Home > 2014 > Identity Theft

The All-Access Pass Hackers Love

Advertiser Disclosure Comments 0 Comments

What do the Target hackers have in common with Edward Snowden?

Both successfully breached highly protected networks to steal mountains of sensitive data by abusing privileged accounts.

Privileged accounts are the logons that open access to desktops, laptops, servers, firewalls, databases, printers — pretty much any device with a microprocessor tied into a company network.

For the past 20 years, organizations of all sizes have distributed privileged accounts widely without considering the security ramifications. All was assumed to be safe inside a company’s firewall. Hackers and data thieves have long known better, of course, and continue to take full advantage.

A 2013 survey by password security vendor CyberArk Software found that 86% of large enterprise organizations either do not know or underestimated the number of privileged accounts incorporated into their networks. “It’s a major and easy attack vector,” says CyberArk CEO Udi Mokady.

Snowden’s thievery pivoted off the privileged account granted to him as a contractor for the National Security Agency. The Target hackers had no special insider’s access, so they phished a privileged account from a heating and ventilation contractor who did work on Target stores.

Clever Hack

Each day cyber criminals stretch their creativity to come up with novel ways to beg, borrow and steal privileged accounts. In one recent multitiered caper, shared exclusively with ThirdCertainty, hackers phished their way onto the Windows PC of a low-level clerk at a large multinational corporation.

Next, they purposely slowed the PC’s performance to a crawl, prompting the clerk to call the help desk and allow a technician to take over remote control of her PC to troubleshoot it — exactly what the hackers hoped for.

At that point the hackers pounced. They compromised the help desk technician’s PC and stole his privileged logon, then used it to plunder the corporation’s sensitive data.

Disclosure of that caper comes from Kevin Hickey, CEO of BeyondTrust Software, a Phoenix-based supplier of vulnerability and privileged accounts management systems. “It was a major breach of a very large enterprise,” Hickey says. “The hackers got quite a bit of information. ”

Clearly, it would behoove any business to take stock of privileged accounts — and thanks to the headlines spawned by Target and Snowden, many have finally begun to do so.

Tools to Fight Back

It’s encouraging that demand is heating up for “privileged access management,” or PAM, technologies. These cutting-edge systems, also referred to as “privileged identity management,” or PIM, are designed to help companies regularly monitor and police privileged accounts.

Research firm Gartner estimates that global spending on PAM systems soared to $450 million in 2013, a 38 percent jump from 2012. That correlates with an ongoing surge in queries and sales at CyberArk, Beyond Trust, Dell and other suppliers of PAM technologies.

“The porousness of the security perimeter, even with the best firewalls, requires that companies implement additional interior protections,” says Phil Lieberman, CEO of Lieberman Software, a Los Angeles-based PAM vendor.

Beyond helping companies detect and deflect attackers, PAM tools also hold promise for improving operational efficiency. That’s proving to be the case for customers of Budapest, Hungary-based PAM vendor BalaBit.

When the ATM network of a German bank customer recently failed, the bank tapped into BalaBit’s monitoring technology to trace the cause to an errant command executed by an ATM technician working remotely, says BalaBit CEO Zoltán Györkö.

“By searching for and replaying the relevant working session, the bank identified and addressed the problem in hours,” Györkö says. “Without having recorded all of the actions of the ATM administrator, it could have taken much longer to identify and fix the problem.”

Dell’s software division is also touting the productivity-boosting potential of the PAM systems it supplies to businesses. “The bad guys aren’t always outside the organization,” observes Dell Product Marketing Director Bill Evans. “Because of their powerful nature, these are the most sought-after accounts. Occasionally, internal resources may either inadvertently or purposefully use these privileged credentials to acquire and distribute confidential or proprietary information.”

One Dell customer, a large technology company, recently switched from manually managing privileged accounts to using an automated system. “They were able to grant administrators privileged access in a secure and controlled way, resulting in a 50% increase in productivity and enabling them to meet all their compliance requirements,” Evans says.

The first step for any company is obvious: Determine what privileged accounts exist on your network and make a list of who has access to what.

BeyondTrust CEO Kevin Hickey says lack of awareness is an all too common scenario. “You have a lot of very large organizations where they have privileges all over the place. There are some cases where there are hundreds and hundreds of administrators that have elevated privileges.

“Snowden is a good example. He was a consultant. If he had been locked down, with limited access to applications, and parameters set for when he could access them, print them out, and move them around, he wouldn’t have gotten away with it. Basically, Snowden could go anywhere he wanted to go.”

More on Identity Theft:

Image: iStock

Comments on articles and responses to those comments are not provided or commissioned by a bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by a bank advertiser. It is not a bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

Please note that our comments are moderated, so it may take a little time before you see them on the page. Thanks for your patience.

Certain credit cards and other financial products mentioned in this and other articles on Credit.com News & Advice may also be offered through Credit.com product pages, and Credit.com will be compensated if our users apply for and ultimately sign up for any of these cards or products. However, this relationship does not result in any preferential editorial treatment.

Hello, Reader!

Thanks for checking out Credit.com. We hope you find the site and the journalism we produce useful. We wanted to take some time to tell you a bit about ourselves.

Our People

The Credit.com editorial team is staffed by a team of editors and reporters, each with many years of financial reporting experience. We’ve worked for places like the New York Times, American Banker, Frontline, TheStreet.com, Business Insider, ABC News, NBC News, CNBC and many others. We also employ a few freelancers and more than 50 contributors (these are typically subject matter experts from the worlds of finance, academia, politics, business and elsewhere).

Our Reporting

We take great pains to ensure that the articles, video and graphics you see on Credit.com are thoroughly reported and fact-checked. Each story is read by two separate editors, and we adhere to the highest editorial standards. We’re not perfect, however, and if you see something that you think is wrong, please email us at editorial team [at] credit [dot] com,

The Credit.com editorial team is committed to providing our readers and viewers with sound, well-reported and understandable information designed to inform and empower. We won’t tell you what to do. We will, however, do our best to explain the consequences of various actions, thereby arming you with the information you need to make decisions that are in your best interests. We also write about things relating to money and finance we think are interesting and want to share.

In addition to appearing on Credit.com, our articles are syndicated to dozens of other news sites. We have more than 100 partners, including MSN, ABC News, CBS News, Yahoo, Marketwatch, Scripps, Money Magazine and many others. This network operates similarly to the Associated Press or Reuters, except we focus almost exclusively on issues relating to personal finance. These are not advertorial or paid placements, rather we provide these articles to our partners in most cases for free. These relationships create more awareness of Credit.com in general and they result in more traffic to us as well.

Our Business Model

Credit.com’s journalism is largely supported by an e-commerce business model. Rather than rely on revenue from display ad impressions, Credit.com maintains a financial marketplace separate from its editorial pages. When someone navigates to those pages, and applies for a credit card, for example, Credit.com will get paid what is essentially a finder’s fee if that person ends up getting the card. That doesn’t mean, however, that our editorial decisions are informed by the products available in our marketplace. The editorial team chooses what to write about and how to write about it independently of the decisions and priorities of the business side of the company. In fact, we maintain a strict and important firewall between the editorial and business departments. Our mission as journalists is to serve the reader, not the advertiser. In that sense, we are no different from any other news organization that is supported by ad revenue.

Visitors to Credit.com are also able to register for a free Credit.com account, which gives them access to a tool called The Credit Report Card. This tool provides users with two free credit scores and a breakdown of the information in their Experian credit report, updated twice monthly. Again, this tool is entirely free, and we mention that frequently in our articles, because we think that it’s a good thing for users to have access to data like this. Separate from its educational value, there is also a business angle to the Credit Report Card. Registered users can be matched with products and services for which they are most likely to qualify. In other words, if you register and you find that your credit is less than stellar, Credit.com won’t recommend a high-end platinum credit card that requires an excellent credit score You’d likely get rejected, and that’s no good for you or Credit.com. You’d be no closer to getting a product you need, there’d be a wasted inquiry on your credit report, and Credit.com wouldn’t get paid. These are essentially what are commonly referred to as "targeted ads" in the world of the Internet. Despite all of this, however, even if you never apply for any product, the Credit Report Card will remain free, and none of this will impact how the editorial team reports on credit and credit scores.

Our Owners

Credit.com is owned by Progrexion Holdings Inc. which is the owner and administrator of a number of business related to credit and credit repair, including CreditRepair.com, and eFolks. In addition, Progrexion also provides services to Lexington Law Firm as a third party provider. Despite being owned by Progrexion, it is not the role of the Credit.com editorial team to advocate the use of the company’s other services. In articles, reporters may mention credit repair as an option, for example, but we’ll also be sure to note the various alternatives to that service. Furthermore, you may see ads for credit repair services on Credit.com, but the editorial team isn’t responsible for the creation or implementation of those ads, anymore than reporters for the New York Times or Washington Post are responsible for the ads on their sites.

Your Stories

Lastly, much of what we do is informed by our own experiences as well as the experiences of our readers. We want to tell your stories if you’re interested in sharing them. Please email us at story ideas [at] credit [dot] com with ideas or visit us on Facebook or Twitter.

Thanks for stopping by.

- The Credit.com Editorial Team