Risks Involved in Transitioning Email Services

Risks Involved in Transitioning Email Services

A cybersecurity alert was issued Monday, May 13, 2019, by the U.S Department of Homeland Security regarding the risks involved in transitioning email services to Microsoft Office 365 (O365) and other cloud services. Organizations that used a third party have had a mix of configurations that lowered their overall security posture.

What It Is:
As the number of organizations migrating email services to Microsoft Office 365 (O365) and other cloud services increases, the use of third-party companies that move organizations to the cloud is also increasing. Organizations and their third-party partners need to be aware of the risks involved in transitioning to O365 and other cloud services.

This advisory provides information on these risks as well as on cloud services configuration vulnerabilities. It also includes recommendations for mitigating these risks and vulnerabilities.

Read the CISA Analysis Report regarding Microsoft Office 365 Observations from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

What It Means:
Since October 2018, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) has conducted several engagements with customers who have used third-party partners to migrate their email services to O365.

The organizations that used a third party have had a mix of configurations that lowered their overall security posture (e.g., mailbox auditing disabled, unified audit log disabled, multi-factor authentication disabled on admin accounts). In addition, the majority of these organizations did not have a dedicated IT security team to focus on their security in the cloud. These security oversights have led to user and mailbox compromises and vulnerabilities.

Technical Summary:
The following list contains examples of configuration vulnerabilities:

• Multi-factor authentication for administrator accounts not enabled by default: Azure Active Directory (AD) Global Administrators in an O365 environment have the highest level of administrator privileges at the tenant level. This is equivalent to the Domain Administrator in an on-premises AD environment. The Azure AD Global Administrator accounts are the first accounts created so that administrators can begin configuring their tenant and eventually migrate their users. Multi-factor authentication (MFA) is not enabled by default for these accounts. There is a default Conditional Access policy available to customers, but the Global Administrator must explicitly enable this policy in order to enable MFA for these accounts. These accounts are exposed to internet access because they are based in the cloud. If not immediately secured, these cloud-based accounts could allow an attacker to maintain persistence as a customer migrates users to O365.
• Mailbox auditing disabled: O365 mailbox auditing logs actions that mailbox owners, delegates, and administrators perform. Microsoft did not enable auditing by default in O365 prior to January 2019. Customers who procured their O365 environment before 2019 had to explicitly enable mailbox auditing. Additionally, the O365 environment does not currently enable the unified audit log by default. The unified audit log contains events from Exchange Online, SharePoint Online, OneDrive, Azure AD, Microsoft Teams, PowerBI, and other O365 services. An administrator must enable the unified audit log in the Security and Compliance Center before queries can be run.
• Password sync enabled: Azure AD Connect integrates on-premises environments with Azure AD when customers migrate to O365. This technology provides the capability to create Azure AD identities from on-premises AD identities or to match previously created Azure AD identities with on-premises AD identities. The on-premises identities become the authoritative identities in the cloud. In order to match identities, the AD identity needs to match certain attributes. If matched, the Azure AD identity is flagged as on-premises managed. Therefore, it is possible to create an AD identity that matches an administrator in Azure AD and create an account on-premises with the same username. One of the authentication options for Azure AD is “Password Sync.” If this option is enabled, the password from on-premises overwrites the password in Azure AD. In this particular situation, if the on-premises AD identity is compromised, then an attacker could move laterally to the cloud when the sync occurs. Note: Microsoft has disabled the capability to match certain administrator accounts as of October 2018. However, organizations may have performed administrator account matching prior to Microsoft disabling this function, thereby synching identities that may be have been compromised prior to migration. Additionally, regular user accounts are not protected by this capability being disabled.
• Authentication unsupported by legacy protocols: Azure AD is the authentication method that O365 uses to authenticate with Exchange Online, which provides email services. There are a number of protocols associated with Exchange Online authentication that do not support modern authentication methods with MFA features. These protocols include Post Office Protocol (POP3), Internet Message Access Protocol (IMAP), and Simple Mail Transport Protocol (SMTP). Legacy protocols are used with older email clients, which do not support modern authentication. Legacy protocols can be disabled at the tenant level or at the user level. However, should an organization require older email clients as a business necessity, these protocols will not be disabled. This leaves email accounts exposed to the internet with only the username and password as the primary authentication method. One approach mitigate this issue is to inventory users who still require the use of a legacy email client and legacy email protocols. Using Azure AD Conditional Access policies can help reduce the number of users who have the ability to use legacy protocol authentication methods. Taking this step will greatly reduce the attack surface for organizations.

What To Do:
CISA and Dox encourage organizations to implement an organizational cloud strategy to protect their infrastructure assets through defending against attacks related to their O365 transition and securing their O365 service. Specifically, we recommend that administrators implement the following mitigations and best practices:

• Use multi-factor authentication. This is the best mitigation technique to use to protect against credential theft for O365 users.
• Enable unified audit logging in the Security and Compliance Center.
• Enable mailbox auditing for each user.
• Ensure Azure AD password sync is planned for and configured correctly, prior to migrating users.
• Disable legacy email protocols, if not required, or limit their use to specific users.

Negative Consequences of Lost or Stolen Data:
The loss or theft of proprietary data can have severe impacts, particularly if the compromise becomes public and sensitive information is exposed. Possible impacts include:

• Temporary or permanent loss of sensitive or proprietary information.
• Disruption to regular operations.
• Financial losses incurred to restore systems and files.
• Potential harm to an organization’s reputation.

Should your agency or business need assistance with issues arising from transitioning email services including updates and/or patches, Dox can help. Please contact Dox if there is anything we can do to assist in securing your agency, business, or organization.

Thank you for your time and stay safe online.