What The Target Breach Should Tell Us

Important new details have been emerging about the Target breach. First came news that Fazio Mechanical, an HVAC company, was the avenue of entry into the Target network, as reported by Brian Krebs.

This started a firestorm of speculation and criticism that Fazio was remotely monitoring or otherwise accessing the HVAC units at Target stores and that Target connected those HVAC units to the same networks as POS terminals and, by extension, was not complying with the PCI requirement for 2 factor authentication for access to the environment containing card data, as evidenced by Fazio’s stolen credentials leading to the attackers having access to the POS networks.

Fazio Mechanical later issued a statement indicating that they do not perform remote monitoring of Target HVAC systems and that “Our data connection with Target was exclusively for electronic billing, contract submission and project management.”

In a previous post on this story, I hypothesized about the method of entry being a compromised vendor with access to a partner portal, and the attacker leveraging this access to gain a foot hold in the network. Based on the description of access in Fazio Mechanical’s statement, this indeed appears to be exactly what happened.

We still do not know how the attacker used Fazio’s access to Target’s partner systems to gain deeper access into Target’s network. Since the point of this post is not to speculate on what Target did wrong, but rather what lessons we can draw from current events, I will go back to my own hypothetical retail chain, MaliciousCo (don’t let the name fool you, MaliciousCo is a reputable retailer of fine merchandise). As described in my previous post, MaliciousCo has an extranet which includes a partner portal for vendors to interact with MalicousCo, such as submitting invoices, processing payments, refunds and work orders. The applications on this extranet are not accessible from the Internet and require authenticated VPN access for entry. MaliciousCo’s IT operation has customized a number of applications used to for conducting business with its vendors. Applications such as this are generally not intended to be accessible from the Internet and often don’t get much security testing to identify common flaws, and where security vulnerabilities are identified, patches can take considerable time for vendors to develop and even longer for customers to apply. In MaliciousCo’s case, the extranet applications are considered “legacy”, meaning there is little appetite and no budget to invest in them, and because they were highly customized, applying security patches for the applications would take a considerable development effort. Now, MaliciousCo has a robust security program which includes requirements for applying security patches in a timely manner. MaliciousCo’s IT team assessed the risk posed by not patching these applications and determined the risk to be minimal because of the following factors:

1. The applications are not accessible from the Internet.
2. Access to the extranet is limited to a set of vendors who MaliciousCo’s vendor management program screens for proper security processes.
3. There are a number of key financial controls outside of these applications that would limit the opportunity for financial fraud. An attacker couldn’t simply gain access to the application and start submitting invoices without tripping a reconciliation control point.
4. The applications are important for business, but down time can be managed using normal disaster recovery processes should some really bad security incident happen.

Given the desire to divert IT investment to strategic projects and the apparently small potential for impact, MaliciousCo decides against patching these extranet applications, as other Internet accessible application receive. Subsequently, MaliciousCo experiences a significant compromise when an attacker hijacks the extranet VPN account of a vendor. The attacker identified an application vulnerability which allowed a web shell to be uploaded to the server. The attacker then exploited an unpatched local privilege escalation vulnerability on the Windows OS which hosts the extranet application and uses these privileges to collect cached Active Directory credentials for logged in administrators using a combination of mimikatz and JtR. While the extranet is largely isolated from other parts of the MaliciousCo network, certain network ports are open to internal systems to support functionality like Active Directory. From the compromised extranet application server, the attacker moves laterally, first to an extranet domain controller, then to other servers in the internal network environment. From here, the attacker is able to access nearly any system in the MaliciousCo environment, create new Active Directory user IDs, establish alternative methods of access into the MaliciousCo network using reverse shell remote access trojans, mass distribution of malware to MaliciousCo endpoints, collection and exfiltration of data, and so on.

MaliciousCo didn’t fully understand the potential impacts resulting from a compromise of its extranet applications when evaluating the security risks associated with those applications.

We don’t know what happened yet in the case of Target, and MaliciousCo is just a story. But, scenario has apparently played out at organizations like DigiNotar, the State of South Carolina and many others.

Why does this happen?

In my view, the problem is largely a failure to understand the capabilities and common tactics of our adversaries, along with an incomplete understanding of the interplay within and between complex IT system, Active Directory in particular. I intently follow the gory details of publicly disclosed breaches and it is clear to me that attackers are following a relatively common methodology which often involve:
– gaining initial entry through some mechanism (phishing, web app vulnerability, watering hole)
– stealing credentials
– lateral movement via systems which have connectivity with each other using stolen credentials
– establishing a ‘support infrastructure’ inside the victim network
– establishing persistence on victim systems
– identifying and compromising targets using stolen or maliciously created credentials or other via hijacking standard management tools employed by the victim
– exfiltration (or other malicious action)

While we don’t know the details of what happened in the case of Target, it seems quite clear that the attacker was able to laterally move from a partner application server onto networks where POS terminals reside. The specific means by which that happened are not clear and indeed we may never know for sure.

I believe that we, as defenders, need to better understand the risks posed by situations like this. I am not proposing that such security risks must always require action. Rather, based on my experience in IT, I believe these risks often go unidentified, and so are implicitly accepted due to lack of awareness, rather that consciously evaluated.

In the next post, I cover what we can learn regarding the security of vendors based on what has been disclosed about the Target breach so far.

5 thoughts on “What The Target Breach Should Tell Us

  1. this is good. also shows that whether fazio did remote monitoring, or just submitted contracts, once maliciousco let them into its extranet it was a problem. a proper vpn that limits ports, protocols, ip’s accessible by fazio takes work, but even that can be beaten if enough other weakness exists. other thoughts…

    a company as big as maliciosco has no reason (except laziness) to incorporate vendor actions like billing, contracts, and PM into its primary network. other companies may not even employ an extranet approach, instead relying on ‘locking down’ vpn access to the internal network.

    after stealing credentials, bad guys would benefit from poor software maintenance and security measures within maliciousco’s extranet, plus any weaknesses in its primary network.

    pci-dss in a large firm is wicked expensive and complex. firms generally try to meet pci ‘by the book’, but not go any farther than it takes to satisfy outside pci assessors. firms may err on the side of danger, rather than pci safety, if an exploit is expensive to remediate and the exploitable bit is accepted as safe. say, maliciousco has a tightly configed extranet that’s secured by AD but in a separate container that few in IT can access…layers of good security then lead malco management and the pci auditors to accept that things are fine. likewise for the network borders between primary and pci networks.

    malco may not value these factors highly enough: impact of theft of vendor credentials; safety of POS terminals; pci data-in-memory; the skill and resources of bad guys; the possibility that a few key facts from a malco IT staffer or vendor can be a big help to bad guys; potential for bad guys to make lots of $ by buying short-term puts in malco stock, then making a giant breach public.

    tl; dr – passing pci audit is just a minimum to make Visa happy

    1. Excellent reply, Gene. I want to point out one thing, though.
      “a company as big as maliciosco has no reason (except laziness) to incorporate vendor actions like billing, contracts, and PM into its primary network.”

      From MaliciousCo’s perspective, they have isolated these vendor activities off the primary network and onto a “completely isolated” extranet. Except that it isn’t isolated at all. Unfortunately, I have seen this kind of misunderstanding quite often in my career. I have indeed heard the words uttered “that network is isolated and so it needs it’s own domain controller.” Those words should give everyone pause.

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