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Minimizing Damage When Phishing Attacks Bypass Defenses

This is the last post of a cyber awareness month three-part blog post series to defend against phishing attacks.

If you missed the previous posts, you can read them here:

Abstract: Despite the most advanced techniques, technologies, and awareness training, phishing attack attempts might succeed. This post looks into ways to minimize the potential damage of an intrusion and how to validate that those are indeed effective.

Table of Contents

Segment Networks to Contain Threats

Adopt Least Privilege Access Models

Adaptively Validate Access

The Challenges of Implementation

Continuous Validation and Prioritization

Mobilize Response with Business Context

Conclusion

The increased complexity and stealthy operations of emerging phishing techniques, and the resulting increased probability that some phishing attacks will succeed, increase the need for organizations to minimize damage when attacks inevitably evade defenses. Speed is essential for limiting impact once a breach occurs. The earlier you can slow an attack’s progression, the less harm it will cause. This article explores three key controls to obstruct post-compromise lateral movement and privilege escalation: network segmentation, least privilege access, and adaptive access validation.

Segment Networks to Contain Threats

Network segmentation entails dividing environments into isolated segments and tightly controlling communication between them. This containment strategy limits lateral traversal if one segment is compromised. Tactics like implementing virtual LANs, access controls between segments, and physically separating sensitive systems obstruct threat spread from initial entry points to critical assets. Security teams gain precious time for detection and response before attacks expand.

“Microsegmentation” takes this further by isolating individual workloads to minimize the potential blast radius. While re-architecting legacy networks poses challenges, identifying and selectively separating the most vital data, applications, and services provides crucial protection when attacks penetrate perimeter defenses.

Adopt Least Privilege Access Models

Transitioning from implicit trust to least privilege access models provides another obstacle by continually re-validating permissions. Instead of implicitly trusting internal resources, least privilege protocols:

  • Assign users the minimum permissions needed to perform their duties: This implies reviewing all user accounts and permissions on a regular basis to ensure that users only have the access they need and avoid unnecessary legacy access.
  • Use separate accounts for administrative tasks: Administrative accounts should only be used for tasks that require elevated privileges. Avoid using administrative accounts for everyday tasks.
  • Use just-in-time (JIT) provisioning for administrative access: JIT provisioning grants users administrative access only when they need it and for a limited period of time. This helps to reduce the risk of unauthorized access to administrative accounts.
  • Monitor privileged access: Monitor all privileged activity to detect and investigate suspicious activity. This can be done through auditing, logging, and other security tools.

Enhanced privilege access verification at each step slows down threat progression even if credentials or controls are initially bypassed. The approach aligns with guidance from and industry leaders and organizations. Though updating outdated trust models across legacy environments can prove difficult, incremental steps gradually increase the limitation of attackers’ freedom of lateral movement in breached environments until full privilege management is implemented.

Adaptively Validate Access

Building on least privilege foundations, adaptive access validation adds contextual signals like user, device, and what assets are being accessed to enable real-time, risk-aware access evaluations. By utilizing AI and automation, the validation logic constantly adapts to balance security and productivity. When risk levels spike, stepped-up verifications create additional roadblocks to lateral movement or privilege escalation.

When orchestrated effectively, adaptive validation significantly reduces the post-breach impact of compromised credentials by forcing attackers to overcome multiple safeguards to achieve objectives. At the same time, legitimate users operating within their normal responsibilities see reduced friction.

The Challenges of Implementation

While crucial for damage control, these strategies pose implementation challenges, especially across legacy environments. Network segmentation requires re-architecting established legacy networks and, as mentioned above, adopting least privilege means updating outdated implicit trust models.

Organizations may face hurdles such as:

  • Provisioning for the cost and effort to re-architect legacy networks
  • Navigating the complexity of integrating new controls with legacy systems
  • Consistently enforcing policy across cloud and on-premises
  • Gaining and maintaining visibility across hybrid environments
  • Upgrading to new models without disrupting day-to-day operations or disrupting business

When resources are inadequate to enable a full segmentation, incremental adoption is the optimal way and provides increasing levels of protection as controls are gradually implemented. Even partially implemented measures will slow threat progression, increasing overall resilience. But organizations should keep their eyes on the prize – full segmentation – when architecting security transformation.

Continuous Validation and Prioritization

As part of a proactive posture, leading platforms enable continuous validation through attack simulation and risk-prioritized remediation. Attack surface management provides ongoing discovery of assets and weaknesses. Breach and attack simulations validate control efficacy against the latest threats. Continuous automated red teaming enables vulnerability testing at scale. Combined capabilities ingest data across environments to build contextual exposure analytics. This empowers data-driven action by correlating findings with business criticality indicators. Security leaders can then focus teams on addressing the most dangerous vulnerabilities first.

Mobilize Response with Business Context

Armed with validated data on security gaps and business risks, security leaders can mobilize response by aligning initiatives to organizational priorities:

  • Present exposures in context of business risk to secure buy-in
  • Develop data-backed cases to address resource constraints
  • Create risk-adjusted roadmaps balancing security ideals with realities
  • Track improvements and communicate progress to leadership

This enables effective mobilization and response commensurate with actual organizational exposure.

Conclusion

Today’s stealthy phishing attack landscape demands accepting some attacks will evade defenses. Minimizing harm requires segmenting networks, adopting least privilege access, and implementing adaptive access validation to obstruct post-breach progression. Continuous validation and contextual prioritization guide efficient remediation when gaps persist. While challenging, these measures create a resilient security architecture suited for the inevitability of compromise. Mobilizing teams with risk insights further strengthens response capabilities over time.

 

 

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