Skip to main content

Will your employees’ passwords awaken the sleeping dragon of email security?

New research from SecureData – a provider of managed cybersecurity services - suggests today’s enterprise risk model seriously underestimates the soft underbelly of attack surface created by each employee, their password behaviour and repertoire of common online applications.  

Charl van der Walt is the Head of Security Strategy at SecureDat and he explains how attackers view compromising corporate networks through simple, low-cost exploits with potentially devastating effect. Employees have long been singled out as the weak link in the corporate security chain, but the finger of blame has fallen typically on phished communications and lack of awareness – today however, we see a new threat vector to corporate networks that comes with a serious multiplier effect. 

Our own recent study identified almost one thousand at-risk UK organisations in a matter of weeks, based on running our program through a freely available and ever growing supply of compromised email addresses, hashed passwords and unfortunately, yet more poor security practices from employees. 

People behave like people – this 2015 PwC report proved people are just as likely to cause a breach as malware for instance - people are time-poor, prone to memory failure and in need of context and cues for recall - they are unable to generate and remember unique passwords for the typical universe of 25 online applications they frequently use. So they cheat, they modify or often re-use the same password across their personal applications and you’ve guessed it – across their corporate accounts too.

Hacker's perspective

From the hacker’s perspective, this online repertoire of applications is a candy store of possibility if just one password can be cracked – the prize here isn’t necessarily nefarious posting on Facebook pages, but using the same set of keys to access corporate cloud applications, email and systems. So, what should the remedy be? Prevent users from accessing online applications? 

Outlaw home or personal internet use? No, what’s needed (in the absence of password-free security measures) is a rethink of corporate vulnerabilities from an attacker’s perspective.   

Businesses have learned how to manage employee-related threats and vulnerabilities in a professional context, but few have considered how their employees’ personal online behaviour impacts their corporate security. Attackers on the other hand are rubbing their hands with the vastly extended attack surface that social media, personal email and a host of other applications presents as possible entry points to corporate systems. 

Hackers don’t respect perimeters, and users don’t either. To draw attention to this fundamental miscalculation of the cybercriminal mindset and the breadth of opportunity it presents, we focused on the security no-mans-land between personal and professional passwords to demonstrate the efficacy of this type of attack vector. 

With a sample of 1.5 million compromised email addresses and hashed passwords from the public internet, we scanned them to identify Outlook Web Application accounts, a total of 1,226 UK businesses. With 92 per cent of passwords able to be cracked, and the industry benchmark of 77 per cent re-use of passwords across multiple applications we calculate that we have 868 UK organisations that could be hacked right now through OWA. 

The hacker strikes gold once inside with the ability to write Outlook rules to phone home with data and gain access other areas of the network. In our research, we found 0.5 per cent of UK businesses are immediately at risk – staggering for one single, next to no-cost exploit.

The problem with passwords

There’s further evidence to suggest hackers are already exploiting the personal password vulnerability vector - in May, a security firm discovered a botnet built for the sole purpose of locating and using account credentials to gain entry into online bank accounts.  

Hackers gravitate towards the biggest returns for minimum effort. The rate of compromised emails accumulating on the web, with 400 million posted in one mega-breach alone last month (Source:, suggests this type of attack will grow in significance. Certainly, recent breaches suggest a growing appetite for revealing email addresses amongst the cybercriminal community – just take Ashley Madison, Amazon and Vtech for starters. With freely available supply and the multiplied potential from cracking any one of 25 or so personal applications with minimal effort, security managers must rethink what they consider to be included inside their digital footprint. 

They need to map all of the possible entry points an attacker would look at if they really were focused on a target.

Hacking the cybercriminal mindset

The overlap between personal and professional security presents a new frontier for where (and whether) organisations establish a security perimeter. At the very least, security professionals must be careful not to underestimate the potential issues that supposedly benign elements of corporate IT can generate as the email attack vector environment evolves. Two-factor authentication may keep some applications safe, but it’s not a silver bullet where the overlap between corporate and personal passwords exists. 

Most businesses build security architectures and processes around a threat model that reflects their own view of the world. Mapping your digital footprint gives you the attacker’s perspective on where and how they might attempt a compromise. Our research on OWA gives an insight into the new way attackers can abuse the features within corporate applications for gain.  Take a minute to tune in to how cybercriminals might look at your organisation – then ask yourself, what email and password credentials is your CEO using on LinkedIn?

Image Credit: Christiaan Colen / Flickr
Charl van der Walt, Chief Security Strategy Officer –
SecureData SensePost

Charl van der Walt
Charl has given courses and lectures for companies and universities the world over and has been a regular on the Infosec conference circuit. He has been a security training advisor to the US DoD for over 5 years, has acted as a network security consultant for the Commonwealth Games and co-authored numerous security books.