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Feds Warn of Surge in Password-Spray Attacks

Officials from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Homeland Security are warning network managers to be on the lookout for password-spray attacks.

Password spraying occurs when an attacker tests a single password against multiple user accounts at an organization. The method often involves weak passwords, such as Winter2018 or Password123!, and can be an effective hacking technique against organizations that are using single sign-on (SSO) and federated authentication protocols but that haven't deployed multifactor authentication.

By hitting multiple accounts, the method can test a lot of user names without triggering account-lockout protections that kick in when a single user account gets hit with multiple password attempts in a row.

"According to information derived from FBI investigations, malicious cyber actors are increasingly using a style of brute force attack known as password spraying against organizations in the United States and abroad," the agencies declared in a US-CERT technical alert issued Tuesday evening.

Prompting the alert was the disclosure last Friday of a federal indictment against nine Iranian nationals associated with the Mabna Institute, a private Iran-based company accused of hacking on behalf of the Iranian state. The main focus of that indictment was a massive, four-year spear-phishing campaign to steal credentials from thousands of university professors whose publications could allegedly advance Iranian research interests.

Also caught up in the alleged Iranian effort were 36 private companies in the United States, 11 companies in Europe and multiple U.S. government agencies and non-government organizations, and the method of attack for those organizations was password spraying.

According to the indictment:

In order to compromise accounts of private sector victims, members of the conspiracy used a technique known as 'password spraying,' whereby they first collected lists of names and email accounts associated with the intended victim company through open source Internet searches. Then, they attempted to gain access to those accounts with commonly-used passwords, such as frequently used default passwords, in order to attempt to obtain unauthorized access to as many accounts as possible.

Once they obtained access to the victim accounts, members of the conspiracy, among other things, exfiltrated entire email mailboxes from the victims. In addition, in many cases, the defendants established automated forwarding rules for compromised accounts that would prospectively forward new outgoing and incoming email messages from the compromised accounts to email accounts controlled by the conspiracy.

The US-CERT technical alert refers to the indictment as having been handed up in February, which could explain Microsoft's detailed guidance for deterring password-spray attacks in a high-profile blog post on March 5. In that post, Alex Simons, director of program management for the Microsoft Identity Division, called password spray "a common attack which has become MUCH more frequent recently," and declared, "Password spray is a serious threat to every service on the Internet that uses passwords." The new government alert linked back to the March 5 Microsoft post as a mitigation resource.

While the Mabna-related password spraying clearly has a lot to do with the new alert, US-CERT warned that others are currently using the attack. "The techniques and activity described herein, while characteristic of Mabna actors, are not limited solely to use by this group," the alert stated.

This is US-CERT's third technical alert this year. Previous alerts warned about the Meltdown and Spectre side-channel vulnerability and Russian government cyberactivity targeting critical U.S. infrastructure.

Posted by Scott Bekker on 03/28/2018 at 8:37 AM


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