from multiple sources to determine access and other system
responses.[9 ],[10 ] Zero-trust architecture enables granular privilege access
management and can allow users to be assigned only the rights required to
perform their assigned tasks. Limit the ability of a local administrator
account to log in from a remote session (e.g., deny access to this computer
from the network) and prevent access via an RDP session. Additionally, use
dedicated administrative workstations for privileged user sessions to help
limit exposure to all the threats associated with device or user compromise.
Control who has access to your data and services. Give personnel access only
to the data, rights, and systems they need to perform their job. This role-
based access control, also known as the principle of least priviledge, should
apply to both accounts and physical access. If a malicious cyber actor gains
access, access control can limit the actions malicious actors can take and can
reduce the impact of misconfigurations and user errors. Network defenders
should also use this role-based access control to limit the access of service,
machine, and functional accounts, as well as the use of management privileges,
to what is necessary. Consider the following when implementing access control
models: Ensure that access to data and services is specifically tailored to
each user, with each employee having their own user account. Give employees
access only to the resources needed to perform their tasks. Change default
passwords of equipment and systems upon installation or commissioning. Ensure
there are processes in place for the entry, exit, and internal movement of
employees. Delete unused accounts, and immediately remove access to data and
systems from accounts of exiting employees who no longer require access.
Deactivate service accounts, and activate them only when maintenance is
performed.[11 ] Harden conditional access policies. Review and optimize VPN
and access control rules to manage how users connect to the network and cloud
services. Verify that all machines, including cloud-based virtual machine
instances do not have open RDP ports. Place any system with an open RDP port
behind a firewall and require users to use a VPN to access it through the
firewall.[12 ] Implement Credential Hardening Implement MFA. In particular,
apply MFA on all VPN connections, external-facing services, and privileged
accounts. Require phishing-resistant MFA (such as security keys or PIV cards)
for critical services. Where MFA is not implemented, enforce a strong password
policy alongside other attribute-based information, such as device
information, time of access, user history, and geolocation data. See NSA’s
Cybersecurity Information on Selecting Secure Multi-factor Authentication
Solutions , the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) Special
Publication 800-63B – Digital Identity Guidelines: Authentication and
Lifecycle Management , and CCCS’s Information Technology Security Guidance –
User Authentication Guidance for Information Technology Systems for additional
steps to take to enable in-depth authentication security. Change or disable
vendor-supplied default usernames and passwords. Enforce the use of strong
passwords. (See guidance from NIST.) Set up monitoring to detect the use of
compromised credentials on your systems. Implement controls to prevent the use
of compromised or weak passwords on your network. Establish Centralized Log
Management Ensure that each application and system generates sufficient log
information. Log files play a key role in detecting attacks and dealing with
incidents. By implementing robust log collection and retention, organizations
are able to have sufficient information to investigate incidents and detect
threat actor behavior. Consider the following when implementing log collection
and retention: Determine which log files are required. These files can pertain
to system logging, network logging, application logging, and cloud logging.
Set up alerts where necessary. These should include notifications of
suspicious login attempts based on an analysis of log files. Ensure that your
systems store log files in a usable file format, and that the recorded
timestamps are accurate and set to the correct time zone. Forward logs off
local systems to a centralized repository or security information and event
management (SIEM) tools. Robustly protect SIEM tools with strong account and
architectural safeguards. Make a decision regarding the retention period of
log files. If you keep log files for a long time, you can refer to them to
determine facts long after incidents occur. On the other hand, log files may
contain privacy-sensitive information and take up storage space. Limit access
to log files and store them in a separate network segment. An incident
investigation will be nearly impossible if attackers have been able to modify
or delete the logfiles.[13 ] Employ Antivirus Programs Deploy an anti-malware
solution on workstations to prevent spyware, adware, and malware as part of
the operating system security baseline. Monitor antivirus scan results on a
routine basis. Employ Detection Tools and Search for Vulnerabilities Implement
endpoint and detection response tools. These tools allow a high degree of
visibility into the security status of endpoints and can help effectively
protect against malicious cyber actors. Employ an intrusion detection system
or intrusion prevention system to protect network and on-premises devices from
malicious activity. Use signatures to help detect malicious network activity
associated with known threat activity. Conduct penetration testing to identify
misconfigurations. See the Additional Resources section below for more
information about CISA’s free cyber hygiene services, including remote
penetration testing. Conduct vulnerability scanning to detect and address
application vulnerabilities. Use cloud service provider tools to detect
overshared cloud storage and monitor for abnormal accesses. Maintain Rigorous
Configuration Management Programs Always operate services exposed on internet-
accessible hosts with secure configurations. Never enable external access
without compensating controls such as boundary firewalls and segmentation from
other more secure and internal hosts like domain controllers. Continuously
assess the business and mission need of internet-facing services. Follow best
practices for security configurations, especially blocking macros in documents
from the internet.[14 ] Initiate a Software and Patch Management Program
Implement asset and patch management processes to keep software up to date.
Identify and mitigate unsupported, end-of-life, and unpatched software and
firmware by performing vulnerability scanning and patching activities.
Prioritize patching known exploited vulnerabilities . Additional Resources
NCSC-UK Guidance – Phishing Attacks: Defending Your Organisation Open Web
Application Security Project (OWASP) Proactive Controls: Enforce Access
Controls References [1] United States Cybersecurity and Infrastructure
Security Agency [2] United States Federal Bureau of Investigation [3] United
States National Security Agency [4] Canadian Centre for Cyber Security [5] New
Zealand National Cyber Security Centre [6] New Zealand CERT NZ [7] Netherlands
National Cyber Security Centre [8] United Kingdom National Cyber Security
Centre [9] White House Executive Order on Improving the Nation’s Cybersecurity
[10] NCSC-NL Factsheet: Prepare for Zero Trust [11] NCSC-NL Guide to Cyber
Security Measures [12] N-able Blog: Intrusion Detection System (IDS):
Signature vs. Anomaly-Based [13] NCSC-NL Guide to Cyber Security Measures [14]
National Institute of Standards and Technology SP 800-123 – Keeping Servers
Secured Contact U.S. organizations: To report incidents and anomalous activity
or to request incident response resources or technical assistance related to
these threats, contact CISA at report@cisa.gov . To report computer intrusion
or cybercrime activity related to information found in this advisory, contact
your local FBI field office at www.fbi.gov/contact-us/field , or the FBI’s
24/7 Cyber Watch at 855-292-3937 or by email at CyWatch@fbi.gov . For NSA
client requirements or general cybersecurity inquiries, contact
Cybersecurity_Requests@nsa.gov . Canadian organizations: report incidents by
emailing CCCS at contact@cyber.gc.ca . New Zealand organizations: report cyber
security incidents to incidents@ncsc.govt.nz or call 04 498 7654. The
Netherlands organizations: report incidents to cert@ncsc.nl . United Kingdom
organizations: report a significant cyber security incident:
ncsc.gov.uk/report-an-incident (monitored 24 hours) or, for urgent assistance,
call 03000 200 973. Caveats The information you have accessed or received is
being provided “as is” for informational purposes only. CISA, the FBI, NSA,
CCCS, NCSC-NZ, CERT-NZ, NCSC-NL, and NCSC-UK do not endorse any commercial
product or service, including any subjects of analysis. Any reference to
specific commercial products, processes, or services by service mark,
trademark, manufacturer, or otherwise, does not constitute or imply their
endorsement, recommendation, or favoring. Purpose This document was developed
by CISA, the FBI, NSA, CCCS, NCSC-NZ, CERT-NZ, NCSC-NL, and NCSC-UK in
furtherance of their respective cybersecurity missions, including their
responsibilities to develop and issue cybersecurity specifications and
mitigations. This information may be shared broadly to reach all appropriate
stakeholders. Revisions May 17, 2022: Initial version This product is provided
subject to this Notification and this Privacy & Use policy. May 17 2022 08:00:00
AA22-137A: Weak Security Controls and Practices Routinely Exploited for Initial Access

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