Why securing credentials is more important than ever

Passwords. They’re the bane of our existence—whether you work in IT, IS or just have trouble remembering them all. Passwords may have originated as a security measure, but now, at least alone, they’re a liability. Why? Unintentional user negligence and intentional cybercriminal enterprise have rendered the username/password combo, otherwise known as credentials, practically moot.

Thanks to countless years of desks left unattended and phishing scams coercing users into entering their personal information, millions of credentials are readily available to be stolen, sold, and/or leaked online. That’s why credentials—or more importantly, the security measures we use to verify identity and grant access—need protecting now more than ever.

Unfortunately, many businesses continue to rely on outdated credential security models that leave their networks exposed—a situation only exacerbated by remote work.

Securing credentials for the 2022 threat landscape

Once upon a time, before the pandemic ushered in the era of Zoom fatigue and cloud-based-everything, access to the corporate network could be protected by a level of security provided by the four walls of the workplace. Traditional on-premises security inferred onto employees an automatic level of trust. Swipe a badge, gain entry. From there, identity could be verified by simply recognizing a familiar face at work.

This trusted access extended to all systems and networks, empowering organizations to follow the “trust, but verify” model, in which users were given full access to the corporate network once their login credentials—typically just a username and password—were substantiated.

As cybercrime tactics advanced, however, this approach was like handing threat actors the keys to the proverbial castle: If criminals had just one employee’s credentials, they could gain access to the entire corporate network, including sensitive data like financials or employee records.

In fact, cybercriminals have developed a wide range of sophisticated (and some unsophisticated) methods for targeting credentials, ranging from key loggers and credential-harvesting malware to spear phishing and business email compromise. Before the pandemic brought about the mass migration to remote work, organizations were already in need of revamping their credential security to better adapt to modern-day threats.

Remote work further compromises credential security
Enter: the sudden, intense shift of organizations’ entire workforces to the WFH model. It’s no secret that, while beneficial in many ways for businesses and their employees, remote work has dramatically expanded an organization’s threat surface. The sheer number of new, potentially vulnerable access points introduced by remote employees alone—including personal devices, home networks and IoT—would be enough to instigate the type of credential policy change advocated here.

Many work-from-home (WFH) devices and networks are under-secured, with minimal or no identity verification required. A single remote employee might introduce a handful or more of new vulnerabilities: Using a personal laptop without entering credentials. Connecting to the corporate network from a home network that isn’t password-secured. Using a home assistant and smart refrigerator with their default credentials settings still in place.

Add to that a remote workforce that may not be up-to-date on the latest WFH best practices, and you have the perfect recipe for a breach.

Cyber criminals are, unfortunately, well aware that remote work has weakened businesses’ security postures. A steep rise in cybercrime has paralleled the adoption of remote work—especially cybercrime targeting credentials. With compromised credentials cited as the most common cause of security incident, it’s clear that organizations should re-imagine how they protect credentials and prove identity when providing access to their remote employees.

Best practices for credential security today
With cybercriminal tactics for targeting credentials becoming more sophisticated, with users (both on-premises and remote) in need of more acute security awareness, and with WFH environments contributing to a burgeoning collection of new vulnerable access points, it’s time for organizations to follow more contemporary principles of credential security.

Want to get started? The following tools and policies help improve both credential and overall security:

Password hygiene:  Password hygiene remains a problem for most people—two-thirds of users reuse their passwords across multiple accounts; 59 percent use their birthday in their password; 43 percent have shared their password with someone—so it’s no surprise that login credentials alone provide little security.

With criminals increasingly credential stuffing, aka using stolen credentials to access other peoples’ accounts and services, preventing password reuse and requiring stronger, more frequently-updated passwords is a first step in the right direction.

  • Set maximum password age limits to ensure passwords are changed, as well as minimum age limits so they can’t be quickly changed back.
  • Require passwords meet complexity requirements, like containing at least one uppercase and lowercase letter, a number, and a special character.
  • Set minimum password lengths and encourage employees to create long passphrases unrelated to their personal information—so no birthdays, street numbers, names, etc.
  • Use Enforce Password History policies that store old passwords and restrict repetition.

Multifactor authentication (MFA): There are 8.4 billion or more passwords stolen from data breaches that have been leaked online— in a single hacker forum. With criminal access to so many credentials, requiring a second or third layer of identification through MFA helps thwart many attempted cyberattacks. MFA calls for at least two modes of identification, including:

  • Something the user knows, such as a password, PIN number, or answers to personal security questions
  • Something the user has, such as a security token, USB device, smartphone, or other physical object
  • Something the user is, a unique physical characteristic, like fingerprints, voice recognition, facial recognition, or retina scanning

Single sign-on (SSO): Besides credential theft, password fatigue is also a key contributor to security breaches. When users are prompted to change passwords frequently, they often make too-simple alterations, such as swapping one special character for another or capitalizing a different letter of an existing password. In addition, having to remember different passwords for dozens of accounts encourages reuse.

Using SSO authentication—i.e., allowing one set of login credentials to access multiple systems—can mitigate risk by reducing both password fatigue and credential theft. When implemented securely (in combination with MFA), SSO benefits include:

  • Reducing password fatigue by eliminating password re-entry.
  • Minimizing risk of accessing third-party sites because passwords are no longer stored externally.
  • Decreasing the likelihood that users will store passwords insecurely (e.g., by writing them down on post-its).

Businesses looking to further improve credential security should consider adopting the latest thinking in best practices. The prevailing philosophies are:

Least-privileged access: One of the most menacing aspects of credential compromise is that cybercriminals can gain access to your entire network with only a low-level user login. Following a principle of “least-privileged access” helps limit damage that might be done by a hacker or malicious insider with unauthorized access.

Least-privileged access involves restricting users’ access rights to only the data and systems they need to perform specific tasks. Least privileged access can also be used with segregation of duties policies to limit users’ access to specific functions.

Zero trust: Traditional perimeter-based security is no longer enough to protect against modern-day risks to corporate credentials, thanks to cybercriminal innovation in credential-stealing methods and the difficulty organizations now face in verifying the identity of their remote workers.

Employees themselves will always be a security risk—albeit one mitigated by successful security education programs—but now their working environments are unsecured and unmanaged by IT. Even least-privileged access could allow bad actors to gain a foothold into the corporate network. Zero trust offers an even more secure approach.

Zero trust follows a “never trust, always verify” philosophy, where every user and device must be continuously validated before receiving access, and access is only granted upon request. Instead of authorizing broad access to a collection of network resources, zero trust grants access to specific resources on an as-needed basis. Users and devices are never trusted by default, even if they had been connected to company resources before.

Implementing this many layers of credential security may take a great deal of time and money—or it might not be possible for many small businesses or start-ups right now. That’s okay—any small improvement in credential security makes a difference. But understanding the threat landscape and the tools, policies, and philosophies that are best recommended helps organizations develop a credential security model to strive for.

To learn more about password hygiene:

For a deeper dive on zero trust:

For more information on best WFH practices: