Misconfigured identity and access management (IAM) is opening the door to malicious actors that are targeting cloud infrastructure and credentials in attacks, according to new Unit 42 research.

Unit 42's Cloud Threat Report: IAM The First Line of Defense found that cybercriminals often target identity and access management (IAM) due to several reasons:

  • Password reuse: 44% of organizations allow IAM password reuse.
  • Weak passwords (<14 characters): 53% of cloud accounts allow weak password usage.
  • Cloud identities are too permissive: 99% of cloud users, roles, services, and resources were granted excessive permissions which were ultimately left unused (we consider permissions excessive when they go unused for 60 days or more).
  • Built-in cloud service provider (CSP) policies are not managed properly by users: CSP-managed policies are granted 2.5 times more permissions than customer-managed policies. Most cloud users prefer to use built-in policies. Users can reduce the permissions given, but often don’t.

As more organizations move workloads to the cloud, and develop applications natively in the cloud, identity needs to remain a key focus when building a cloud security strategy. With organizations allowing excessive permissions and overly permissive policies, attackers are allowed into an organization’s cloud environment. However, proper IAM configuration can help block unintended access, provide visibility into cloud activities and reduce the impact of security incidents. Organizations can follow eight best practices to harden IAM permissions, according to Unit 42:

  1. Minimize the use of admin credentials. The less frequently admin credentials are granted or used, the less likely they are compromised.
  2. Minimize the usage of long-term credentials such as user password, access key, and service account key.
  3. Enforce multi-factor authentication (MFA) for permissions that modify business-critical resources such as database deletion, snapshot deletion, and encryption key update.
  4. Configure a strong password policy. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) recommends an eight-character minimum length and skipping character composition rules as they are painful for users.
  5. Use federated identity management (FIM) to centrally manage access control.
  6. Grant each identity only the necessary permissions for their jobs. (Principle of least privilege). Continuously audit all the identities in cloud environments using tools such as AirIAM and Cloud Infrastructure Entitlement Management (CIEM).
  7. Monitor IAM activities. All major CSPs have services that monitor IAM usage. These services help identify abnormal activities such as brute-force attacks and logging from unrecognized divides or locations.
  8. Auto-remediate excessive privileges. Entitlement audits should not be done manually, as the workloads in cloud environments change rapidly and frequently.

Research and experience confirm that many security organizations are struggling to optimize cloud IAM policies, says Jasmine Henry, Field Security Director at JupiterOne. “IAM failures are a leading cause of avoidable data breach due to excessive permissions or poor access control. Security practitioners are dealing with unprecedented scale and it requires new DevSecOps practices and processes, as well as a new mindset that grasps the fact scale is not going away.”