Making passwords expire is an obsolete way of protecting user accounts – and may even be doing more harm that good. Not only do passwords that expire every 30 or 60 days create a headache for users who have to dream up a new one, and remember it, they may not improve security at all.
Now Microsoft has changed its stance, removing the recommendation that passwords should expire after a particular period that was previously part of its security guidelines for Windows 10 and Windows Server. Microsoft announced its intention to dump password expiry when the draft guidance was published, which my colleague Liam Tung wrote about.
As Microsoft explains: “Periodic password expiration is a defense only against the probability that a password (or hash) will be stolen during its validity interval and will be used by an unauthorized entity. If a password is never stolen, there’s no need to expire it. And if you have evidence that a password has been stolen, you would presumably act immediately rather than wait for expiration to fix the problem.” It goes on: “Periodic password expiration is an ancient and obsolete mitigation of very low value.”
Rather than depend on users tweaking passwords (and then writing them on a post-it note) companies should have a broader approach to authentication and security, it says. And it’s not saying that we are not changing requirements for minimum password length, history, or complexity. Taking password expiry out of its baseline means that companies can make their own decisions without being penalised by auditors, the company said.
“By removing it from our baseline rather than recommending a particular value or no expiration, organizations can choose whatever best suits their perceived needs without contradicting our guidance. At the same time, we must reiterate that we strongly recommend additional protections even though they cannot be expressed in our baselines,” it said.
Microsoft has been predicting the death of the password for more than a decade, and recently has been ramping up its efforts to make that come true. It has long argued that passwords are inconvenient, insecure and expensive to businesses. It argues that they should be replaced with multi-form authentication and biometrics (although biometrics have their own issues, too).
Microsoft is hardly alone in making this leap. The UK’s National Cyber Security Center (NCSC) recently published a set of best practices for passwords – warning that a bad strategy for passwords that puts too much pressure on users can make your business less secure, not more.
“Inevitably, users will devise their own coping mechanisms to cope with ‘password overload’. This includes re-using the same password across different systems, using simple and predictable password creation strategies, or writing passwords down where they can be easily found,” it warns.
SEE: Cybersecurity in an IoT and mobile world (ZDNet special report) | Download the report as a PDF (TechRepublic)
NCSC suggests that organisations reduce their reliance on passwords and use single sign-on or biometrics where available (although biometrics in particular come with their own risks). Monitoring password systems for unusual behaviour, using account throttling to defend against brute force attacks, and blacklisting common or guessable passwords are all good practice, it said. Multi-factor authentication for important or vulnerable accounts is good policy too.
But forcing regular password changes harms rather than improves security, it said. Users are likely to choose new passwords that are only minor variations of the old, and in any case a password that is stolen is generally used by hackers immediately, so resetting it up to 90 days later is rather a waste of time.
Despite security experts calling time on password expiration policies, it’s still common across many, if not most, organisations for passwords to expire after a relatively short period of time. Mostly that’s down to organisational inertia – there was a time when changing passwords regularly still seemed like a good idea, and the new approach hasn’t filtered down to the tech security team. There’s also a lot of caution around changing IT policies; nobody wants to be the one to change the status quo and then get blamed when it goes wrong.
But there are lots of companies that rely on an aggressive password expiry policy as pretty much their only defence against accounts being hijacked, whereas in reality security has to go well beyond that. At least for now, passwords still have their place, but making us all come up with new variations every few weeks may soon be a thing of the past.
Phish Fight: Securing Enterprise Communications
Yes, much of the world may have moved on from email to social media and culturally dubious TikTok dances, yet traditional electronic mail remains a foundation of business communication. And sadly, it remains a prime vector for malware, data leakage, and phishing attacks that can undermine enterprise protections. It doesn’t have to be that way.
In a just released report titled “GigaOm Radar for Phishing Prevention and Detection,” GigaOm Analyst Simon Gibson surveyed more than a dozen enterprise-focused email security solutions. He found a range of approaches to securing communications that often can be fitted together to provide critical, defense-in-depth protection against even determined attackers.
Figure 1. GigaOm Radar for Email Phishing Prevention and Detection
“When evaluating these vendors and their solutions, it is important to consider your own business and workflow,” Gibson writes in the report, stressing the need to deploy solutions that best address your organization’s business workflow and email traffic. “For some it may be preferable to settle on one comprehensive solution, while for others building a best-of-breed architecture from multiple vendors may be preferable.”
In a field of competent solutions, Gibson found that Forcepoint, purchased recently by Raytheon, stood apart thanks to the layered protections provided by its Advanced Classification Engine. Area 1 and Zimperium, meanwhile, are both leaders that exhibit significant momentum, with Area 1 boosted by its recent solution partnership with Virtru, and Zimperium excelling in its deep commitment to mobile message security.
A mobile focus is timely, Gibson says in a video interview for GigaOm. He says companies are “tuning the spigot on” and enabling unprecedented access and reliance on mobile devices, which is creating an urgent need to get ahead of threats.
Gibson’s conclusion in the report? He singles out three things: Defense in depth, awareness of existing patterns and infrastructure, and a healthy respect for the “human factor” that can make security so hard to lock down.
When Is a DevSecOps Vendor Not a DevSecOps Vendor?
DevOps’ general aim is to enable a more efficient process for producing software and technology solutions and bringing stakeholders together to speed up delivery. But we know from experience that this inherently creative, outcome-driven approach often forgets about one thing until too late in the process—security. Too often, security is brought into the timeline just before deployment, risking last minute headaches and major delays. The security team is pushed into being the Greek chorus of the process, “ruining everyone’s fun” by demanding changes and slowing things down.
But as we know, in the complex, multi-cloud and containerized environment we find ourselves in, security is becoming more important and challenging than ever. And the costs of security failure are not only measured in slower deployment, but in compliance breaches and reputational damage.
The term “DevSecOps” has been coined to characterize how security needs to be at the heart of the DevOps process. This is in part principle and part tools. As a principle, DevSecOps fits with the concept of “shifting left,” that is, ensuring that security is treated as early as possible in the development process. So far, so simple.
From a tooling perspective, however, things get more complicated, not least because the market has seen a number of platforms marketing themselves as DevSecOps. As we have been writing our Key Criteria report on the subject, we have learned that not all DevSecOps vendors are necessarily DevSecOps vendors. Specifically, we have learned to distinguish capabilities that directly enable the goals of DevSecOps from a process perspective, from those designed to support DevSecOps practices. We could define them as: “Those that do, and those that help.”
This is how to tell the two types of vendor apart and how to use them.
Vendors Enabling DevSecOps: “Tools That Do”
A number of tools work to facilitate the DevSecOps process -– let’s bite the bullet and call them DevSecOps tools. They help teams set out each stage of software development, bringing siloed teams together behind a unified vision that allows fast, high-quality development, with security considerations at its core. DevSecOps tools work across the development process, for example:
- Create: Help to set and implement policy
- Develop: Apply guidance to the process and aid its implementation
- Test: Facilitate and guide security testing procedures
- Deploy: Provide reports to assure confidence to deploy the application
The key element that sets these tool sets apart is the ability to automate and reduce friction within the development process. They will prompt action, stop a team from moving from one stage to another if the process has not adequately addressed security concerns, and guide the roadmap for the development from start to finish.
Supporting DevSecOps: “Tools That Help”
In this category we place those tools which aid the execution, and monitoring, of good DevSecOps principles. Security scanning and application/infrastructure hardening tools are a key element of these processes: Software composition analysis (SCA) forms a part of the development stage, static/dynamic application security testing (SAST/DAST) is integral to the test stage and runtime app protection (RASP) is a key to the Deploy stage.
Tools like this are a vital part of the security layer of security tooling, especially just before deployment – and they often come with APIs so they can be plugged into the CI/CD process. However, while these capabilities are very important to DevSecOps, they can be seen in more of a supporting role, rather than being DevSecOps tools per se.
DevSecOps-washing is not a good idea for the enterprise
While one might argue that security should never have been shifted right, DevSecOps exists to ensure that security best practices take place across the development lifecycle. A corollary exists to the idea of “tools that help,” namely that organizations implementing these tools are not “doing DevSecOps,” any more than vendors providing these tools are DevSecOps vendors.
The only way to “do” DevSecOps is to fully embrace security at a process management and governance level: This means assessing risk, defining policy, setting review gates, and disallowing progress for insecure deliverables. Organizations that embrace DevSecOps can get help from what we are calling DevSecOps tools, as well as from scanning and hardening tools that help support its goals.
At the end of the day, all security and governance boils down to risk: If you buy a scanning tool so you can check a box that says “DevSecOps,” you are potentially adding to your risk posture, rather than mitigating it. So, get your DevSecOps strategy fixed first, then consider how you can add automation, visibility, and control using “tools that do,” as well as benefit from “tools that help.”
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