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When you don’t install patches, cybersecurity attacks win. Here’s how we and you can turn the tide

In the wake of the devastating (Not)Petya attack, Microsoft set out to understand why some customers weren’t applying cybersecurity hygiene, such as security patches, which would have helped mitigate this threat. We were particularly concerned with why patches hadn’t been applied, as they had been available for months and had already been used in the WannaCrypt worm—which clearly established a ”real and present danger.”

We learned a lot from this journey, including how important it is to build clearer industry guidance and standards on enterprise patch management. To help make it easier for organizations to plan, implement, and improve an enterprise patch management strategy, Microsoft is partnering with the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) National Cybersecurity Center of Excellence (NCCoE).

NIST and Microsoft are extending an invitation for you to join this effort if you’re a:

  • Vendor—Any vendor who has technology offerings to help with patch management (scan, report, deploy, measure risk, etc.).
  • Organization or individual—All those who have tips and lessons learned from a successful enterprise management program (or lessons learned from failures, challenges, or any other situations).

If you have pertinent learnings that you can share, please reach out to cyberhygiene@nist.gov.

During this journey, we also worked closely with additional partners and learned from their experience in this space, including the:

  • Center for Internet Security (CIS)
  • U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Cybersecurity
  • Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) (formerly US-CERT / DHS NCCIC)

A key part of this learning journey was to sit down and listen directly to our customer’s challenges. Microsoft visited a significant number of customers in person (several of which I personally joined) to share what we learned—which became part of the jointly endorsed mitigation roadmap—and to have some really frank and open discussions to learn why organizations really aren’t applying security patches.

While the discussions mostly went in expected directions, we were surprised at how many challenges organizations had on processes and standards, including:

  • “What sort of testing should we actually be doing for patch testing?”
  • “How fast should I be patching my systems?”

This articulated need for good reference processes was further validated by observing that a common practice for “testing” a patch before a deployment often consisted solely of asking whether anyone else had any issues with the patch in an online forum.

This realization guided the discussions with our partners towards creating an initiative in the NIST NCCoE in collaboration with other industry vendors. This project—kicking off soon—will build common enterprise patch management reference architectures and processes, have relevant vendors build and validate implementation instructions in the NCCoE lab, and share the results in the NIST Special Publication 1800 practice guide for all to benefit.

Applying patches is a critical part of protecting your system, and we learned that while it isn’t as easy as security departments think, it isn’t as hard as IT organizations think.

In many ways, patching is a social responsibility because of how much society has come to depend on technology systems that businesses and other organizations provide. This situation is exacerbated today as almost all organizations undergo digital transformations, placing even more social responsibility on technology.

Ultimately, we want to make it easier for everyone to do the right thing and are issuing this call to action. If you’re a vendor that can help or if you have relevant learnings that may help other organizations, please reach out to cyberhygiene@nist.gov. Now!

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Recent cyberattacks require us all to be vigilant

Today we’re sharing that we’ve recently seen significant cyber activity by a threat group we call Phosphorus, which we believe originates from Iran and is linked to the Iranian government. We’re sharing this for two reasons. First, it is important that we all – governments and private sector – are increasingly transparent about nation-state attacks and efforts to disrupt democratic processes. Second, while we have processes to notify customers about nation state activity and have AccountGuard to monitor accounts of campaigns and other associated organizations related to election processes in democracies around the world, publishing this information should help others be more vigilant and take steps to protect themselves.

In a 30-day period between August and September, the Microsoft Threat Intelligence Center (MSTIC) observed Phosphorus making more than 2,700 attempts to identify consumer email accounts belonging to specific Microsoft customers and then attack 241 of those accounts. The targeted accounts are associated with a U.S. presidential campaign, current and former U.S. government officials, journalists covering global politics and prominent Iranians living outside Iran. Four accounts were compromised as a result of these attempts; these four accounts were not associated with the U.S. presidential campaign or current and former U.S. government officials. Microsoft has notified the customers related to these investigations and threats and has worked as requested with those whose accounts were compromised to secure them.

Phosphorus used information gathered from researching their targets or other means to game password reset or account recovery features and attempt to take over some targeted accounts. For example, they would seek access to a secondary email account linked to a user’s Microsoft account, then attempt to gain access to a user’s Microsoft account through verification sent to the secondary account. In some instances, they gathered phone numbers belonging to their targets and used them to assist in authenticating password resets.

While the attacks we’re disclosing today were not technically sophisticated, they attempted to use a significant amount of personal information both to identify the accounts belonging to their intended targets and in a few cases to attempt attacks. This effort suggests Phosphorus is highly motivated and willing to invest significant time and resources engaging in research and other means of information gathering. MSTIC works every day to track threat groups including Phosphorus so we can notify customers when they face threats or compromises and so that we can build our products to better defend against these threats.

As we’ve previously disclosed, our Digital Crimes Unit has also taken legal and technical steps to combat Phosphorus attacks and we continue to take these types of actions.

There are also a range of steps customers can take to help secure their consumer accounts. We strongly encourage all customers to enable two-step verification on their accounts which can be done in Account Security settings. While there are a number of ways to enable this two-step verification, the most secure option is through a password-less solution like Microsoft Authenticator.

People can also periodically check their login history, and we recommend this for journalists, political campaigns staff, and others interested in assuring account security. These logs are made available through the Account Security Sign-In Activity tab. They are easy to read and look like this:

Screenshot of account security login information

Expanding any of these events in this tab will provide details on the device and IP address used to access the account in question. If any of the activity looks suspicious, you can notify Microsoft by clicking on the associated “Secure Your Account” link. If you detect suspicious activity, you should change your password and enable two-step verification. To better secure your Microsoft account, follow these tips for keeping your Microsoft account safe and secure.

While this advice relates to consumer accounts, we also provide a range of additional tools and advice to IT administrators to protect their corporate networks. A starting point for accessing these tools is here.

However, if you are part of a political campaign, a political party committee or an NGO or think tank working on issues related to democracy, you are eligible for Microsoft AccountGuard, an offering from our Defending Democracy Program, and can sign up here. There are currently 60,000 accounts in 26 countries protected by AccountGuard, which provides monitoring and unified threat notification across the Office 365 accounts you use for work and the personal accounts of your staff and others affiliated with your organization that opt-in for this protection. To date, we’ve made more than 800 notifications of attempted nation-state attacks to AccountGuard customers.

We hope all governments, companies and advocacy groups will consider joining the Paris Peace Call for Trust & Security in Cyberspace and that all companies will consider joining the Cybersecurity Tech Accord. These are two important initiatives that aim to keep the internet safer from the types of malign activity we’re discussing today.

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Phishing attacks can wreak havoc on your customers and your revenues; here’s how to prevent them

You already know that email is the number one attack vector for cybercriminals. But what you might not know is that without a standard email security protocol called Domain Message Authentication, Reporting, and Conformance (DMARC), your organization is open to the phishing attacks that target your customers, crater your email deliverability rates, and crush your email-based revenue streams.

For all the utility of email, which remains the ultimate app for business collaboration and communication, it does have a serious flaw: the ability for a bad actor to pretend to be someone else in an email message. This can be done through one of two attack techniques, spoofing and impersonation. Spoofing is when the sender is attempting to send mail from, or on behalf of, the exact target domain. Impersonation is when the sender if attempting to send mail that is a lookalike, or visually similar, to a targeted domain, targeted user, or targeted brand. When cybercriminals hijack your brand identity, especially your legitimate domains, the phishing attacks they launch against your customers, marketing prospects, and other businesses and consumers can be catastrophic for them—and your business.

Email-based brand spoofing and impersonations surged 250 percent in 2018, with consumers now losing $172 billion to these and other internet scams on an annual basis. More than 90 percent of businesses have been hit by such impersonations, with average losses from successful attacks now standing at $2 million—with an additional $7.9 million in costs when they result in a data breach.

DMARC can help you take control of who can send email messages on your behalf, eliminating the ability for cybercriminals to use your domain to send their illegitimate messages. In addition to blocking fake messages from reaching customers, it helps prevent your business-to-business customers from partner invoice scams like the kind that recently defrauded one large, publicly traded business that lost $45 million. Not a good look for your brand, and a sure way to lose your customers, partners, and brand reputation.

But to protect your corporate domains and prevent executive spoofing of your employees, DMARC must be implemented properly across all your domains and subdomains. And you’ll want your supply chain to do the same to protect your company and partners from such scams. Today, 50 percent of attacks involve “island hopping,” spoofing or impersonating one trusted organization to attack another within the same business ecosystem.

Great, but what exactly is DMARC?

For those not yet familiar with the term, DMARC acts as the policy layer for email authentication technologies already widely in use—including Sender Policy Framework (SPF) and DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM).

At its most essential, DMARC gives organizations control over who is allowed to send emails on their behalf. It allows email receiver systems to recognize when an email is not coming from a specific brand’s approved domains—and gives guidance to the receiver about what to do with those unauthenticated email messages. DMARC with a p=quarantine or p=reject policy is required to block those illegitimate email messages from ever reaching their targets.

Today, 57 percent of consumer email in industries such as healthcare and retail are now fraudulent. Consumer-focused brand impersonations are up 11 times in the last five years, 80 percent involving email. In 2018, the IC3 received 20,373 BEC/E-mail Account Compromise (EAC) complaints with adjusted losses of over $1.2 billion. Those attacks target your accounting, payroll, and HR departments, so your outbound marketing programs can become toxic to recipients, obliterating your outbound email programs and the revenue they generate.

Microsoft support for email authentication and DMARC

As the vast majority of businesses continue to migrate to capable and robust cloud platforms such as Office 365, a new generation of cybercriminal organizations is rapidly innovating its methods to find nefarious new ways to circumvent the considerable security controls built into these platforms. Unfortunately, some organizations may not realize that they should fully implement DMARC to augment the security benefit of Office 365 email authentication.

Microsoft has implemented support for DMARC across all of its email platforms. This means that when someone sends an email to a Microsoft mailbox on a domain that has published a DMARC record with the reject policy, it will only deliver authenticated email to the mailbox, eliminating spoofing of email domains.

If you use Office 365 but aren’t utilizing custom domains, i.e. you use onmicrosoft.com, you don’t need to do anything else to configure or implement DMARC for your organization. But if you have custom domains, or you’re using on-premises Exchange servers, in addition to Office 365, you’ll need to implement DMARC for outbound mail. All of which is straightforward but implementing it across your entire email ecosystem requires some strategy. To ensure your corporate domains are protected, you’ll need to first publish a DMARC record in DNS with a policy of reject. Microsoft uses Agari’s DMARC reporting tool to enhance protection of Microsoft domains from being used in phishing attacks.

Read more about how Microsoft uses Agari to protect its domain and how that is used to validate email in Office 365 in this Microsoft documentation.

The rise of automated, hosted email authentication

The truth is, properly implementing DMARC means you need to identify every single one of your domains and subdomains, across all business units and outside partners—not just the ones you know to send email. That’s because any domain can be spoofed or impersonated, which means every domain should be DMARC-protected to make sure email receiver infrastructures can assess whether incoming messages purporting to come from any of your domains are legit. Brand protection that only covers some domains isn’t really brand protection at all.

The task of identifying and onboarding thousands of domains controlled by multiple business units, outside agencies, and other external partners, both on Office 365 and off, can be daunting. As a result, many organizations may discover that working with a DMARC provider that can fully automate the implementation process across all these parties plus supply channel partners is their best chance for success. This is especially true for those that offer fully hosted email authentication (DMARC, SPF, and DKIM) to simplify the otherwise tedious and time-consuming process involved with preventing brand impersonations—including ones that leverage domain spoofing.

3 steps to get started with DMARC

The good news is that DMARC is supported by 2.5 billion email inboxes worldwide, and more are joining these ranks every day. But unfortunately, even among organizations with DMARC records assigned to their domains, few have them set to p=reject enforcement. As it stands now, nearly 90 percent of Fortune 500 businesses remain unprotected against email-based spoofing attacks, putting their customers, partners, and other businesses at risk for phishing.

When DMARC is implemented using email ecosystem management solutions, organizations have seen phishing emails sent by fraudsters seeking to spoof them drop to near zero. According to Forrester Research, organizations have also seen email conversion rates climb on average 10 percent, leading to an average $4 million boost in revenues thanks to increased email engagement.

While it’s no small task, there are three steps that will help you move forward with DMARC and get started:

  1. Create a new DMARC record with specific policies to protect your organization from spoofing attacks targeting your employees, customers, prospects, and more. Note that the policy must be a p=reject to prevent unauthorized mail from being received.
  2. Download Getting Started with DMARC, a special guide designed to provide an overview of DMARC and best practice resources.
  3. Request a free trial to see how Agari can help implement DMARC on Office 365 at your organization. As a member of the Microsoft Intelligent Security Association (MISA), and provider of DMARC implementation for more domains than any other provider, Agari offers a free trial to Office 365 users looking to protect their customers, employees, and partners from phishing-based brand spoofing attacks. Given the threat from impersonation scams, and the benefits that come from employing the right approaches to reducing it, don’t be surprised if DMARC-based email authentication jumps to the top of the to-do list for a growing number of businesses. With luck, brand imposters will never know what hit them.

Bookmark the Security blog to keep up with our expert coverage on security matters. Also, follow us at @MSFTSecurity for the latest news and updates on cybersecurity.

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Zscaler Partner of the Year award recognizes Microsoft commitment to helping customers secure their environments

Last week at Zscaler’s user conference, Zenith Live, Microsoft received Zscaler’s Technology Partner of the Year Award in the Impact category. The award was given to Microsoft for the depth and breadth of integrations we’ve collaborated with Zscaler on and the positive feedback received from customers about these integrations.

Together with Zscaler—a Microsoft Intelligent Security Association (MISA) member—we’re focused on providing our joint customers with secure, fast access to the cloud for every user. Since partnering with Zscaler, we’ve delivered several integrations that help our customers better secure their environments, including:

  • Azure Active Directory (Azure AD) integration to extend conditional access policies to Zscaler applications to validate user access to cloud-based applications. We also announced support for user provisioning of Zscaler applications to enable automated, policy-based provisioning and deprovisioning of user accounts with Azure AD.
  • Microsoft Intune integration that allows IT administrators to provision Zscaler applications to specific Azure AD users or groups within the Intune console and configure connections by using the existing Intune VPN profile workflow.
  • Microsoft Cloud App Security integration to discover and manage access to Shadow IT in an organization. Zscaler can be leveraged to send traffic data to Microsoft’s Cloud Access Security Broker (CASB) to assess cloud services against risk and compliance requirements before making access control decisions for the discovered cloud apps.

“We’re excited to see customers use Zscaler and Microsoft solutions together to deliver fast, secure, and direct access to the applications they need. The Technology Partner of the Year Award is a testament of Microsoft’s commitment to helping customers better secure their environments.”
—Punit Minocha, Vice President of Business Development at Zscaler

“The close collaboration between our teams and deep integration across Zscaler and Microsoft solutions help our joint customers be more secure and ensure their users stay productive. We’re pleased to partner with Zscaler and honored to be named Zscaler’s Technology Partner of the Year.”
—Alex Simons, Corporate Vice President of Program Management at Microsoft

We’re thrilled to be Zscaler’s Technology Partner of the Year in the Impact category and look forward to our continued partnership and what Zscaler.

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Automated incident response in Office 365 Advanced Threat Protection now generally available

Security teams responsible for investigating and responding to incidents often deal with a massive number of signals from widely disparate sources. As a result, rapid and efficient incident response continues to be the biggest challenge facing security teams today. The sheer volume of these signals, combined with an ever-growing digital estate of organizations, means that a lot of critical alerts miss getting the timely attention they deserve. Security teams need help to scale better, be more efficient, focus on the right issues, and deal with incidents in a timely manner.

This is why I’m excited to announce the general availability of Automated Incident Response in Office 365 Advanced Threat Protection (ATP). Applying these powerful automation capabilities to investigation and response workflows can dramatically improve the effectiveness and efficiency of your organization’s security teams.

A day in the life of a security analyst

To give you an idea of the complexity that security teams deal with in the absence of automation, consider the following typical workflow that these teams go through when investigating alerts:

Infographic showing these steps: Alert, Analyze, Investigate, Assess impact, Contain, and Respond.

And as they go through this flow for every single alert—potentially hundreds in a week—it can quickly become overwhelming. In addition, the analysis and investigation often require correlating signals across multiple different systems. This can make effective and timely response very difficult and costly. There are just too many alerts to investigate and signals to correlate for today’s lean security teams.

To address these challenges, earlier this year we announced the preview of powerful automation capabilities to help improve the efficiency of security teams significantly. The security playbooks we introduced address some of the most common threats that security teams investigate in their day-to-day jobs and are modeled on their typical workflows.

This story from Ithaca College reflects some of the feedback we received from customers of the preview of these capabilities, including:

“The incident detection and response capabilities we get with Office 365 ATP give us far more coverage than we’ve had before. This is a really big deal for us.”
—Jason Youngers, Director and Information Security Officer, Ithaca College

Two categories of automation now generally available

Today, we’re announcing the general availability of two categories of automation—automatic and manually triggered investigations:

  1. Automatic investigations that are triggered when alerts are raisedAlerts and related playbooks for the following scenarios are now available:
    • User-reported phishing emails—When a user reports what they believe to be a phishing email, an alert is raised triggering an automatic investigation.
    • User clicks a malicious link with changed verdict—An alert is raised when a user clicks a URL, which is wrapped by Office 365 ATP Safe Links, and is determined to be malicious through detonation (change in verdict). Or if the user clicks through the Office 365 ATP Safe Links warning pages an alert is also raised. In both cases, the automated investigation kicks in as soon as the alert is raised.
    • Malware detected post-delivery (Malware Zero-Hour Auto Purge (ZAP))—When Office 365 ATP detects and/or ZAPs an email with malware, an alert triggers an automatic investigation.
    • Phish detected post-delivery (Phish ZAP)—When Office 365 ATP detects and/or ZAPs a phishing email previously delivered to a user’s mailbox, an alert triggers an automatic investigation.
  1. Manually triggered investigations that follow an automated playbook—Security teams can trigger automated investigations from within the Threat Explorer at any time for any email and related content (attachment or URLs).

Rich security playbooks

In each of the above cases, the automation follows rich security playbooks. These playbooks are essentially a series of carefully logged steps to comprehensively investigate an alert and offer a set of recommended actions for containment and mitigation. They correlate similar emails sent or received within the organization and any suspicious activities for relevant users. Flagged activities for users might include mail forwarding, mail delegation, Office 365 Data Loss Prevention (DLP) violations, or suspicious email sending patterns.

In addition, aligned with our Microsoft Threat Protection promise, these playbooks also integrate with signals and detections from Microsoft Cloud App Security and Microsoft Defender ATP. For instance, anomalies detected by Microsoft Cloud App Security are ingested as part of these playbooks. And the playbooks also trigger device investigations with Microsoft Defender ATP (for malware playbooks) where appropriate.

Let’s look at each of these automation scenarios in detail:

User reports a phishing email—This represents one of the most common flows investigated today. The alert is raised when a user reports a phish email using the Report message add-in in Outlook or Outlook on the web and triggers an automatic investigation using the User Reported Message playbook.

Screenshot of a phishing email being investigated.

User clicks on a malicious linkA very common vector used by attackers is to weaponize a link after delivery of an email. With Office 365 ATP Safe Links protection, we can detect such attacks when links are detonated at time-of-click. A user clicking such links and/or overriding the Safe Links warning pages is at risk of compromise. The alert raised when a malicious URL is clicked triggers an automatic investigation using the URL verdict change playbook to correlate any similar emails and any suspicious activities for the relevant users across Office 365.

Image of a clicked URL being assigned as malicious.

Email messages containing malware removed after delivery—One of the critical pillars of protection in Office 365 Exchange Online Protection (EOP) and Office 365 ATP is our capability to ZAP malicious emails. Email messages containing malware removed after delivery alert trigger an investigation into similar emails and related user actions in Office 365 for the period when the emails were present in a user’s inbox. In addition, the playbook also triggers an investigation into the relevant devices for the users by leveraging the native integration with Microsoft Defender ATP.

Screenshot showing malware being zapped.

Email messages containing phish removed after deliveryWith the rise in phishing attack vectors, Office 365 EOP and Office 365 ATP’s ability to ZAP malicious emails detected after delivery is a critical protection feature. The alert raised triggers an investigation into similar emails and related user actions in Office 365 for the period when the emails were present in a user’s inbox and also evaluates if the user clicked any of the links.

Screenshot of a phish URL being zapped.

Automated investigation triggered from within the Threat Explorer—As part of existing hunting or security operations workflows, Security teams can also trigger automated investigations on emails (and related URLs and attachments) from within the Threat Explorer. This provides Security Operations (SecOps) a powerful mechanism to gain insights into any threats and related mitigations or containment recommendations from Office 365.

Screenshot of an action being taken in the Office 365 Security and Compliance dash. An email is being investigated.

Try out these capabilities

Based on feedback from our public preview of these automation capabilities, we extended the Office 365 ATP events and alerts available in the Office 365 Management API to include links to these automated investigations and related artifacts. This helps security teams integrate these automation capabilities into existing security workflow solutions, such as SIEMs.

These capabilities are available as part of the following offerings. We hope you’ll give it a try.

Bringing SecOps efficiency by connecting the dots between disparate threat signals is a key promise of Microsoft Threat Protection. The integration across Microsoft Threat Protection helps bring broad and valuable insights that are critical to the incident response process. Get started with a Microsoft Threat Protection trial if you want to experience the comprehensive and integrated protection that Microsoft Threat Protection provides.

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Hacker movies that have an echo of truth

Films about hacks and cyberattacks have been popular for decades. These movies helped create the image of the hacker genius — just think of Stanley Jobson in “Swordfish.”

There is “Hackers,” in which a group of high schoolers access the mainframe of an oil company and discover evidence of embezzlement and “The Net,” about a woman (Sandra Bullock) whose identity is stolen.

You may think Hollywood depictions of hacking bear no resemblance to real life, but in each of the films below, there is an echo of truth in the fiction.

[Subscribe to Microsoft on the Issues for more on the topics that matter most.]

 “The Italian Job” (1969)

The Italian Job

A classic caper on a list of hacker movies. This story of British bank robbers undertaking a job in Turin, Italy, offers a surprising nod of things to come.

How do Michael Caine and his team plan to escape from this city? By hacking its traffic light system and causing widespread gridlock. This leads to the famous Mini Cooper getaway scene.

From Saudi Arabia to South Africa, billions of dollars are being invested in smart city projects. Some researchers estimate that spending on smart cities will reach $27.5 billion by 2023. It makes protecting those cities reliant on technology from disruption ever more crucial.

“WarGames” (1983)

At the height of the Cold War, a young hacker (Matthew Broderick) breaks into a US military supercomputer and comes close to starting a nuclear war. He thinks he’s playing a game based on a simulation, but this is not a drill.

According to a 2016 study by ISACA and RSA Conference, 74 percent of the world’s businesses expect to be hacked each year. And the economic loss due to cybercrime is estimated to reach $3 trillion by 2020.  It is one of the reasons that Microsoft has called for a Digital Geneva Convention to help protect cyberspace in times of peace.

“Sneakers” (1992)

Sneakers

This tech thriller, which spans from the late 1960s to the more computer-literate 1990s, boasts a heavyweight cast that includes Robert Redford and Sidney Poitier. A team of security specialists is approached by the NSA and commissioned to locate a mysterious black box. This team, propelled into a world of espionage, is soon hunted by rogue agents. The box turns out to be the key to cracking all known encryption and is, the team realizes, too powerful to fall into the wrong hands.

In 1992, the idea that something could break all known encryption sounded scary and a little implausible. Today, the existence of such technology is more likely thanks to quantum computing.

According to Martin Giles of the MIT Technology Review, quantum computers are “a security threat that we’re still totally unprepared for,” and it could be 20 years before cybersecurity catches up. Working closely with the United States National Institute for Standards and Technology, Microsoft is engaged with the development of post-quantum cryptography that will be able to withstand quantum computer capabilities, while still working with existing protocols.

“Hackers” (1995)

Hackers

Starring Angelina Jolie and Jonny Lee Miller, “Hackers” is the story of a group of high school technology enthusiasts with codenames and complicated backstories. They hack into the mainframe of an oil company and discover evidence of embezzlement — but their activities are soon detected.

Robust cybersecurity is important for businesses and to the future of national economies, and it has become a priority for governments around the world. The Cybersecurity Tech Accord, announced by Microsoft in April 2018, is a public commitment among more than 100 global companies to protect and empower civilians online and help defend them against threats.

“The Net” (1995)

Sandra Bullock plays the lead role in this thriller that foreshadows one worry of the modern security landscape: identity theft.

Admittedly, in 1995, many important records were still paper-based, after all. Still, this is one of the central themes in the plot: Can Angela Bennett (Bullock) overcome a series of interconnected threats and regain her identity?

Today, secure passwords are a must. There is a wealth of personal data stored digitally that can all too easily compromise the security of your identity.

Cyberspace has become a battlefield and powerful cyberweapons are being used against civilians. Tools and Weapons, by Microsoft President Brad Smith and Carol Ann Browne, looks at how the world can respond. To read more and pre-order the book, visit Tools and Weapons. And follow @MSFTIssues on Twitter.

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Deep learning rises: new methods for detecting malicious PowerShell scripts

Scientific and technological advancements in deep learning, a category of algorithms within the larger framework of machine learning, provide new opportunities for development of state-of-the art protection technologies. Deep learning methods are impressively outperforming traditional methods on such tasks as image and text classification. With these developments, there’s great potential for building novel threat detection methods using deep learning.

Machine learning algorithms work with numbers, so objects like images, documents, or emails are converted into numerical form through a step called feature engineering, which, in traditional machine learning methods, requires a significant amount of human effort. With deep learning, algorithms can operate on relatively raw data and extract features without human intervention.

At Microsoft, we make significant investments in pioneering machine learning that inform our security solutions with actionable knowledge through data, helping deliver intelligent, accurate, and real-time protection against a wide range of threats. In this blog, we present an example of a deep learning technique that was initially developed for natural language processing (NLP) and now adopted and applied to expand our coverage of detecting malicious PowerShell scripts, which continue to be a critical attack vector. These deep learning-based detections add to the industry-leading endpoint detection and response capabilities in Microsoft Defender Advanced Threat Protection (Microsoft Defender ATP).

Word embedding in natural language processing

Keeping in mind that our goal is to classify PowerShell scripts, we briefly look at how text classification is approached in the domain of natural language processing. An important step is to convert words to vectors (tuples of numbers) that can be consumed by machine learning algorithms. A basic approach, known as one-hot encoding, first assigns a unique integer to each word in the vocabulary, then represents each word as a vector of 0s, with 1 at the integer index corresponding to that word. Although useful in many cases, the one-hot encoding has significant flaws. A major issue is that all words are equidistant from each other, and semantic relations between words are not reflected in geometric relations between the corresponding vectors.

Contextual embedding is a more recent approach that overcomes these limitations by learning compact representations of words from data under the assumption that words that frequently appear in similar context tend to bear similar meaning. The embedding is trained on large textual datasets like Wikipedia. The Word2vec algorithm, an implementation of this technique, is famous not only for translating semantic similarity of words to geometric similarity of vectors, but also for preserving polarity relations between words. For example, in Word2vec representation:

Madrid – Spain + Italy ≈ Rome

Embedding of PowerShell scripts

Since training a good embedding requires a significant amount of data, we used a large and diverse corpus of 386K distinct unlabeled PowerShell scripts. The Word2vec algorithm, which is typically used with human languages, provides similarly meaningful results when applied to PowerShell language. To accomplish this, we split the PowerShell scripts into tokens, which then allowed us to use the Word2vec algorithm to assign a vectorial representation to each token .

Figure 1 shows a 2-dimensional visualization of the vector representations of 5,000 randomly selected tokens, with some tokens of interest highlighted. Note how semantically similar tokens are placed near each other. For example, the vectors representing -eq, -ne and -gt, which in PowerShell are aliases for “equal”, “not-equal” and “greater-than”, respectively, are clustered together. Similarly, the vectors representing the allSigned, remoteSigned, bypass, and unrestricted tokens, all of which are valid values for the execution policy setting in PowerShell, are clustered together.

Figure 1. 2D visualization of 5,000 tokens using Word2vec

Examining the vector representations of the tokens, we found a few additional interesting relationships.

Token similarity: Using the Word2vec representation of tokens, we can identify commands in PowerShell that have an alias. In many cases, the token closest to a given command is its alias. For example, the representations of the token Invoke-Expression and its alias IEX are closest to each other. Two additional examples of this phenomenon are the Invoke-WebRequest and its alias IWR, and the Get-ChildItem command and its alias GCI.

We also measured distances within sets of several tokens. Consider, for example, the four tokens $i, $j, $k and $true (see the right side of Figure 2). The first three are usually used to represent a numeric variable and the last naturally represents a Boolean constant. As expected, the $true token mismatched the others – it was the farthest (using the Euclidean distance) from the center of mass of the group.

More specific to the semantics of PowerShell in cybersecurity, we checked the representations of the tokens: bypass, normal, minimized, maximized, and hidden (see the left side of Figure 2). While the first token is a legal value for the ExecutionPolicy flag in PowerShell, the rest are legal values for the WindowStyle flag. As expected, the vector representation of bypass was the farthest from the center of mass of the vectors representing all other four tokens.

Figure 2. 3D visualization of selected tokens

Linear Relationships: Since Word2vec preserves linear relationships, computing linear combinations of the vectorial representations results in semantically meaningful results. Below are a few interesting relationships we found:

high – $false + $true ≈’ low
‘-eq’ – $false + $true ‘≈ ‘-neq’
DownloadFile – $destfile + $str ≈’ DownloadString ‘
Export-CSV’ – $csv + $html ‘≈ ‘ConvertTo-html’
‘Get-Process’-$processes+$services ‘≈ ‘Get-Service’

In each of the above expressions, the sign ≈ signifies that the vector on the right side is the closest (among all the vectors representing tokens in the vocabulary) to the vector that is the result of the computation on the left side.

Detection of malicious PowerShell scripts with deep learning

We used the Word2vec embedding of the PowerShell language presented in the previous section to train deep learning models capable of detecting malicious PowerShell scripts. The classification model is trained and validated using a large dataset of PowerShell scripts that are labeled “clean” or “malicious,” while the embeddings are trained on unlabeled data. The flow is presented in Figure 3.

Figure 3 High-level overview of our model generation process

Using GPU computing in Microsoft Azure, we experimented with a variety of deep learning and traditional ML models. The best performing deep learning model increases the coverage (for a fixed low FP rate of 0.1%) by 22 percentage points compared to traditional ML models. This model, presented in Figure 4, combines several deep learning building blocks such as Convolutional Neural Networks (CNNs) and Long Short-Term Memory Recurrent Neural Networks (LSTM-RNN). Neural networks are ML algorithms inspired by biological neural systems like the human brain. In addition to the pretrained embedding described here, the model is provided with character-level embedding of the script.

Figure 4 Network architecture of the best performing model

Real-world application of deep learning to detecting malicious PowerShell

The best performing deep learning model is applied at scale using Microsoft ML.Net technology and ONNX format for deep neural networks to the PowerShell scripts observed by Microsoft Defender ATP through the AMSI interface. This model augments the suite of ML models and heuristics used by Microsoft Defender ATP to protect against malicious usage of scripting languages.

Since its first deployment, this deep learning model detected with high precision many cases of malicious and red team PowerShell activities, some undiscovered by other methods. The signal obtained through PowerShell is combined with a wide range of ML models and signals of Microsoft Defender ATP to detect cyberattacks.

The following are examples of malicious PowerShell scripts that deep learning can confidently detect but can be challenging for other detection methods:

Figure 5. Heavily obfuscated malicious script

Figure 6. Obfuscated script that downloads and runs payload

Figure 7. Script that decrypts and executes malicious code

Enhancing Microsoft Defender ATP with deep learning

Deep learning methods significantly improve detection of threats. In this blog, we discussed a concrete application of deep learning to a particularly evasive class of threats: malicious PowerShell scripts. We have and will continue to develop deep learning-based protections across multiple capabilities in Microsoft Defender ATP.

Development and productization of deep learning systems for cyber defense require large volumes of data, computations, resources, and engineering effort. Microsoft Defender ATP combines data collected from millions of endpoints with Microsoft computational resources and algorithms to provide industry-leading protection against attacks.

Stronger detection of malicious PowerShell scripts and other threats on endpoints using deep learning mean richer and better-informed security through Microsoft Threat Protection, which provides comprehensive security for identities, endpoints, email and data, apps, and infrastructure.

Shay Kels and Amir Rubin
Microsoft Defender ATP team

Additional references:

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One simple action you can take to prevent 99.9 percent of attacks on your accounts

There are over 300 million fraudulent sign-in attempts to our cloud services every day. Cyberattacks aren’t slowing down, and it’s worth noting that many attacks have been successful without the use of advanced technology. All it takes is one compromised credential or one legacy application to cause a data breach. This underscores how critical it is to ensure password security and strong authentication. Read on to learn about common vulnerabilities and the single action you can take to protect your accounts from attacks.

Animated image showing the number of malware attacks and data breaches organizations face every day. 4,000 daily ransomware attacks. 300,000,000 fraudulent sign-in attempts. 167,000,000 daily malware attacks. 81% of breaches are caused by credential theft. 73% of passwords are duplicates. 50% of employees use apps that aren't approved by the enterprise. 99.9% of attacks can be blocked with multi-factor authentication.

Common vulnerabilities

In a recent paper from the SANS Software Security Institute, the most common vulnerabilities include:

  • Business email compromise, where an attacker gains access to a corporate email account, such as through phishing or spoofing, and uses it to exploit the system and steal money. Accounts that are protected with only a password are easy targets.
  • Legacy protocols can create a major vulnerability because applications that use basic protocols, such as SMTP, were not designed to manage Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA). So even if you require MFA for most use cases, attackers will search for opportunities to use outdated browsers or email applications to force the use of less secure protocols.
  • Password reuse, where password spray and credential stuffing attacks come into play. Common passwords and credentials compromised by attackers in public breaches are used against corporate accounts to try to gain access. Considering that up to 73 percent of passwords are duplicates, this has been a successful strategy for many attackers and it’s easy to do.

What you can do to protect your company

You can help prevent some of these attacks by banning the use of bad passwords, blocking legacy authentication, and training employees on phishing. However, one of the best things you can do is to just turn on MFA. By providing an extra barrier and layer of security that makes it incredibly difficult for attackers to get past, MFA can block over 99.9 percent of account compromise attacks. With MFA, knowing or cracking the password won’t be enough to gain access. To learn more, read Your Pa$$word doesn’t matter.

MFA is easier than you think

According to the SANS Software Security Institute there are two primary obstacles to adopting MFA implementations today:

  1. Misconception that MFA requires external hardware devices.
  2. Concern about potential user disruption or concern over what may break.

Matt Bromiley, SANS Digital Forensics and Incident Response instructor, says, “It doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing approach. There are different approaches your organization could use to limit the disruption while moving to a more advanced state of authentication.” These include a role-based or by application approach—starting with a small group and expanding from there. Bret Arsenault shares his advice on transitioning to a passwordless model in Preparing your enterprise to eliminate passwords.

Take a leap and go passwordless

Industry protocols such as WebAuthn and CTAP2, ratified in 2018, have made it possible to remove passwords from the equation altogether. These standards, collectively known as the FIDO2 standard, ensure that user credentials are protected end-to-end and strengthen the entire security chain. The use of biometrics has become more mainstream, popularized on mobile devices and laptops, so it’s a familiar technology for many users and one that is often preferred to passwords anyway. Passwordless authentication technologies are not only more convenient for people but are extremely difficult and costly for hackers to compromise. Learn more about Microsoft passwordless authentication solutions in a variety of form factors to meet user needs.

Convince your boss

Download the SANS white paper Bye Bye Passwords: New Ways to Authenticate to read more on guidance for companies ready to take the next step to better protect their environments from password risk. Remember, talk is easy, action gets results!

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Protect yourself against ‘wormable’ BlueKeep vulnerability

Worms are the cause of many cyber headaches. They can easily replicate themselves to spread malicious malware to other computers in your network. As the field responders providing Microsoft enterprise customers with onsite assistance to serious cybersecurity threats, our Detection and Response Team (DART) has seen quite a few worms. If you’ve met the DART Team, then you know your worms are our concern and that’s why we keep an eye out for BlueKeep.

Protect against BlueKeep

This summer, the DART team has been preparing for CVE-2019-0708, colloquially known as BlueKeep, and has some advice on how you can protect your network. The BlueKeep vulnerability is “wormable,” meaning it creates the risk of a large-scale outbreak due to its ability to replicate and propagate, similar to Conficker and WannaCry. Conficker has been widely estimated to have impacted 10- to 12-million computer systems worldwide. WannaCry was responsible for approximately $300 million in damages at just one global enterprise.

To protect against BlueKeep, we strongly recommend you apply the Windows Update, which includes a patch for the vulnerability. If you use Remote Desktop in your environment, it’s very important to apply all the updates. If you have Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) listening on the internet, we also strongly encourage you to move the RDP listener behind some type of second factor authentication, such as VPN, SSL Tunnel, or RDP gateway.

You also want to enable Network Level Authentication (NLA), which is a mitigation to prevent un-authenticated access to the RDP tunnel. NLA forces users to authenticate before connecting to remote systems, which dramatically decreases the chance of success for RDP-based worms. The DART team highly recommends you enable NLA regardless of this patch, as it mitigates a whole slew of other attacks against RDP.

If you’re already aware of the BlueKeep remediation methods, but are thinking about testing it before going live, we recommend that you deploy the patch. It’s important to note that the exploit code is now publicly and widely available to everyone, including malicious actors. By exploiting a vulnerable RDP system, attackers will also have access to all user credentials used on the RDP system.

Why the urgency?

Via open source telemetry, we see more than 400,000 endpoints lacking any form of network level authentication, which puts each of these systems potentially at risk from a worm-based weaponization of the BlueKeep vulnerability.

The timeline between patch release and the appearance of a worm outbreak is difficult to predict and varies from case to case. As always, the DART team is ready for the worst-case scenario. We also want to help our customers be prepared, so we’re sharing a few previous worms and the timeline from patch to attack. Hopefully, this will encourage everyone to patch immediately.

Chart showing vulnerability, patch release, and outbreak. Vulnerability: MS08-067; Patch release: October 23, 2008; Outbreak: late December 2008. Vulnerability: MS17-010; Patch release: March 14, 2017; Outbreak: May 12, 2017. Vulnerability: CVE-2019-0708; Patch release: May 13, 2019; Outbreak column shows three question marks.

Learn more

To learn more about DART, our engagements, and how they are delivered by experienced cybersecurity professionals who devote 100 percent of their time to providing cybersecurity solutions to customers worldwide, please contact your account executive. Bookmark the Security blog to keep up with our expert coverage on security matters. Also, follow us at @MSFTSecurity for the latest news and updates on cybersecurity.

This document is for informational purposes only and Microsoft makes no warranties, express or implied, in this blog.

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General availability for the Azure Security Center for IoT announced

As organizations pursue digital transformation by connecting vital equipment or creating new connected products, IoT deployments will get bigger and more common. In fact, IDC forecasts that IoT will continue to grow at double digit rates until IoT spending surpasses $1 trillion in 2022. As these IoT deployments come online, newly connected devices will expand the attack surface available to attackers, creating opportunities to target the valuable data generated by IoT.

Organizations understand the risks and are rightly worried about IoT. Bain’s research shows that security concerns are the top reason organizations have slowed or paused IoT rollouts*. Because IoT requires integrating many different technologies (heterogenous devices must be linked to IoT cloud services that connect to analytics services and business applications), organizations face the challenge of securing both the pieces of their IoT solution and the connections between those pieces. Attackers target weak spots; even one weak device configuration, cloud service, or admin account can provide a way into your solution. Your organization must monitor for threats and misconfigurations across all parts of your IoT solution: devices, cloud services, the supporting infrastructure, and the admin accounts who access them.

To give your organization IoT threat protection and security posture management across your entire IoT solution, we’re announcing the general availability of Azure Security Center for IoT. Azure Security Center allows you to protect your end-to-end IoT deployment by identifying and responding to emerging threats, as well as finding issues in your configurations before attackers can use them to compromise your deployment. As organizations use Azure Security Center for IoT to manage their security roadblocks, they remove the barriers keeping them from business transformation:

“With Azure Security Center for IoT, we can both address very real IoT threat models with the velocity of Azure and gain management control over the fastest scaling part of our business, which allows me to focus on delivering outcomes rather than hot fixing devices.” – Alex Kreilein, CISO RapidDeploy

Building secure IoT solutions with Azure Security Center

Securing IoT is challenging for many reasons: IoT deployments are complicated, creating opportunity for integration errors that attackers can exploit; IoT devices are heterogenous and often lack proper security measures; organizations may not have the skillsets or SecOps headcount to take on a new IoT security workload; and IoT deployments are difficult to monitor using traditional IT security tools. When organizations choose Microsoft for their IoT deployments, however, they get secure-by-design devices and services such as Azure Sphere and IoT Hub, end-to-end integration and monitoring from device to cloud, and the expertise from Microsoft and our partners to build a secure solution that meets their exact use case.

Azure Security Center for IoT builds on Microsoft’s secure-by-design IoT services with threat protection and security posture management designed for securing entire IoT deployments, including Microsoft and 3rd party devices. Azure Security Center is the first IoT security service from a major cloud provider that enables organizations to prevent, detect, and help remediate potential attacks on all the different components that make up an IoT deployment: from small sensors, to edge computing devices and gateways, to Azure IoT Hub, and on to the compute, storage, databases, and AI/ML workloads that organizations connect to their IoT deployments. This end-to-end protection is vital to secure IoT deployments. Although devices may be a common target for attackers, the services that store your data and the admins who manage your IoT solution are also valuable targets.

An image showing the Overview tab in Azure Security Center.

As IoT threats evolve due to creative attackers analyzing the new devices, use cases, and applications the industry creates, Microsoft’s unique threat intelligence, sourced from the more than 6 trillion signals that Microsoft collects every day, keeps your organization ahead of attackers. Azure Security Center creates a list of potential threats, ranked by importance, so security pros and IoT admins can remediate problems across devices, IoT services, connected Azure services, and the admins who use them.

Azure Security Center also creates ranked lists of possible misconfigurations and insecure settings, allowing IoT admins and security pros to fix the most important issues in their IoT security posture first. To create these security posture suggestions, Azure Security Center draws from Microsoft’s unique threat intelligence, as well as the industry standards. Customers can also port their data into SIEMs such as Azure Sentinel, allowing security pros to combine IoT security data with data from across the organization for artificial intelligence or advanced analysis.

Organizations can monitor their entire IoT solution, stay ahead of evolving threats, and fix configuration issues before they become threats. When combined with Microsoft’s secure-by-design devices, services, and the expertise we share with you and your partners, Azure Security Center for IoT provides an important way to reduce the risk of IoT while achieving your business goals. 

Next steps

*Used with permission from Bain & Company