Credentials Under Attack, Time to Exploit Still a Problem, Study Finds

A review of Q1 security incidents by security firm Rapid7 finds that attackers are more likely to use credentials to hack systems, although malware and industry-specific attacks continue to be popular.

security breaches

User credentials became attackers’ preferred way to attempt to breach the security of enterprise networks in the first quarter of 2017, according to data from actual security events collected by Rapid7.

While alerts tailored to the needs of a specific organization claimed the top slot in the list of common attacks, credential- and authorization-based attacks triggered seven of the top 10 alerts detected in the first quarter of 2017, according to Rapid7’s report. Such attacks include using domain credentials to move laterally in a network or attempting to access a service using an unknown account, for example.

“We did see a lot of harvested credentials, driven by the massive breaches of the past year,” Rebekah Brown, threat intelligence lead for Rapid7, told eWEEK. “We saw a lot of lateral movement using domain or default credentials, and a lot of brute-force attacks.”

Using credentials to attempt to breach networks and systems is a fundamental activity of online attackers. Since 2011, the “use of stolen credentials” category has been in the top 4 threat actions seen in breaches documented in the Verizon Breach Investigations Report.

The retail industry found itself most often in attackers’ sights, followed by professional services and finance. Apart from industry-specific alerts, retail companies detected attackers trying to log into systems from atypical locations—such as a different country—and detected the use of known-harvested credentials.

Other industries saw different tactics used against their networks. Professional services, for example, saw unauthorized logins to a monitored user’s account and brute-force login attempts to domain accounts. Financial firms often detected new account login attempts to existing services and malicious code running on the systems.

Attackers’ focus on credentials makes monitoring of user accounts—and especially privileged user accounts—very important. However, information-security teams also need to focus on patching vulnerabilities more quickly, as attackers appear to be adopting exploits more quickly into their exploit kits.

In the case of the Apache Struts vulnerability report, published on March 2, the firm saw initial exploits on March 7 and a massive increase in attacks on March 9.

“The easier a vulnerability is to exploit, the quicker we are seeing the exploits adopted,” Brown said. “The Apache Struts exploit was a very-easy-to-implement, face-palm, why-didn’t-we-see-this-sooner vulnerability.”

A positive trend that appeared in Rapid7’s data, however, is that machine learning is paying off. Analysts had to deal with fewer alerts than the previous quarter because attackers tended to use the same patterns, many of which could be handled in an automated way, she said.

“The reduction in workload is because of reduction in false positive and making sure the analysts do not have to deal with the same threats again and again,” Brown said.

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos is an award-winning freelance journalist who has covered information security, cybercrime and technology's impact on society for almost two decades. A former research engineer, he's...