Today Cyber Security plays a paramount role in global security. On this blog, the CEO of Paramount Defenses shares rare insights on issues related to Cyber Security, including Privileged Access, Organizational Cyber Security, Foundational Security, Windows Security, Active Directory Security, Insider Threats and other topics.

December 22, 2014

Sony Hack: Too Easy and Predicted by "The Paramount Brief" 5 Years Ago                    (Who's Next & Is The Whole World Sitting on a Ticking Bomb?)


By now, you must have heard about the Sony Hack. Thought I'd share a few thoughts (possibly worth a US $ Trillion) on it.

The Sony Hack has to be possibly the worst cyber security attack the world has witnessed thus far. I say thus far, because if you understand Active Directory Security, you know, that with just a little bit of effort, one can easily automate the destruction of virtually any (number of) organization(s) in the world. (To the FireEyes, TripWires, Mandiants, Kasperkys and Symantecs of the world - if you need a primer/demo, let us know.)


A few weeks ago malicious perpetrators completed compromised Sony's IT infrastructure and stole vast amounts of Sony's confidential information. They then threatened Sony to engage in a specific action, and when Sony refused, they made good on their threat by releasing part of this information in the public domain. The release of such confidential information into the public domain caused Sony significant tangible and intangible damage, the true cost of which won't be known for years.

Remarkably Easy

Based on what is known thus far, and based on what U.S officials have shared, in all likelihood, what happened here is that malicious perpetrators gained administrative access within Sony's network, and used it to obtain access to (and make a copy of) whatever they wished to obtain access to within Sony's internal network i.e. files, databases, emails, etc.

As described below, such an attack is remarkably easy to carry out. In fact, with just a little effort, today it can be carried out in the IT infrastructures of 85% of all organizations worldwide. (Should you need a demo, we'll be happy to arrange one for you.)

A word on Motive

The Sony Hack was so remarkably simple to carry out that when you think about it, you'd wonder why the hackers that carried out the attacks at Target, Home Depot, EBay, etc. did not inflict as much damage as the hackers who carried out the Sony Hack. I believe that the answer lies in one word - Motive.

In all likelihood, the motive of the hackers of the previous attacks was simply to obtain (steal) information for financial gain. In Sony's case, the motive seems to have been to proverbially take Sony hostage and force it to act in a specific manner (i.e. have them pull a movie.) It seems that certain demands may have initially been put forth and when Sony's executives didn't comply, the perpetrators started releasing the stolen information to demonstrate that threats were real. It is the release of this information in the public domain that caused substantial damage to Sony. In other words, the perpetrators succeeded in holding a $20+B company hostage and during the process inflicted colossal damage to the company.

As damaging as it was, this was a remarkably simple hack.

So, what makes this a remarkably simple and easily enactable hack to carry out?

Well, the answer is simple. It was very easy to carry out, as described below.

Before that, just one thing...

Predicted by The Paramount Brief

Five years ago, we penned "The Paramount Brief" -

The Sony Hack is the perfect example of what is described in "The Paramount Brief."

In the best interest of organizations worldwide (so as not to tip the bad guys off), we have not declassified it yet. There are some (at the highest offices in Microsoft and elsewhere) who have read it and who will tell you that we predicted the occurrence of such an attack over 5 years ago.

In light of what happened, we are inclined to declassify this brief in early 2015. Stay tuned.

What Really Seems to have Happened at Sony

What happened at Sony was remarkably simple. Like over 85% of the world's organizations, the IT infrastructure of Sony too is powered by Microsoft Windows Server platform, and at the very foundation of their cyber security was their Active Directory deployment.

You can think of Active Directory as the heart of an organization's IT infrastructure. Not only does Active Directory store and protect all of the organization's administrative accounts and their passwords, it stores and protects the user accounts of all the employees and contractors, as well as the computer accounts of all the computers that make up the IT infrastructure as well as all the security groups that are used to protect the entirety of all the IT resources in the IT infrastructure. And more.

In order to help organizations establish and manage their IT infrastructure, there exist a few default administrative groups in Active Directory. These administrative groups have unrestricted access to Active Directory and to virtually every machine (laptop, desktop, server) that is joined to the Active Directory and is thus a part of the organization's IT infrastructure. Examples of such administrative groups include the Enterprise Admins group, the Domain Admins group etc.

Every individual that is a member of one of these default administrative groups has virtually unrestricted access across the entire IT infrastructure. He/she can obtain and control access to virtually every IT resource in the organization's IT infrastructure, whether it be a file, a folder, a Share point, a server, a database, a line-of-business app etc. ... everything.

In other words, anyone with administrative access in Active Directory proverbially has God-like powers, and practically speaking, he/she any day is about 100,000 times more powerful than the organization's CEO.

Should a SINGLE account that has administrative access in Active Directory be compromised, theoretically every IT resource in the organization could be at risk of compromise, and in the worst case scenario, the entirety of the organization's IT resources could be compromised.

In other words, proverbially speaking, he/she who is able to obtain Active Directory administrative access will have the "keys to the kingdom" i.e. once you have Active Directory administrative access, you can obtain access to, copy, tamper, divulge and destroy virtually any IT resource in the IT infrastructure.

THAT is EXACTLY what seemed to have happened at Sony.

Quoting U.S. officials that were briefed on the investigation - "U.S. investigators have evidence that hackers stole the computer credentials of a system administrator to get access to Sony's computer system, allowing them broad access."

In a Microsoft Windows Server based IT infrastructure, a system administrator is layman's speak for an Active Directory administrator, because in a Microsoft Windows Server based IT infrastructure, Active Directory is the heart of the "system".

The same U.S. officials also said that "The hackers ability to gain access to the passwords of a top-level information technology employee allowed them to have "keys to the entire building,"."

In all likelihood, someone compromised the account of an Active Directory administrator and once that was done, the rest was just a matter of time... taking one's sweet time to obtain read access to and copy vast parts of organization's IT resources.

It was really as simple as that.

Not Surprising at All

In light of the fact that someone with Active Directory administrative access has God-like powers, you might find yourself asking two questions -

  1. Shouldn't organizations minimize the number of such highly privileged administrative accounts?
  2. Shouldn't organizations offer the highest protection for these highly privileged administrative accounts? 

The obvious answer to both the questions is YES.

Sadly, in reality, based on what we have seen thus far, in most organizations, not only are there an unacceptably and unbelievably large number of these highly privilege administrative accounts, but these accounts also continue to remain substantially vulnerable to compromise. In fact, in most organizations, the IT groups have no idea as to exactly who has what administrative access provisioned in their Active Directory deployments.

By the way, by what we have seen thus far, I'm referring to over 7,000 organizations from across 150 countries that have knocked at our doors thus far, and many of these organizations are some of the world's most prominent and powerful business and government organizations.

So, it is not surprising at all to us that someone was able to pull off this attack at Sony.

It helps to keep in mind that once a malicious perpetrator has Active Directory administrative access, and their primary intent is to obtain access to and copy information (files, folders, databases, mail etc.), all they're really doing is engaging in "read access" to vast amounts of information, and "read" access is almost never audited, so it would be very difficult to catch someone who has Active Directory administrative access in the act of engaging in rampant information theft.

How to Enact the Sony Hack in 4 Steps

At its core, a perpetrator seems to have obtained administrative access and used it to obtain access to (and copy) large amounts of confidential information, all done in 4 simple steps -

Step 1 - Become an Authenticated User - This step involves obtaining the credentials of any ONE of the thousands of Active Directory accounts that exist for Sony's employees, vendors and contractors. With just a little creativity (social engineering), this is fairly easy to do from the outside. It is easier still if you can officially get an account by virtue of say being a temporary contractor to Sony, not just in the U.S. but say in another country that Sony does business in/has operations in.

Step 2 - Identify Administrative Accounts - Once you're an Authenticated User, you now have READ access to vast amounts of information, including valuable information, such as the list of all administrative accounts in the organization i.e. the list of the accounts of all individuals who have administrative access in the organization's Active Directory. For instance, the list of all Enterprise Admins and Domain Admins. By the way, this is as easy as issuing the following LDAP query: (&(objectClass=user)(objectCategory=person)(admincount=1))

Step 3 - Escalate Privilege to Administrator Level - This is the defining step in which you escalate your privilege from that of a regular non-administrative account holder to that of an administrative account i.e. one of the many administrative accounts you identified in Step 2.  This is the most difficult step in the entire attack-vector. However, what is "difficult" for some, is "easy"for others, and depending on your expertise and tool-set, this can take days or minutes. (With the right tooling it only takes a few minutes.) Most amateurs use the PtH attack vector to enact this step. Unfortunately for them, as organizations establish and enforce stricter admin account use policies, this attack vector is becoming harder to use. The second vector, called Active Directory Privilege Escalation, which these amateurs don't know much about yet, still remains the easiest way to enact this step.)

Step 4 - Own The Building/Kingdom - Once you've obtained Enterprise/Domain Admin credentials, you're proverbially God within the network, because you can now obtain access to, copy, tamper, destroy and divulge virtually any IT resource that is stored on a computer that is joined to the Active Directory domain and/or protected by an Active Directory security group, (and that by the way is virtually the entire IT infrastructure.) Once you've obtained Enterprise/Domain Admin credentials, you can take your sweet time (weeks, even months) accessing and copying large amounts of information from virtually any server (file server, mail server etc.), database, laptop etc. and because all of it is read access, it is hardly every audited, so you're going to go unnoticed for a very long time.

(Strictly speaking, each time you obtain a Kerberos ticket to a separate machine, an event is logged in the audit log, but based on our experience in dealing with the 1000s of organizations that have knocked at our doors seeking assistance, less than 1% of organizations even know how many administrative personnel they really have, let alone paying attention to audit entries related to Domain Admin network logons on to various machines. Besides, for the most part, its not your identity that shows up in the audit log, but that of the account of the Enterprise/Domain Admin you compromised, and he/she could very well have a legitimate need for all these logins, making these audit log entries seem unsuspicious.)

Once you've taken your sweet time (days, weeks or months, your choice) to obtain access to virtually whatever you wanted (documents, emails, confidential data), you simply walk out, and once you're out, you're now in possession of a treasure trove of data. What you do with it, is driven by your motive.

In Sony's case, the attackers used it to coerce Sony into not releasing a movie. (It appears that in order to prove to Sony that their threats were credible, they released vast amounts of stolen information into the public domain, causing substantial tangible and intangible harm to Sony for years to come.)

It's (really) that simple.

Step 3 Above - Privilege Escalation

As you'll hopefully agree, steps 1, 2 and 4 above are pretty darn easy to enact, for anyone who knows the littlest thing about cyber security. It is step 3 that empowers a non-administrative individual to escalate his/her privilege to that of an all-powerful administrative account, that is the defining step here.

In fact, in most of the famous cyber security breaches thus far, privilege escalation has been the defining step that gave the perpetrators powerful administrative access, which could then be misused to fulfill virtually any malicious objective.

When it comes to privilege escalation in Windows / Active Directory, there are fundamentally two ways to escalate privilege - privilege escalation based on the capture and replay of hashes, and privilege escalation based on performing (a few) password resets (i.e. based on identification and exploitation of excessive permissions granted on Active Directory content such as admin accounts and groups.)

The first way i.e. privilege escalation based on the capture and replay of hashes (PtH) is well-known and commonly-used, and thankfully is steadily becoming harder to use, as organizations understand how to avoid being victimized i.e. essentially, prevent their admins from logging on to untrustworthy machines.

The second way i.e. Active Directory privilege escalation based on performing (a few) password resets, is steadily increasing as hackers become savvier about Active Directory security, and are able to identify and exploit privilege escalation paths with moderate effort. (With the right tools , this too is child's play.)

The cardinal difference between these two ways is that whereas the former absolutely requires that an administrator logs on to a machine owned by the attacker, the latter has no such requirement, and in fact can be enacted from any machine. NOW, if an administrator NEVER logs on to the computer owned by the attacker, the attacker can sit and wait and grow old and will not be successful. However, with the latter, the attacker can use any computer/account to identify and exploit these privilege escalation paths, and once identified escalate his/her privilege within minutes.

Amongst these two ways, privilege escalation based on password resets poses a far greater threat to organizations worldwide than privilege escalation based on the capture and replay of hashes, because it doesn't require the victim to logon to any specific machine, and because virtually any insider (i.e. anyone with a simple Active Directory account) could with some basic knowledge and tooling engage in it to obtain all-powerful administrative access within minutes.

Microsoft's recent acquisition of a little start-up called Aorato may be a step in the right direction towards helping organizations detect the occurrence of privilege escalation based on the capture and replay of hashes, but it still leaves organizations vulnerable to privilege escalation attacks based on (i.e. involving the identification and exploitation of excessive permissions in Active Directory that can be enacted by performing) password resets. Fortunately, our patented technology is helping organizations worldwide minimize the possibility of successful privilege escalation attacks involving password resets.

Why is Administrative Access Such a Big Deal?

Obtaining administrative access is a HUGE deal because once you have administrative access, you not only have virtually unrestricted access to just about every resource in the system, you are also a part of what is commonly referred to as the Trusted Computing Base (TCB) of the system, and once you're a part of the TCB, you can not only control the security of the entire system, you can also circumvent any additional control that might have been put in place to stop you.

In addition, in every system, default security specifications grant the administrators complete and unrestricted access. This is done so as to be able to provide the administrators the ability to control that system at all times.

For instance, in an Active Directory deployment, the default security on every domain-joined machine grants Domain Admins full control across all resource managers on that machine, as well as virtually all the privileges required to obtain access to and control the entire domain-joined machine.

So for instance, once you're a Domain Admin in an Active Directory deployment, you can obtain access to virtually every IT resource (file, folder, database, process, service etc.) on any domain-joined machine in that Active Directory forest. So, of course, by default you'd also have access to any and every server that is domain-joined, such as and not limited to Exchange Servers, File servers, Database servers, Application servers, LOB servers, PKI Servers etc., and of course all files and folders on any domain-joined client machine, e.g. the laptop or desktop of virtually every employee in the organization, including the CEO, CFO, CIO, CISO etc. In other words, you have access to virtually everything.

This is why administrative access is a HUGE deal, and this is why organizations must leave no stone unturned in minimizing the number of administrative personnel to a bare minimum. Fortunately, all mature commercial operating systems (e.g. Microsoft Windows Server) provide the means to delegate a majority of all administrative responsibilities to lesser privileged administrators, and organizations should leverage the ability to delegate administrative functions to the extent they can.

At the end of the day, once you're an administrator, you have sufficient power to be able to control the security of the entire system. When you're consider a system like the IT infrastructure of a $20B company, you could potentially (positively or negatively) impact more than $20B, if one includes the cost of intangible losses one could inflict.

Unaudited Delegated Administrative Access Grants - Low-hanging Fruit for Hackers

One often overlooked area of cyber security is that of delegated administrative access in Active Directory deployments. By delegated administrative access, I am referring to administrative access delegations that are provisioned in Active Directory deployments for the purpose of separating and/or distributing responsibilities for vital areas of IT management. Examples of such areas include account management, group management and access management.

Active Directory makes it very easy to delegate access, and thus most organizations leverage this capability to ease IT management. In most organizations, IT departments have delegated varying levels of access to numerous IT personnel, whether directly, or via group memberships. Delegation of administration is a very useful and powerful capability that if correctly used, could substantially help organizations minimize the number of highly privileged administrators in Active Directory, and thus help them reduce the risk associated with the compromise of a highly privileged Active Directory administrative account.

There is one challenge associated with delegation though which is that although it is easy to delegate access precisely, it is very difficult to assess delegated access precisely, and over time, the state of effective delegated access can change, resulting in a situation wherein many more individuals than should ideally have been delegated specific types of access end up having such access.

This results in a situation wherein many individuals end up being entitled to and having powerful, delegated unauthorized access, which can then be easily misused to compromise organizational security.

For example, a group called Privileged Account Managers could have been delegated the ability to manage administrative accounts, and thus be able to carry out sensitive tasks like being able to reset the password of all Domain Admins. Over time, someone could directly or indirectly, and intentionally or inadvertently modify the membership of this group resulting in a situation wherein more individuals than were initially assigned to this group are now able to carry out these management tasks on these privileged accounts as well.

For instance, someone could accidentally or intentionally make another group called HQ Local Admins a member of this Privileged Account Managers group, resulting in a situation wherein all members of the former group would now also have the same rights as the latter group, and thus also be able to manage the organization's privileged accounts. These changes, and their impact can sometimes be hard to detect, assess and visualize, resulting in a situation wherein many more individuals than expected end up having escalated levels of privilege which could be accidentally or intentionally misused to inflict damage. In this case, the damage could be the compromise of one of the organization's privilege Domain Admin accounts, and the impact of such a compromise could be, well... we all know what happened at Sony.

This is why delegated administrative access rights are also very important to keep an eye on, because left as is, they could potentially be the weakest link in an organization's cyber security defenses. Fortunately, today solving the delegation audit challenge too has become as easy as touching a button, so organizations can safely use delegation to minimize the number of highly privileged administrative accounts in their Active Directory.

Could This Have Been Prevented?

Cyber security is fundamentally about risk management in computer systems, and any cyber security expert worth his salt will tell that you can never mitigate a 100% of the risk; you can mitigate much of it but not all of it, and you have to manage the part you can't mitigate.

In other words, no one can say with absolute certainty that such a security incident could have been completely prevented.

What I will say, is that with adequate security measures in place, i.e. a combination of adequate security policies, procedures and controls, the likelihood of Sony witnessing a security incident of this magnitude could have been highly minimized.

Organizations around the world can learn from what happened at Sony, and enact adequate risk mitigation measures in a timely manner to minimize the likelihood of hackers being able to pull of an attack of such a devastating magnitude in their IT environments.

5 Risk Mitigation Measures Sony Could have Taken to Reduce their Exposure

Here are 5 risk mitigation measures that the Sony could have taken, and that other organizations can take today, to prevent the occurrence of a security incident of this magnitude -

1. Reduce the number of Active Directory administrative personnel to a bare minimum, by separating, distributing and delegating all non-administrative responsibilities amongst and to a large number of relatively less-privileged administrators. For more information on how to do so, please refer to Microsoft's official best-practice guide on Delegation of Administration.

2. Ensure that all administrative delegations in Active Directory adhere to the principal of least privilege. This is very important because unless this is done, perpetrators could compromise a delegated administrator's account and use it to elevate their privilege to that of a Domain Admin. For more information on how to do so, please click here.

3. Afford the highest protection to all Active Directory administrative personnel and groups. This involves protecting these accounts from all avenues of credential compromise (some of them are listed below) as well as assigning dedicated computers for each of these administrative personnel.

4. Ensure that only equally trustworthy individuals can manage these Active Directory administrative personnel and groups. For example, ensure that only equally trustworthy individuals and no delegated administrators have the ability to reset the passwords of these accounts, change critical settings on these accounts (e.g. the userAccountControl attribute), unlock these accounts should they become locked, as well as change/modify the group memberships of any administrative groups (e.g. the Domain Admins group), create and link a GPO to the OU in which the computer account of these admins is stored, as well as manage the OUs in which these user & computer accounts/groups are stored.

5. Use auditing to audit the enactment of management tasks on Active Directory administrative personnel accounts, their computer accounts and Active Directory administrative groups, as well as audit changes in security permissions on any of these objects and on the OUs in which they reside.

Also, any time an Active Directory administrative account holder find that his/her password is not working, before simply getting it reset, investigate and find out whether or not someone reset his/her password, because if someone did so, chances are that they were in the midst of engaging in Active Directory Privilege Escalation.

In addition to the above, organizations can and should certainly invest in deploying additional security controls to add additional layers of security for their IT resources. However, it must be noted and understood that no matter how many layers you deploy, you CANNOT prevent the administrator of a system from being able to circumvent/disable any such deployed control, because he/she is by definition an administrator of the system, and is thus a part of the system's Trusted Computing Base (TCB).

Further Simplified - 5 Simple Risk Reduction Steps

In case the above risk mitigation measures seem too much to enact immediately, here are 5 simple steps that organizations can take today to reduce their exposure and mitigate this risk  -
  1. Identify every single administrative account and group in your Active Directory (AD)
  2. Identify every single individual that can manage every AD admin account and group
  3. Reduce the number of individuals on these 2 lists to a bare minimum.
  4. Ensure that only the most trustworthy individuals are on these 2 lists
  5. Designate a unique specific computer for logon/use for each of these individuals
Having done so, establish a schedule (weekly, fortnightly or monthly) to audit both, the list of admin accounts and groups, as well as the list of all individuals who can manage them.

Examples of such groups include Enterprise Admins, Domain Admins etc., and examples of management tasks include who can reset their passwords, unlock these accounts, modify these groups memberships, modify permissions on these accounts and group memberships etc.

For more details and specific risk-mitigation guidance, click here.

Tip 1: Design and use a simple in-house script that shows each administrator the last time (and target computer) at (and for) which a Kerberos ticket was issued for him/her, helping him/her identify whether or not his/her account has been compromised and may currently be in simultaneous use.

Tip 2: Understand how the smart guys target Active Directory, not just how amateurs do so.

Note: As stated above, organizations should additionally implement other controls as well, but the above mentioned steps are essential because no matter what additional controls are in place, by definition, a system's administrators are part of the system's Trusted Computing Base (TCB) and can thus almost always circumvent and/or disable any additional controls that are in place.

Common Account Compromise Avenues

Here are some common ways in which someone could attempt to compromise an administrative account -
  1. Guess the user's password
  2. Brute-force the user's password
  3. Obtain access to hashes and compare hashes to infer his password
  4. Deploy key-stroke logging software on the user's computer to capture his password
  5. Social engineer the user to enter his password on a fake website, and capture that entry
  6. Social engineer the user to logon to a compromised computer and capture his hash
  7. Reset the user's password
  8. Coerce the user to giving you his password
Interestingly, of all the ways listed, the easiest way to compromise an administrator's account is to reset his password.

Here's why -

Most organizations have account lockout policies in place, making password guessing and brute-forcing difficult. Obtaining access to hashes requires physical(+system) access to a DC, which is not very easy to obtain. Deploying a keystroke logger requires you to obtain system access to the admin's computer (since you need the privilege to install a driver, and that may or may not be easy. Social engineering a user to enter his password on a fake site and/or logon to a compromised computer will require some social engineering skill. Coercing the user will most likely involve physical intimidation and thus thus require physical access to the user.

In contrast, a password reset can be performed from half way around the world in about 30 seconds, just as long as you have sufficient effective permissions to reset the user's password. With a little bit of creativity and the right tools, such permissions can usually be obtained rather quickly. (It turns out that it is very difficult to accurately assess who can reset whose passwords, so organizations are seldom able to accurately assess and thus precisely control who can reset whose passwords, as a result of which many more individuals than should be able to, can actually reset someone's password.)

Penetration Testing - Overrated

Folks, whether you turn on your Television sets or look at the media coverage of the Sony Hack online, you'll find many self-proclaimed cyber-security experts opine on the subject. You'll also find some cyber-security companies, particularly those in the penetration testing space, trying to claim that penetration-testing could have helped Sony prevent this. That's lame.

You see, a penetration test is merely a tactical security measure designed to assess an organization's security defenses at a given point in time. While the findings of a penetration test can certainly help identify specific areas for improvement, by itself it is not the "fix" itself, and it only gives you a moment in time assessment. (Besides, a cyber-security company / professional's penetration testing capabilities depend on their skill-set and tool-set, and even the world's leading penetration testing companies are novices at best when it comes to assessing the myriad of advanced ways in which a malicious insider could gain administrative access in Active Directory.)

In essence, penetration testing could at best help you identify your security worthiness at a given point in time, and given how rapidly the state of access changes in an environment, the value of a pen test is rather limited in contrast your ability to actually "fix" the problem i.e. in this case, minimize the number of highly privileged administrative personnel in your Active Directory deployment.

Colossal Impact

What happened at Sony was tantamount to a complete and system-wide compromise of an organization's IT infrastructure.

Trying to put a price on the cost of this security incident is very difficult. Suffice it to say that in the long run, it could potentially exceed the net worth of the organization, if you take into account, not just the lawsuits that they're now going to face, but more so the intangible loss i.e. the loss of trust, damage to reputation, etc. etc.

In addition, if their IP was stolen as well, it could really impact their ability to stay competitive, and because the products they develop and sell operate largely in commoditized spaces, the loss of IP could have profound implications on their business in the long run.

If this is not enough to be a wake-up call for the rest of the world, I don't know what else can drive home the point any better.

Reiterated This A Year Ago

This isn't rocket-science; it's common-sense. But perhaps, as they say, common sense is not so common. At Paramount Defenses, we saw this coming years ago, and in addition to documenting this in The Paramount Brief, I reiterated this in this blog entry last year. (The text in red italics below are quotes from that old blog post.)

"It is SO powerful that one who knows how to exploit it can use it to instantly take over virtually any Microsoft Windows Server based IT infrastructure in the world." In this case, the IT infrastructure was that of Sony's, and the perpetrators did take it over.

"With sufficient effort, it can also be used to develop an exploit that can then be packaged into a malicious payload that can automate the disruption / destruction of any Active Directory deployment of choice within hours to days." As you may know, at Sony, the hackers deployed malware to disrupt virtually all of Sony's computers.

"Once determined, this information can be easily used to perform single/multi step privilege escalations and ultimately gain varying levels of, and usually complete, administrative access...Once an attacker has gained Domain Admin access in your environment, he could do whatever he/she wants." U.S. officials that were briefed on the investigation told CNN that "U.S. investigators have evidence that hackers stole the computer credentials of a system administrator to get access to Sony's computer system, allowing them broad access"

"...once you have compromised his account, you're a minute away from owning the kingdom...The attack surface is vast, and the prize is the coveted "keys to the kingdom"." The same U.S. officials also said that "The hackers ability to gain access to the passwords of a top-level information technology employee allowed them to have "keys to the entire building,"."

I could share many more quotes from that blog entry, but out of respect for your time (and mine), I'll share just these two pertinent ones...

"So you see, virtually every IT resource in the Active Directory is a potential target. I'll say this again - technically ANYONE with a Domain User account could take HOURS/DAYS/WEEKS to determine effective access in your environment, and find privilege escalation paths, and when he has, at a time of his choice, he could make his move i.e. WITHIN MINUTES, exploit the identified privilege escalation paths to take over the entire IT infrastructure."

and, finally...

"...imagine what a foreign government can do with 1000s of personnel devoted to building something like this, especially if you consider what is at stake, and what can be had."

Well, my 10 minute timer just rang, so this will have to end right here. But, just one more thing...

Who's Next? (Every Organization is Vulnerable - The Whole World Sitting on a Ticking Bomb?)

As I mentioned above, what (most likely) happened at Sony was rather simple - hackers compromised a single administrative account, then used that access to obtain virtually unrestricted access to and steal a colossal amount of corporate data, and finally used the stolen data to wreak havoc for the organization. To rub it in, they went a mile further to develop and deploy malware that destroyed a majority's of Sony's computers.

Sadly, ONE Active Directory administrative account is all one needs to carry this out. Just ONE.

Speaking of which, since over 85% of the world operates on Active Directory, and in 99% of these IT infrastructures, not only do these organizations have absolutely no idea as to exactly how many administrative accounts and groups they have in Active Directory, they also seem to have no idea as to exactly who is delegated what access on their Active Directory administrative accounts and groups, the following song featured in the movie November Man comes to mind...

(You can click on play above, or if you prefer, view it on YouTube here.)

From the world's most powerful governments to the world's top business organizations, over 85% of the world is vulnerable today, and as hackers become sophisticated, unless organizations start to take this SERIOUSLY, anyone could be next.

Incidentally, a year ago, I ended that blog post with the following words... "Unaddressed though, it is a ticking time-bomb..."

 Who will be Next?

Best wishes,

PS: The world also got a new phrase to throw around - Cyber Vandalism.

PS2: December 11, 2015 Update - Paramount Defenses to declassify The Paramount Brief