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OPINION: Don’t let fatigue be the cause of MFA bypass

By Steven Hope (pictured) , Product Director MFA at Intercede

If names such as Conficker, Sasser and MyDoom send a shiver down your spine, you are not alone. In the not-too-distant past computer viruses, whether simple or sophisticated had the power to cripple organisations large and small, as cybercriminals sought to wreak havoc, and gain notoriety and wealth.

For security professional’s endpoint/perimeter protection was the name of the game, with firewalls and anti-virus software providing the first line of defence. Whilst this type of malware still exists it is no longer the main attack vector, however, the threat landscape is ever evolving and, with the growth of man-in-the-middle (session hijacking), SIM hacking and targeted phishing attacks, preying on vulnerable authentication, including Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA).

In the same way that anti-virus has never been able to protect systems from 100% of trojan, worms, botnets, ransomware etc, there is no such thing as a phishing-proof solution, bar hardware-based PKI & FIDO for now. However, there are ways to be more resistant to phishing attacks. Unfortunately, the weakest form of resistance is also the most commonplace – passwords. Guess, buy or socially engineer a password and you instantly have access to whatever it is ‘protecting’, be it a social media account, or a mission-critical system. If it was deemed important enough to have a password in front of it, then the chances are that it has a degree of value, financial, or otherwise to the organisation that can be exploited.

The obvious choice, therefore, is to add another layer of security, so if the password is breached then there is another obstacle to overcome. This is commonly known as multi-factor authentication (MFA), but this can be a misnomer, if, for example, one of those factors is a poorly managed password programme (not following NIST guidelines and failing to have a Password Security Management solution). Given the weakness of passwords, MFA of this type is typically only as secure as the second factor. So, whilst potentially more secure than a standalone password, it is far from being resistant to phishing and some might argue whether this really is MFA.

Brute force attacks to guess passwords are still used today, but many cybercriminals are far more likely to focus less on cracking the computer and more on engineering the employee through techniques such as spear phishing, BEC (Business Email Compromise) and consent phishing. The aim here is to encourage the identified target to unwittingly handover the information they need.

A perfect example of this is the exploitation of the complacency surrounding push notifications (commonly known as ‘push fatigue’). Push notifications are increasingly used as the second factor when logging on to a system, or making a purchase. A message asks the account owner to accept, enter a one-time-code (OTC), or use a biometric (via the fingerprint reader on a mobile device).

Cybercriminals have learnt that bombarding accountholders with push notifications, creating a fatigue, can than result in the owner complying with their request; after all if pressing decline a few times doesn’t make the popups stop, may pressing Accept will. If they already have the username and password (readily available and traded at very low cost on the dark web) they can do as they please, whether that be making a transaction, emptying an account, downloading or deleting data. If the term ‘trojan horse’ had not already been attributed in the world of cybersecurity it would be an apt description of what cybercriminals are doing with push notifications.

So, if poorly managed passwords are weak and 2FA easily bypassed, it is a valid question to ask where that leaves authentication, especially given the lack of recognised standards (although I would encourage anyone to look at FIPS 201, published by NIST). The reality is that a multi-faceted and multi-factor authentication (MFA) approach needs to be phishing resistant. The better staff are trained (CUJO AI reported in January that 56% of Internet users try to open at least one phishing link every month), the more factors there are, the more secure you are. How far you go on the scale from passwords (not phishing resistant) to PKI (the highest level of authentication assurance) will very much depend on where you sit in the food chain and whether the organisation could be perceived to be a high value target, whether of itself or for its role in a wider and richer supply chain.

The reality for most organisations of any size is that different people and tasks will require different assurance levels, so any MFA solution used needs to have the ability to scale how credentials are applied appropriately. Authlogics Push MFA has been built with the end user in mind, giving them useful information with which to make a more informed accept/decline decision. Furthermore, after declining a logon they can simply tap the reason why and push fatigue protection will automatically kick in.

In the third quarter of 2022, the Anti-Phishing Working Group (APWG) reported 1,270,883 phishing attacks, the worst ever recorded by the group. The reason is simple – phishing works. Every expectation is that 2023 will continue to see numbers rise. However, using the right MFA as part of an overall security strategy can provide the resistance needed to repel ever more sophisticated, persistent and persuasive attacks.

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