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Businesses Not Properly Securing Microsoft Active Directory

Businesses overlook key security aspects of AD, leaving sensitive data open to external and internal attacks, new study shows.

Microsoft Active Directory (AD) often lulls enterprises into a false sense of security. Many are so confident in the system's security measures they neglect to put the right safeguards in place.

A new survey conducted by Skyport Systems polled more than 300 IT professionals in North America and discovered AD security is lacking at most companies despite their relative confidence in how they're managing AD security.

More than half said their AD is "secure" or "very secure," and more than one-third of the remaining 50% said it was "moderately secure." Only 2.5% of respondents said their AD was "not secure."

But mismanagement of AD unknowingly exposes 90% of enterprises to cyberattacks, Skyport discovered in its AD security assessment for enterprises in 2016. Organizations often fail to see the danger. More than half of respondents either said AD security is not a priority for the coming year, or they are unsure if it will be.

"The challenge with AD is a long-term historical one," explains Michael Beesley, CTO of Skyport Systems. "When it was first architected and designed, the open hybrid enterprise was not even imagined."

Microsoft initially intended for AD to be a closed internal system, hidden from attackers, he continues. The rise of shadow IT, advanced phishing attacks, and open hybrid enterprise IT architectures led to its exposure in most organizations. 

AD is increasingly vulnerable as adversaries seek administrator credentials and workstations. If stolen, the credentials stored inside Microsoft AD could provide "super user access" to all enterprise IT systems regardless of their location. Attackers can also disguise their actions as legitimate administrator activity and stay within the environment indefinitely, avoiding all attack-detection mechanisms.

"It is the repository of master keys, able to open every other lock," Beesley says of the system. "All information, sensitive or not, is at risk … everything becomes at risk when AD is owned by the cyberattacker."

This data may include customer databases, financial information like credit card and account data, personal information, healthcare information, business intellectual property, business planning data, and other valuable files, he continues.

AD Neglect

Despite their belief that they've locked down AD sufficiently, 70% of respondents actually neglect to implement multi-factor authentication, and 41% let unspecified workstations access domain controllers. More than 20% used admin credentials to read email or surf the Web.

Neglecting to provide secure access workstations for administrators is a recommended best practice from Microsoft, Beesley notes, but almost no businesses do it. The same can be said of not running the AD domain controllers on secure, isolated infrastructure.

Most businesses are "dramatically overstating" their confidence in their AD security, he says. Because AD has been around for a long time, many IT and security teams forget how valuable its information is.

Further, he continues, most businesses don't realize how open they are, and how easily an attacker can access the internal environment where AD is located through phishing attacks, malware insertion, or malicious USB drives. Most don't even realize they are targets.

"You no longer need to be large, or strategic, or controversial, to get a hacker's attention," he says. "Any business today is a prime and profitable target for an attacker as their costs are low, automation is high, and their risk is very low."

There are several steps organizations can take to protect themselves as AD is targeted. Beesley recommends continually cleaning up AD configurations, groups, and administrative users, and installing and using secure access workstations for admins.

He also advises all businesses to run AD domain controllers on isolated, secure, and measured infrastructure with visibility around each domain controller. In addition, larger organizations should deploy a more secure "red forest" administrative domain to safeguard high-level accounts responsible for managing production AD domains.

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Kelly Sheridan is Associate Editor at Dark Reading. She started her career in business tech journalism at Insurance & Technology and most recently reported for InformationWeek, where she covered Microsoft and business IT. Sheridan earned her BA at Villanova University. View Full Bio

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