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Last week, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) shared some strategies with users and organizations to prevent, mitigate, and recover against ransomware. They said, “The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) has observed an increase in ransomware attacks across the Nation. Helping organizations protect themselves from ransomware is a chief priority for CISA.” They have also advised that those attacked by ransomware should report immediately to CISA, a local FBI Field Office, or a Secret Service Field Office.

In the three resources shared, the first two include general awareness about what ransomware is and why it is a major threat, mitigations, and much more. The third resource is a FireEye report on ransomware protection and containment strategies.

Also Read: Vulnerabilities in the Picture Transfer Protocol (PTP) allows researchers to inject ransomware in Canon’s DSLR camera

CISA INSIGHTS and best practices to prevent ransomware

The CISA, as a part of their first “CISA INSIGHTS” product, has put down three simple steps or recommendations organizations can take to manage their cybersecurity risk. CISA advises users to take necessary precautionary steps such as backing up the entire system offline, keeping the system updated and patched, update security solutions, and much more. If users have been affected by ransomware, they should contact the CISA or FBI immediately, work with an experienced advisor to help recover from the attack, isolate the infected systems and phase your return to operations, etc.

Further, the CISA also tells users to practice good cyber hygiene, i.e. backup, update, whitelist apps, limit privilege, and using multi-factor authentication. Users should also develop containment strategies that will make it difficult for bad actors to extract information. Users should also review disaster recovery procedures and validate goals with executives, and much more.

The CISA team has suggested certain best practices which the organizations should employ to stay safe from a ransomware attack. These include, users should restrict permissions to install and run software applications, and apply the principle of “least privilege” to all systems and services thus, limiting ransomware to spread further. The organization should also ensure using application whitelisting to allow only approved programs to run on a network. All firewalls should be configured to block access to known malicious IP addresses.

Organizations should also enable strong spam filters to prevent phishing emails from reaching the end users and authenticate inbound emails to prevent email spoofing. A measure to scan all incoming and outgoing emails to detect threats and filter executable files from reaching end-users should be initiated.

Read the entire CISA INSIGHTS to know more about the various ransomware outbreak strategies in detail.

Also Read: ‘City Power Johannesburg’ hit by a ransomware attack that encrypted all its databases, applications and network

FireEye report on Ransomware Protection and Containment strategies

As a third resource, the CISA shared a FireEye report titled “Ransomware Protection and Containment Strategies: Practical Guidance for Endpoint Protection, Hardening, and Containment”.
In this whitepaper, FireEye discusses different steps organizations can proactively take to harden their environment to prevent the downstream impact of a ransomware event. These recommendations can also help organizations with prioritizing the most important steps required to contain and minimize the impact of a ransomware event after it occurs.

The FireEye report points out that any ransomware can be deployed across an environment in two ways. First, by Manual propagation by a threat actor after they have penetrated an environment and have administrator-level privileges broadly across the Environment to manually run encryptors on the targeted system through Windows batch files, Microsoft Group Policy Objects, and existing software deployment tools used by the victim’s organization.

Second, by Automated propagation where the credential or Windows token is extracted directly from disk or memory to build trust relationships between systems through Windows Management Instrumentation, SMB, or PsExec. This binds systems and executes payloads.

Hackers also automate brute-force attacks on unpatched exploitation methods, such as BlueKeep and EternalBlue.

“While the scope of recommendations contained within this document is not all-encompassing, they represent the most practical controls for endpoint containment and protection from a ransomware outbreak,” FireEye researchers wrote.

To combat these two deployment techniques, the FireEye researchers have suggested two enforcement measures which can limit the capability for a ransomware or malware variant to impact a large scope of systems within an environment.

The FireEye report covers several technical recommendations to help organizations mitigate the risk of and contain ransomware events some of which include:

RDP Hardening

Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) is a common method used by malicious actors to remotely connect to systems, laterally move from the perimeter onto a larger scope of systems for deploying malware. Organizations should also scan their public IP address ranges to identify systems with RDP (TCP/3389) and other protocols (SMB – TCP/445) open to the Internet in a proactive manner. RDP and SMB should not be directly exposed to ingress and egress access to/from the Internet. Other measures that organizations can take include:

Enforcing Multi-Factor Authentication

Organizations can either integrate a third-party multi-factor authentication technology or leverage a Remote Desktop Gateway and Azure Multi-Factor Authentication Server using RADIUS.

Leveraging Network Level Authentication (NLA)

Network Level Authentication (NLA) provides an extra layer of pre-authentication before a connection is established. It is also useful for protecting against brute force attacks, which mostly target open internet-facing RDP servers.

Reducing the exposure of privileged and service accounts

For ransomware deployment throughout an environment, both privileged and service accounts credentials are commonly utilized for lateral movement and mass propagation. Without a thorough investigation, it may be difficult to determine the specific credentials that are being utilized by a ransomware variant for connectivity within an environment.

Privileged account and service account logon restrictions

For accounts having privileged access throughout an environment, these should not be used on standard workstations and laptops, but rather from designated systems (e.g., Privileged Access Workstations (PAWS)) that reside in restricted and protected VLANs and Tiers.

Explicit privileged accounts should be defined for each Tier, and only utilized within the designated Tier. The recommendations for restricting the scope of access for privileged accounts is based upon Microsoft’s guidance for securing privileged access.

As a quick containment measure, consider blocking any accounts with privileged access from being able to login (remotely or locally) to standard workstations, laptops, and common access servers (e.g., virtualized desktop infrastructure).

If a service account is only required to be leveraged on a single endpoint to run a specific service, the service account can be further restricted to only permit the account’s usage on a predefined listing of endpoints.

Protected Users Security Group

With the “Protected Users” security group for privileged accounts, an organization can minimize various risk factors and common exploitation methods for exposing privileged accounts on endpoints.

Starting from Microsoft Windows 8.1 and Microsoft Windows Server 2012 R2 (and above), the “Protected Users” security group was introduced to manage credential exposure within an environment. Members of this group automatically have specific protections applied to their accounts, including:

  • The Kerberos ticket granting ticket (TGT) expires after 4 hours, rather than the normal 10-hour default setting.
  •  No NTLM hash for an account is stored in LSASS since only Kerberos authentication is used (NTLM authentication is disabled for an account).
  •  Cached credentials are blocked. A Domain Controller must be available to authenticate the account.
  • WDigest authentication is disabled for an account, regardless of an endpoint’s applied policy settings.
  • DES and RC4 can’t be used for Kerberos pre-authentication (Server 2012 R2 or higher); rather Kerberos with AES encryption will be enforced.
  • Accounts cannot be used for either constrained or unconstrained delegation (equivalent to enforcing the “Account is sensitive and cannot be delegated” setting in Active Directory Users and Computers).

Cleartext password protections

Organizations should also try minimizing the exposure of credentials and tokens in memory on endpoints. On older Windows Operating Systems, cleartext passwords are stored in memory (LSASS) to primarily support WDigest authentication.

The WDigest should be explicitly disabled on all Windows endpoints where it is not disabled by default. WDigest authentication is disabled in Windows 8.1+ and in Windows Server 2012 R2+, by default. Starting from Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2, after installing Microsoft Security Advisory KB2871997, WDigest authentication can be configured either by modifying the registry or by using the “Microsoft Security Guide” Group Policy template from the Microsoft Security Compliance Toolkit.

To implement these and other ransomware protection and containment strategies, read the FireEye report.

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