There is no question that attackers are going after your sensitive account data. Passwords have long been a target of those looking to compromise your environment.

Why would an attacker take the long, complicated way if they have the keys to the front door?

No matter how extensive your security solutions are, protecting the various systems in your environment, your organization may likely be an easy target without proper password security. An especially vulnerable type of password is a breached password, a.k.a “pwned” password.

What is a breached password? How do you discover breached passwords in your environment? How can organizations effectively protect their end-users from using these types of passwords?

The Danger of Compromised Accounts

The IBM Cost of a Data Breach Report 2020 noted compromised credentials as one of the primary contributors to malicious data breaches in the report’s key findings. It noted:

“Stolen or compromised credentials were the most expensive cause of malicious data breaches. One in five companies (19%) that suffered a malicious data breach was infiltrated due to stolen or compromised credentials, increasing the average total cost of a breach for these companies by nearly $1 million to $4.77 million. Overall, malicious attacks registered as the most frequent root cause (52% of breaches in the study), versus human error (23%) or system glitches (25%), at an average total cost of $4.27 million.”

This data helps to underscore the criticality of protecting account credentials and ensuring the protective measures are in place to prevent the use of risky and even dangerous passwords in your organization. A single stolen set of credentials may be all an attacker needs to compromise your data.

What Are Breached or “pwned” Passwords?

When talking about breached passwords in your environment, are we saying your organization has been actively breached? No, not necessarily. However, identifying user accounts in your environment using passwords that have been breached in other organizations is extremely important for your environment’s overall security.

Hackers can access massive databases of breached passwords from previous data leaks or large scale dumps of account data. Databases of breached passwords are readily found on the dark web as cybercriminals post treasure troves of account information for others to use and exploit. They use these to perform brute force or password spraying attacks against your organization’s user accounts and many others.

You may wonder how using breached passwords from a previous data breach or hack can be effective against your environment. It comes down to how humans think, no matter which organization is their employer. Users tend to use the same types of patterns that others use when choosing passwords. The fact of the matter is a breached user password in one environment may exist for a different user in another organization. Using breached password databases, attackers have easy access to large numbers of passwords to use against any number of accounts across various organizations.

It is imperative to protect your organization from the use of previously breached passwords.

If a password becomes breached after being selected as a user password, it is vital to have visibility of this risk in the environment and proactively remediate the threat.

How can your organization gain visibility to and protect against breached user passwords?

Native Tools Are Not Enough

Microsoft Active Directory provides many tools and management utilities for interacting with end-user accounts and managing passwords. However, none of the built-in tools provided by Microsoft Active Directory provide visibility to breached passwords. IT admins can download free PowerShell tools to check passwords against small lists of breached passwords. However, these tools may not be actively updated with the latest breach information and must be run in an ad-hoc fashion to check the environment periodically.

Using these free PowerShell tools to scan your environment for potential breached passwords helps to provide some visibility. However, at best, these provide a reactive approach and only give visibility to breached passwords in the environment, but offer no active protection. These types of tools do not prevent users from using breached passwords when configuring a password.

Is there a way to avoid breached password use altogether? What about proactively discovering breached passwords and forcing users to change passwords that have become compromised?

Specops Breached Password Protection

Specops Password Policy provides the tools that businesses need to meet the challenge of breached passwords head-on. A potent component of Specops Password Policy is the Breached Password Protection. By using Specops Password Policy, companies can easily augment existing Active Directory password policies to include proactive breached password protection.

Key features of Specops Breached Password Protection:

  • Provides a list of breached passwords – Includes a combination of thousands of different sources of leaked passwords from well-known sources such as haveibeenpwned.com as well as obscure breached lists,
  • Contains several billion breached passwords that are checked in your environment,
  • Immediately prevents users from using passwords that are contained on the breached password list,
  • With Specops Breached Password Protection Complete, if a user changes their password to one in the leaked list of passwords, they are notified by email or SMS,
  • Their account is also flagged, forcing the user to change the password the next time they log in.

There are a couple of ways that Specops can retrieve the latest password list. Using Complete API, the Specops Arbiters communicates with the Specops API in real-time to ensure users are not using a password found on the latest breached list curated by Specops.

Specops Breached Password Protection with Complete API checks

IT administrators can also download the latest breached password list using the Express List option. Specops notes when new lists are available. Once the newest list is downloaded, it is checked locally for breached entries found in Active Directory.

Using the Specops Express List to download the breached password list locally

Preventing users from using breached passwords

How do you make use of Specops Breached Password Protection to prevent end-users from using these? Specops Password Policy makes this easy. In the Specops Password Policy settings, you can configure the password policy to do the following:

  • Prevent users from changing to a leaked password
  • Force users to change leaked passwords when the Breached Password Protection Express list is updated
  • Notify users when they are forced to change password
Specops Password Policy with Breached Password Protection

Specops Password Policy helps transmit the password requirements to end-users in a much more intuitive way than the native Windows password change messages end-users typically see.

Below is an example of the message received by a user when attempting to change their password to one on the breached password list.

Password change message for a failed password change request due to a breached password

Conclusion

Protecting your environment from the use of breached passwords is critical to ensuring user accounts are safe, and business-critical data is protected. There are no built-in native Active Directory tools that give visibility to these dangerous user account passwords. While you can download and use custom PowerShell scripts to scan your Active Directory environment, these require manual processes, and the code or lists may be outdated.

Specops Password Policy with Breached Password Protection is a great solution to proactively protect against the use of breached passwords in the environment. It seamlessly integrates with your existing Active Directory password policies configured by Group Policy Objects (GPOs) and provides real-time protection against breached passwords.

Learn more about Specops Password Policy here.

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