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Are admin rights the biggest threat to enterprise security?

Contributor:
Andrew Avanessian
Date published
2/8/2016 9:44:44 AM

Last week saw the launch of the latest Microsoft Vulnerabilities Report, Avecto’s leading research project into the security bulletins issued by the software giant over the past 12 months. Now in its third year, the report has consistently provided intriguing insight into today’s threat landscape, the common attack vectors and the products within the Microsoft portfolio that cause IT departments the most sleepless nights.

This year, one of the most compelling statistics in the report is the spike in the number of vulnerabilities affecting the Microsoft OS. A total of 524 vulnerabilities were identified, up 52% on last year.

Of those, 251 were found to be Critical (needing urgent attention) also up 5% year on year. These figures are a stark reminder of the size and scope of the challenge organizations now face in securing the corporate network. With a thriving cybercrime economy fuelling vulnerability research and criminal gangs offering tens of thousands of dollars for Zero Days, the numbers are only going to increase.

So why are admin rights still allowed to reign?

Over privileged users continue to be one of the biggest threats to organizations. The report finds that 86% of Critical vulnerabilities affecting Windows and a staggering 99.5% impacting Internet Explorer could be mitigated by removing admin rights alone.

This simple security measure, cited by Gartner as the “single most important way to improve endpoint security”, could be the difference between an organization being breached and a user being inconvenienced. Of course, no one solution can totally protect your endpoints, but in 2016 no organization should be allowing users to log on as an administrator, it just doesn’t stack up.

Last year was widely recognized as the “year of the breach”, as 12 months in which enterprise security was headline news across the globe. Privileged accounts were often a major factor in some of these breaches allowing attackers to easily gain access to systems, data and sensitive information. Another common entry point for attackers was via the web browser; a fact supported in this year’s report which found a total of 238 vulnerabilities affecting versions 6 to 11 of Internet Explorer. This  is another wake up call for organizations who could be just one click away from a breach.

2015 was also the year we were introduced to Windows 10, Microsoft’s most “secure operating system ever”. Though there has been major improvements to the security of Windows in this latest version, our research pointed to a considerable number of vulnerabilities impacting both Windows 10 and its Edge browser that could have been mitigated by removing admin rights.

One of the most important steps in securing an enterprise environment is getting the foundations right and I am still surprised by the number of global enterprises that don’t embrace the principle of least privilege. Removing admin rights is a very simple yet highly effective place to begin as the first step in any security strategy. The challenge then is striking the balance between security and user freedom – which I often talk about as the impossible compromise. This balance depends on the specific requirements of your organization, but any least privilege project will fail if the user experience is not fully considered.

For more information on this year’s report findings, you can download your copy of the Microsoft Vulnerabilities Report here.