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Detecting and Responding to Unauthorized Access. Top 8 Practices to Implement

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Unauthorized access continues to be one of the biggest problems for organizations of all sizes. Its consequences can be severe, ranging from data breaches and financial losses to reputational damage and lawsuits. Therefore, it’s critical for organizations to establish a robust cybersecurity strategy and implement best practices to effectively detect and respond to unauthorized access.

In this article, we explore the dangers behind unauthorized access and its key attack vectors. We also discuss how to detect unauthorized access and offer the top eight cybersecurity practices to help your organization fortify your defences.

What is unauthorized access? Risks and consequences

Unauthorized access is when “a person gains logical or physical access without permission to a network, system, application, data, or other resource,” according to NIST. Unauthorized access involves bypassing security measures or exploiting vulnerabilities in IT infrastructure to get access to systems that should be accessible only to authorized users. 

If your organization suffers from an unauthorized data access attack, the consequences can range from a data breach and financial losses to service unavailability or even losing control of the entire network. Let’s look at some unauthorized access examples and their consequences. 

Some organizations use templates to make their own incident response plans. Below are a few ready-made templates and examples of other organization’s IRPs for reference:

Case #1

A few months later, another serious case occurred.

Case #2

Unfortunately, these cases are only the tip of the iceberg. The cyber threat landscape continues to evolve, with cybercriminals using new and sophisticated methods to gain illegal access. And not only does unauthorized access continue to be the leading cause of breaches for the fourth consecutive year, but its prevalence among all causes is trending upwards.

percentage of breaches due to unauthorized access

Cybercriminals often remain hidden on a network for a long time and even use anti-forensic techniques to hide their footprints. The Cost of a Data Breach Report 2022 by IBM claims that it took on average 207 days to identify a data breach and 70 more days to contain it in 2022. The earlier a data breach is identified, the less it costs the organization.

Average cost/time of a data breach

Besides financial losses, unauthorized access intrusions can cause damage to an organization in a number of other ways. uUnauthorized users can compromise your financial data, trade secrets, personal information, and other sensitive data, which may lead to identity theft, reputational damage, and legal consequences. Unauthorized access can also result in system downtime, loss of productivity, and disruption of critical services of your organization.

Consequences of data breach

From all this, it’s easy to conclude that organizations should detect and respond to unauthorized access as quickly as possible to remediate threats before severe damage occurs. And to detect unauthorized access to data, you need to understand how malicious actors can intrude into your systems. Below, you can check out the most common attack vectors.

Common attack vectors for gaining unauthorized access 

There are several common scenarios of gaining unauthorized access, from hacking weak passwords to sophisticated social engineering schemes like phishing. 

Common attack vectors for gaining unauthorized access
  • Password guessing. Cybercriminals often employ special software to automate the guessing process by targeting information such as usernames, passwords, and PINs.
  • Exploiting software vulnerabilities. Cyberattackers can exploit software flaws and vulnerabilities to gain unauthorized access to applications, networks, and operating systems. 
  • Social engineering. Social engineering tactics rely on psychological manipulation and trick users into clicking malicious links, pop-ups on websites, or attachments in emails. Phishing, smishing, spear phishing, and impersonation are the most common techniques to deceive employees into revealing credentials.
  • Exploiting third-party vendors’ vulnerabilities. Some third-party vendors, suppliers, and partners may have access to your systems. Hackers may exploit vulnerabilities in a vendor’s IT infrastructure, compromise a vendor’s privileged accounts, or employ other techniques to bypass your organization’s security controls.
  • Credential stuffing. Attackers can target an easily exploitable system, infiltrate it, and use the stolen credentials to access other more robust systems. What makes this possible is the fact that people tend to reuse their passwords for multiple accounts.

How to respond to unauthorized access? Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to detecting and responding to all these types of attacks. The response largely depends on what assets are accessed, who accesses them, and what happens next.

The key to preventing unauthorized access, responding to detection of unauthorized access, and quickly mitigating damage is a strong all-around cybersecurity strategy.

8 best practices to prevent unauthorized access

Here is a list of best cybersecurity practices and techniques for preventing and detecting unauthorized access incidents.

8 best practices to prevent unauthorized access

1. Adopt the principle of least privilege

The 2023 Identity and Access Management report by Cybersecurity Insiders found that approximately half of organizations have employees with more access privileges than needed for their posts. 

The principle of least privilege calls for establishing user access review procedures and regularly checking user privileges to ensure that users have minimal access to sensitive data and critical systems. Consider giving your employees just enough access privileges to perform their core responsibilities. With that, you can implement a just-in-time approach to grant them temporary additional access when needed.

2. Implement a strong password management policy

Consider implementing a strong password management policy that will help you with creating, managing, and safeguarding user credentials. The right policy can also help you to adopt healthy password habits and maintain adequate password complexity, length, and uniqueness, as well as to regularly rotate passwords. For example, you can stick to HIPAA, NIST, or PCI DSS compliance password policy depending on the industry your organization operates in.

Furthermore, a password management policy should outline the individuals or roles accountable for generating and overseeing user passwords within your organization. By adhering to a well-defined policy, your organization can enhance its overall password security and reduce the risk of unauthorized access.

3. Use multi-factor authentication

Along with protecting your passwords, the next big step to protect your accounts is to apply multi-factor authentication (MFA). Unauthorized access frequently occurs due to the exploitation of a single compromised account or user credentials. However, if you use multi-factor authentication, you can effectively stop such unauthorized access attempts. Requiring an additional identity verification step, such as sending a one-time passcode to a user’s mobile device, will prevent unauthorized actors from proceeding. 

According to Microsoft, adopting MFA can prevent approximately 99.9% of compromised user accounts, significantly bolstering security measures against unauthorized access.

4. Monitor user activity

Monitoring user activity can help you detect and prevent unauthorized access, insider threats, and potential security breaches. By monitoring who does what in your organization’s IT infrastructure, you’ll be able to quickly detect signs of unauthorized activity. That’s why it’s crucial to set up a comprehensive user activity monitoring (UAM) solution that can capture and analyze activity within your system. 

UAM solutions typically provide lots of different features. We recommend choosing session recording software that enables monitoring of log files, system events, network traffic, and other user activity to help you identify any unusual or suspicious patterns that may indicate unauthorized access.

5. Maintain secure IT infrastructure

To enhance protection against unauthorized access, combine your monitoring software with a resilient firewall. Whereas monitoring software can detect insider threats in real time, a firewall can serve as a protective barrier, shielding networks, web applications, databases, and critical systems from unauthorized intrusions.

It’s also critical for organizations to conduct regular vulnerability assessments and penetration testing of corporate IT infrastructure. One of the most neglected security threats is failing to update protection systems promptly. The January 2022 attack on Red Cross systems where data of more than 515,000 individuals was compromised is a vivid example of how unpatched vulnerabilities can lead to terrific consequences. 

6. Employ user behavior analytics

Consider implementing user entity and behavior analytics (UEBA) to analyze user activity patterns, access logs, and behavior profiles. By establishing a baseline of normal user behavior, UEBA tools automatically identify anomalies that may indicate unauthorized access, malicious activity, and account compromise.

For example, if a user suddenly logs in to a system at an unusual time or from an unknown device, UEBA tools may notify your security officers. The security team can then investigate the issue and respond quickly. 

7. Promptly respond to cybersecurity incidents

Your security team needs to respond to security alerts immediately. For example, if you detect suspicious login attempts from an account, your security officers should be able to revoke account access immediately and block the session to prevent an intrusion.

Ideally, you should also have a well-structured incident response plan outlining the responsibilities of your incident response team and providing clear steps to follow in case of an unauthorized access attempt or a security incident.

8. Conduct security awareness training

As attackers frequently target people rather than machines, you should shift from a technology-centric to a people-centric cybersecurity approach and make your employees your first line of defense. For this, regularly conduct security awareness training to keep employees up-to-date with the latest cybersecurity threats and educate them about security best practices, including how to identify suspicious activities.

How can Ekran System help?

Ekran System is comprehensive software for detecting and preventing unauthorized access. It’s an insider risk management platform that focuses on monitoring user activity, managing user access, and responding to incidents. Ekran System provides valuable insights into user actions and helps you maintain a secure IT environment. Here is how.

Ekran System's key features

User activity monitoring. Ekran System provides real-time monitoring and recording of user activity across your organization’s endpoints, servers, and network devices. By watching live user sessions and reviewing screen recordings, you’ll be able to analyze user actions and identify unauthorized access attempts. In addition, user session records can serve as evidence for security incident investigations.

Records are supplemented with informative metadata such as typed keystrokes, opened applications, and visited URLs. 

Privileged user management and monitoring. Ekran System’s access management capabilities allow you to granularly control access privileges for all users in your infrastructure – system administrators, third-party vendors, and regular users. You can also monitor privileged user actions to detect any unapproved access attempts, malicious behavior, and privilege abuse.

Two-factor authentication. Leverage Ekran System’s two-factor authentication feature to make sure that your users are who they claim to be. This extra layer of protection will help you secure your critical user accounts, preventing cases of unauthorized access.

User and entity behavior analytics (UEBA). Ekran System has a built-in AI-powered UEBA module to establish a baseline of normal user behavior and automatically detect deviations from usual patterns. For example, Ekran System identifies user logins at unusual hours.

Real-time alerts and incident response. Ekran System allows you to receive real-time user activity notifications based on default and custom security alert rules. You can configure Ekran System to send notifications once an alert is triggered or perform automatic response actions: block the user, kill the process, and display a warning message. Your security officers can also perform these actions manually.

Auditing and reporting. Ekran System’s reporting and statistics capabilities enable your security team to generate comprehensive reports based on information collected from user sessions. These reports can help you conveniently analyze user activity, conduct audits, and investigate security incidents. The platform offers various predefined report templates, including reports on user activity and employee productivity. You can customize any report to meet your specific needs.

Moreover, Ekran System offers automatic updates on all endpoints. By default, the software will be updated automatically on all endpoints after your security team downloads and runs the newest version of Ekran System. This way, you won’t have issues with outdated and vulnerable software.

Conclusion

Unauthorized access incidents may not only be disruptive and costly for your organization; they can also affect customer trust, damage your company’s reputation, and lead to fines for non-compliance. Consider implementing the best practices described in this article to prevent security incidents and respond promptly if unauthorized access is detected.

By deploying Ekran System in your organization, you’ll get more visibility into user activity and enhance your access management. With a robust set of features, Ekran System can help you quickly detect and respond to insider threats and unauthorized access attempts.

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