Security Misconfiguration: Understanding and Mitigating The Hidden Threat

Security Misconfiguration

In 2019, Avinash Jain, a security researcher, detected a security misconfiguration in Atlassian JIRA, a widely used project management software by over 100,000 organizations and government agencies globally. 

This misconfiguration flaw allowed him to obtain confidential details about internal secret projects and employees’ personal information such as names and email addresses from these organizations. Shortly after the discovery, a member of the Atlassian community shared a post on how affected entities could address the problem.

The JIRA misconfiguration defect could have permitted anyone to access sensitive information through a simple search query. Unfortunately, such errors are commonplace and leave numerous organizations susceptible to severe cyberattacks and data breaches. In 2021, configuration errors were responsible for almost one-third of data breaches and are predicted to account for 99% of all firewall breaches until 2023.

It goes without saying that your organization must address this significant issue. What precisely is a security misconfiguration, and how can your organization identify, rectify, and prevent security misconfiguration errors? This guide will delve into these matters.

What is Security Misconfigurations?

Security misconfigurations occur when security settings are improperly configured or left at their default values, leaving systems and applications vulnerable to attacks. They can happen at any point in the technology stack, from operating systems and network devices to web applications and databases.

The consequences of security misconfigurations can be severe, including data breaches, system downtime, and loss of revenue. What makes security misconfigurations a hidden threat is that they are often caused by human error and can go undetected for long periods of time, making them a prime target for attackers looking for easy access to sensitive information.

These errors can happen at any level of the application stack, including:

  • Web or application servers
  • Databases
  • Network services
  • Custom code
  • Development platforms and frameworks
  • Storage
  • Virtual machines
  • Cloud containers
Security Misconfiguration

What Causes Security Misconfigurations?

A majority of configuration errors happen because system administrators fail to change the default configuration (or “out of the box” account settings) of a device or application.

For instance, a webmaster might retain the default configuration on a CMS application. Many automated attacks on these platforms rely on these default settings. Changing these settings can minimize the probability of attack. Leaving a temporary configuration in place can also result in misconfigurations and vulnerability

Other causes of security misconfiguration errors include:

Unpatched vulnerabilities

Threat actors take advantage of unpatched or outdated software to gain unauthorized access to enterprise systems, which can result in complete system compromise.

Unused pages and unnecessary services or features

Attackers can gain unauthorized access to enterprise applications or devices through unused pages or unnecessary features or services. If left unattended, these issues can lead to command injections, brute force attacks, and credential stuffing attacks.

Inadequate access controls

Threat actors can enter the network infrastructure by using default passwords, unused user accounts, or unused access permissions that administrators did not update or remove. Overly permissive access rules also allow attackers to cause malware attacks and data compromise.

Unprotected files and directories

Files and directories that lack strong security controls are vulnerable to cyberattacks. Attackers can identify applications and platforms that use easy-to-guess names and locations to garner valuable system information and orchestrate targeted attacks.

Poor coding practices and vulnerable XML files

Java web.xml files are often a breeding ground for security misconfigurations. Custom error pages or SSL may not be properly configured, or the code may be missing web-based access controls. These errors can allow attackers to access web application parts via non-SSL and launch session hijacking attacks.

Disabled antivirus

Users may temporarily disable antivirus software if it overrides a particular action, such as running an installer. If the user forgets to reactivate the antivirus after installation, the organization is left vulnerable to hacks and data breaches.

Inadequate hardware management

Hackers can access enterprise applications and data by exploiting unsecured ports, overly permissive network traffic rules, and inadequately patched and maintained hardware, such as routers, switches, and endpoints.

Types of Security Misconfigurations

Security misconfigurations can take many forms and can occur across different levels of an organization’s technology stack. Here are some common examples:

  1. Default Passwords: Passwords that are too simple or reused across multiple systems can allow attackers to gain access to sensitive data.
  2. Outdated Software: Failing to update software regularly can leave systems vulnerable to known exploits.
  3. Exposed Ports: Open ports on firewalls or network devices can provide attackers with easy access to systems and applications.
  4. Unsecured Cloud Services: Misconfigurations in cloud services, such as S3 buckets or Azure Blob Storage, can expose sensitive data to the public.
  5. Default Configurations: Leaving default configurations in place for systems or applications can create security gaps that attackers can exploit.

These misconfigurations can be exploited by attackers in various ways. For example, weak passwords can be guessed or brute-forced, while exposed ports can be used to gain unauthorized access to a network. Attackers can also use misconfigurations in cloud services to access sensitive data or spread malware.

Impact of Security Misconfigurations

Security configuration errors can create vulnerabilities that allow hackers and cybercriminals to exploit organizations. The following are some ways that such errors can harm companies:

Exposure of sensitive data

Security misconfiguration errors often result in unauthorized access to sensitive information. Almost 73% of organizations have at least one critical security misconfiguration that could expose sensitive data, systems, or services to attackers.

Directory traversal attacks

Web application directory listing allows threat actors to browse and access the file structure and discover its security vulnerabilities. They can exploit these vulnerabilities to modify parts of the application and even reverse-engineer it.

Attacks on mobile applications

Configuration mistakes are a significant issue with mobile applications as the business and presentation layers are not deployed on a proprietary server under the organization’s control. Instead, the code is deployed on a mobile device that attackers can physically access, modify, or reverse-engineer.

Remote attacks

Some critical misconfigurations allow attackers to access servers remotely and disable network and information security controls like firewalls and VPNs. Unused open administration ports also expose the application to remote attacks.

Unauthorized connections to the enterprise

Sometimes legacy applications try to communicate with non-existent applications, creating a security gap that allows attackers to establish a connection to the enterprise IT ecosystem.

Cloud misconfiguration errors

Cloud misconfiguration errors are increasingly prevalent, creating numerous security challenges for organizations. As many as 70% of security challenges in the cloud result from misconfigurations, leading to unauthorized application access.

These errors may result in the exposure of mission-critical information, loss of business, regulatory fines, and other penalties, as well as significant financial and reputational harm.

Mitigating Security Misconfigurations

Preventing security misconfigurations is key to ensuring the safety and security of an organization’s systems and data. Here are some best practices to follow:

  1. Never use default password: Passwords should be complex and unique, with regular password changes enforced. Multifactor authentication (MFA) should also be enabled where possible.
  2. Implementing least privilege policy: Everything off by default
  3. Use Secure Configuration Guides: Use configuration guides provided by vendors or industry standards organizations to ensure that systems and applications are configured securely.
  4. Configure Firewalls and Network Devices Correctly: Firewalls and network devices should be configured to limit access to only necessary traffic and services. Unneeded services should be disabled.
  5. Secure Cloud Services: Use cloud services with built-in security features, and ensure that services are properly configured and secured.

3 Security Misconfigurations

To identify and fix security misconfigurations, organizations can use various tools and techniques, including:

  1. Jessica Scanners by Paireds: Vulnerability scanners can help identify misconfigurations in systems and applications.
  2. Penetration Testing by Paireds: Penetration testing involves simulating a real-world attack to identify vulnerabilities and misconfigurations.
  3. Security Information and Event Management (SIEM) by Paireds: SIEM solutions can provide real-time monitoring and analysis of security events, helping to identify and respond to misconfigurations and potential security incidents.