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How to defend Windows networks against destructive cyberattacks

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The Russian cyberattacks on Ukrainian organizations reminds us that the attacker isn’t always looking to steal data or extort money. Sometimes they just want to cause as much damage as possible. Both Microsoft and Mandiant recently released information about these destructive attacks and how to better protect against them.

Regardless of geographic location, all of us can learn from how these attacks occur and are mitigated. The attacks were extreme in their destruction. As Microsoft noted in its blog, “The malware in this case overwrites the MBR [master boot record] with no mechanism for recovery.” This leads the system to be unbootable and unrepairable without a full reinstall or recovery from a full backup of the system. Thus, the first lesson is to ensure that you have the tools and resources to either fully redeploy your workstation images or have a full ability to recover your platforms.

The Mandiant document provides actionable information about the best ways to protect yourself from harm and destruction from similar attacks. As you go through the document, consider if you have these protections in place.

Protect external-facing devices and systems with multi-factor authentication

Mandiant recommends starting with the externals. We have long had a squishy internal network and a hardened shell. Once the outside is penetrated, it’s relatively easy to launch lateral attacks inside your office resources. So, first review whether your external facing devices and anything else that allows remote access requires multi-factor authentication.

No one or no thing should be able to log in with a mere username and password. Review every edge device to determine if natively the device supports the use of an authenticator application rather than a mere password. It’s not always necessary to be absolutely secure, just a bit more secure than the network next to yours.

Identify high-value targets on your network

Review your network for high-value targets that may be targeted for destructive attacks. The key resource you have is not sexy or revolutionary. It’s been with us for years: backup. You want to have a rotation of backups to ensure that you have offsite and off-domain backup media. If all your backup locations are domain joined and the attacker can access that location, your backups themselves can be impacted. Access to virtualization infrastructure should be through limited accounts that are designed and protected to have such access. Again, consider two factor authentication and other privilege access processes when it comes to protecting HyperV and other virtualization platforms.

Protect against lateral movement

Review what protections you have for lateral movement. In my office, I have deployed Local Administrator Password Solution (LAPS) to ensure that lateral movement can’t occur due to a shared local administrative password. Review your use of the typical firewall ports that attackers will target for lateral access, ports 445, 135 and 139. Determine which workstations and servers are listening on these ports and the best way to isolate and limit the firewall ports in your network.

Review the use and exposure of remote protocols

Ensure that you do not have Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) exposed to the outside first and foremost. If you do have it exposed, limit RDP to just those devices that require it.

As Mandiant points out, remote protocols that you should block on your sensitive devices includes File and Print Sharing, Remote Desktop, Windows Management Instrumentation (WMI), and Windows Remote Management. This means that you’ll need to review how your IT staff manages and maintains systems. The old way of merely remoting into servers and desktop no longer is secure. Ensure that your own management processes aren’t introducing insecurity in the process.

Check for exposed or legacy passwords

Usernames and passwords are a key access point and thus a key attack point. Humans often reuse passwords, and applications often place credentials onto systems and introduce weaknesses as a result. Mandiant points out that we often have hidden passwords left behind in our networks and that we are not aware of the risk.

Many of us have Active Directory (AD) networks that have been upgraded over time from older, less secure AD infrastructure. We may still have many of these legacy settings still in place on our network. Case in point is the setting WDigest. While WDigest authentication is now disabled by default in Windows 8.1 and Windows Server 2012 R2 and later, you may still have clear-text passwords stored in LSASS memory to support authentication. Mandiant recommends that you push out the registry key below to block the saving of passwords:

HKLM\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Control\SecurityProviders\WDigest\UseLogonCredential

REG_DWORD = “0”

I’ve also seen where legacy systems have the WDigest password saved and left behind, making it easy for attackers to harvest this information.

Implement Windows Defender Credential Guard

As Steve on Security noted, Credential Guard is “a Windows service that protects credentials from being lifted from a machine. It protects the secrets used by Windows for single sign-on from being stolen and used on other machines.” Windows has documented APIs that allow software to access to credentials and secrets that are running in memory. Microsoft can’t disable these APIs because we all have built line-of-business software to rely on them. Running Credential guard makes it harder for attackers to access these credentials.

Most of Mandiant’s recommendations can be done on the networks we currently have. We don’t need a new server operating system deployment or workstations on Windows 11 to implement many of these recommendations. All we need is testing and time to make the necessary adjustments in how our networks are implemented. Take the time now to make your network harder to attacks. Ensure that the attackers move to the less secure network down the road rather than attacking you.

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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Athletic shoe maker Brooks runs down cyberattacks with zero-trust segmentation

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Ransomware was again the top attack type in 2021, with manufacturing replacing financial services as the top industry in a

jon hocut director of information security for brooks Brooks

Jon Hocut, director of information security for Brooks

ssailants’ crosshairs—representing 23.2% of the global attacks remediated last year by IBM Security’s X-Force, according to the company’s Threat Intelligence Index 2022 report.

With news like this, it is not surprising that “ransomware is the threat that keeps me up the most at night,” says Jon Hocut, director of information security for Brooks, the renowned running shoe manufacturer. It doesn’t help that Brooks’ IT infrastructure “grew over time for quite a while before security became a primary issue,” he says. Therefore, the company sought a cyber security solution to address cyberattacks fast, without first requiring a complete network rebuild.

pj kirner illumio cto and cofounder Illumio

PJ Kirner, CTO and co-founder of Illumio

Brooks believes it has found this solution in Illumio Core, a zero-trust segmentation (ZTS) platform from Illumio that can be implemented in stages across a corporate network, protecting the most vulnerable areas first — like installing locks on a bank vault and safety deposit box room while leaving the customer records’ room for another time.

“Illumio’s mission at the highest level is to prevent breaches from becoming cyber disasters,” says PJ Kirner, Illumio’s CTO and co-founder. “Our zero-trust segmentation platform helps people limit the impact of those that do occur, while providing visibility and control of the entire network.”

Illumio Core: a pragmatic approach to zero trust

The “trust no one” logic of zero trust requires users to authenticate their identities whenever they request access to data or applications across the network. But “zero-trust segmentation goes further than just isolating different parts of the network,” says David Holmes, senior analyst at Forrester Research. “Zero-trust segmentation solutions isolate each participating computer, only allowing the specific connections and access explicitly declared first. This is why companies like Brooks are doing the right thing by investing both capital and technical resources into zero-trust segmentation, as it solves not just ransomware but generally any other network-oriented breach.”

Illumio’s pragmatic approach to zero-trust segmentation applies it to the most vulnerable areas first—the ones hackers are most likely to attack—and worries about the rest later. It’s an approach that works, according to a study conducted for Illumio by the offensive security firm Bishop Fox, who staged cyberattacks against an Illumio Core-protected network. Based on the results of those unsuccessful attacks, “zero-trust segmentation can be applied to effectively isolate compromised hosts during an active attack,” the Bishop Fox report concludes. “ZTS can (also) be used proactively to ring-fence entire environments and applications, drastically reducing the pathways available for exploitation through lateral movement.”

How Brooks is applying ZTS

In line with “doing what matters most first,” Brooks has applied Illumio Core to block unauthorized access to hundreds of its Windows servers and cloud resources. Most staff are not supposed to access them as part of their jobs, so proactively blocking requests for access until they can be reviewed by IT security staff is a simple, yet effective, cybersecurity solution.

“We’ve separated our users from our servers and our resources, with the goal of only allowing the minimal amount of traffic that’s necessary back and forth,” Hocut says. “Now these servers may need to talk to each other in a lot of ways on a lot of different ports. But the users from their laptops don’t need to talk across those ports, and so we stop them from doing so without explicit permission.”

It is these laptops, operated by non-IT employees with network access, that are most likely to be the targets of hackers through phishing and other such attacks. So, when it comes to making Brooks’ IT infrastructure more secure using ZTS, “the first thing to do is take those laptops that are most likely to be compromised and segment them off from everything,” says Hocut. “So that isn’t zero trust across the enterprise, there’s just less trust. You’re still saying, ‘well, we’ll trust the servers to talk to each other.’ But we will keep the most likely compromised machines away from the most valuable machines and control that traffic as much as possible.”

The Illumio Core platform documents all access requests, allowing the Brooks IT team to analyze this historical record to detect possible breach attempts, access request trends, and other potential signs of past hacker attacks. All of this data is being used to tweak the company’s cybersecurity policies and procedures and shape its approach to ZTS management and expansion throughout the network going forward.

Implementing ZTS has been relatively painless

It took only four months during the second half of 2022 for Brooks to implement Illumio Core ZTS on its network. “Today, we’re just monitoring alerts and following up on them,” says Ryan Fried, Brooks’ senior security engineer. “It’s easy to just let the alerts go by and block traffic for something like RDP, but we do our best to reach out to the user, understand why they were doing it, and then talk to them about the alternative processes that are in place.”

A case in point: In the past, a Brooks employee “might make SQL connections from their laptop to a database, which is terrifying to me,” Fried says. Now, after such an access attempt has been detected and blocked by Illumio Core, “we direct them to a safe server for us, and then we initiate the RDP or SQL connection from there.”

Ironically, the biggest challenge in implementing Illumio Core at Brooks wasn’t digital but analog. Hocut and his security team had to calm the fears of Brooks’ business executives who were uneasy about their network access being moved to ZTS before they could take action.

“Tell someone on the enterprise resource team that you’re going to mess with the firewalls around the ERP system,” says Hocut. “They’re not going to take you out for beers. They’re going to be concerned about how this is going to affect operations.” Even his boss, Brooks’ VP of Information Technology, wanted to know how the move to ZTS could be done without causing downtime, and maintained without causing issues. “I had to build trust with everyone by explaining that Ryan would set up a proposed ZTS rule set and run it non-operationally for a while to make sure it worked, before taking Illumio Core live,” he says.

Testing before deployment is essential

Doing such testing before deploying any ZTS system is a must, says Holmes. “Zero-trust segmentation is very effective but requires work up front to define the correct segmentation policy,” he explains. “Incorrect policy results in local network outages and manual tuning, adding a layer of complexity to the management of the network. Modern ZTS solutions work hard to divine the correct policy for you, but even the models that use AI aren’t 100% accurate and tuning is required.” Having done this work, Brooks’ ZTS system is working as promised, providing the company with proactive protection from ransomware and other cyber threats.

Looking ahead, Hocut plans to extend Illumio Core into other parts of Brooks’ IT infrastructure. “We’re looking to tighten the granularity of our network controls with different groups of servers so that we’re not treating all servers the same,” he says. “We’re going to be watching outbound traffic from the servers as well. Servers have very specific functions and should only be talking to the outside world in very specific ways. And we can use Illumio to learn what all those current ways are, making the assumption that those are probably all good — and block absolutely everything else.”

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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Ransomware attack knocks Rackspace’s Exchange servers offline

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Cloud services and hosting provider Rackspace Technology acknowledged Tuesday that a recent incident that took most of its Hosted Exchange email server business offline was the product of a ransomware attack. The company shut the service down last Friday.

It was not, initially, clear what had caused the outage, but Rackspace quickly moved to shift Exchange customers over to Microsoft 365, as this part of the company’s infrastructure was apparently unaffected.

Rackpsace offers migration to Microsoft 365

Rackspace said today that there is “no timeline” for a restoration of Exchange service, but it is offering Exchange users technical assistance and free access to Microsoft 365 as a substitute, though it acknowledged that migration is unlikely to be a simple process for every user. Rackspace said that, while the migration is in progress, customers can forward email sent to their Hosted Exchange inboxes to an external server, as a temporary workaround.

The company said that the incident was isolated to its Hosted Exchange business, and that the rest of its lineup of products and services are fully functional. It’s unclear how Rackspace was able to limit the access of the ransomware attackers to one corner of its operations, and the company did not respond to a request for comment on this point.

The investigation is “still in its early stages,” according to Rackspace’s official updates on the matter. The company added that it is, as yet, unable to ascertain whether any consumer data was affected by the attack, but pledged to notify customers if that proves to be the case. Some email archives remain accessible, according to the updates, and Rackspace said that it is working to provide those to customers “where available,” as a precursor to migrating over to Microsoft 365.

Rackspace has also hired “a leading cyber defense firm” to assist in the investigation, though it declined to name the company publicly.

“Out of an abundance of caution, we have put additional security measures in place and will continue to actively monitor for any suspicious activity,” Rackspace said in its latest advisory.

In a public statement, the company said that, despite the ongoing nature of its investigation, it can say that the cyberattack has affected its bottom line. The Hosted Exchange business generates roughly $30 million a year, and a prolonged outage, with its associated costs, is likely to dent that figure.

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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Rethinking DDoS Defenses | CSO Online

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The other night I rented a movie called “The Biggest Little Farm.” The movie depicted a couple who were new to farming but attempting to regenerate a farm that had fallen into disrepair. In the process, they continually ran into challenges regarding how to protect the crops and animals on the farm. Initially, they brought in goats to eat some of the overgrown vegetation, which in turn attracted the initial threat, which was coyotes, who were killing the goats and some of their chickens, so they put up a fence. Then birds of prey became a threat, so the farmers installed roofs on the cages. Then it was rabbits and gophers eating the vegetables, and so on. Each time they encountered a new challenge, the farmers had to adapt and build a new defense. In some cases, they didn’t know what was coming next or how to fight it, so they talked to neighbors to understand how they did it. I started thinking that although this was taking place on a farm, it was the typical approach to perimeter protection whether on a farm, a castle, a fort, or — in today’s world — your network.

This movie was particularly thought-provoking to me as I began reading the current NETSCOUT DDoS Threat Intelligence Report in preparation for a project regarding today’s networks and how customers manage DDoS attacks. The report highlights that distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks are again evolving. This year, reflection/amplification attacks, which have been the preferred attack vector over the past couple of years, took a back seat to TCP state exhaustion attacks. What this indicates is the bad actors are attempting to execute attacks that are increasingly difficult to detect because they mimic legitimate traffic and require defenders to have some level of expertise and technology to recognize them as attacks. 

Adaptive DDoS attacks on the rise

The threat report also reveals that one of the ways attackers are becoming more effective in the destruction of network availability is by using adaptive DDoS. In an adaptive DDoS attack, adversaries perform extensive pre-attack reconnaissance to identify specific elements of the service delivery chain to target — for example, state exhaustion attacks, which made up four of the top five attack vectors this year, target stateful devices that are an integral part of the security stack such as firewalls and VPN concentrators. These targets are attractive because the attacks against them can be smaller in size and designed to evade defenses meant for other threats. Think of the fence designed for the coyotes that won’t stop weasels because the openings are too big. These types of preparations are calculated to minimize the number of administrative boundaries; DDoS attack traffic must traverse, often resulting in fewer opportunities to detect and mitigate the attack. Figure 1 lists some of the characteristics of adaptive DDoS attacks.

threat report adaptive ddos attacks blog figure 1200px NETSCOUT
NETSCOU

Figure 1: Five characteristics of adaptive DDoS attacks

Because of these advances in attack methods, network operators must adapt their defenses to meet the new challenges. In our experience, and primarily due to the nature of ever-changing attacks, the required defense needs to be able to not only manage volumetric attacks but also identify the many attacks currently designed to elude known defense measures. And in most cases, this is not a situation where there is a one-size-fits-all solution. As in “The Biggest Little Farm,” the ever-changing threat landscape we are currently experiencing requires an agile defense model — in this case, one that works inside and outside the network and adapts to changing attack vectors and methods.

Why you need a hybrid defense strategy

The best practice for protecting your network in today’s ever-changing DDoS attack landscape is a hybrid approach. Protection strategies of the past will suffice in some situations, such as in an attack designed to overwhelm your internet circuit before traffic arrives on your site. However, attacks specifically designed to evade those protections, such as TCP state exhaustion and application-layer attacks, are the basis for the new attack landscape. Furthermore, the ability to respond quickly to attacks that dodge the cloud solution and hit the network edge, or an internet-facing service is imperative, and having the agility to change defenses rapidly to adapt to subtle changes in adaptive DDoS onsite is crucial.

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Figure 2: NETSCOUT Omnis AED provides hybrid DDoS defense

By implementing adaptive DDoS defenses such as NETSCOUT’s Omnis Adaptive Edge Defense (AED) at all edges of their networks, network operators can overpower DDoS attack traffic as it enters the network edge — or before it ever unites into a large-scale attack. With edge-based attack detection combined with cloud-scrubbing capacity, automated bilayer communication, indicators of compromise (IoC) analysis, command-and-control (C2) communication blocking, and current actionable threat intelligence (think of the farmers talking to their neighbors), operators can tackle any DDoS attack before it can cause damage (see Figure 2).

As the movie ended, the farmers were getting management of the constantly evolving threats nature could throw at them under control. The underlying reason for that control was because they began to understand the developing threats and were proactive in their actions to block them. This could be a valuable lesson in our approach to new methods behind DDoS attacks.

For more information on hybrid, dynamic, comprehensive DDoS protection, download the white paper “An On-Premises Defense Is the Cornerstone for Multilayer DDoS Protection.” 

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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