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Emerging Cybersecurity Threats in Active Directory: Security & Mitigation. Compromising Active Directory gives attackers broad access to organization’s systems and sensitive data. Additionally, its deep integration into the IT environment means that weaknesses in Active Directory configurations expose the entire network to risks of lateral movement and privilege escalation, allowing attackers to gain administrative privileges and control over systems and data. These factors keep Active Directory a high value target for cyber criminals looking to exploit organizational networks even nowadays. As a result, attacks aimed at compromising accounts are constantly evolving, becoming more and more sophisticated. The following threats are currently the most popular among the malicious actors.

Exploitation of Zero-day Vulnerabilities

A zero-day vulnerability is a security flaw in software that is unknown to the party responsible for patching. The “zero-day” indicates that the developers have zero days to fix the issue because it is not yet known to them, and there may already be exploits taking advantage of it by the time it is identified.

As a result, there is no defence against this kind of attack. Exploits can bypass security protections and compromise systems, often remaining undetected until they’re actively exploited and subsequently discovered during an attack or security assessment. This makes zero-day vulnerabilities particularly dangerous and a significant concern in cybersecurity. 

To mitigate this risk, you need to have a solid patch management policy, which must include both regular patching (e.g. every month) and emergency patching – to ensure that freshly disclosed zero-day vulnerabilities cannot be used against your infrastructure.

AI-driven Attacks

 AI-driven attacks leverage sophisticated techniques to steal user credentials more efficiently and stealthily. By using machine learning, attackers analyse vast amounts of data to identify patterns and predict the most effective times and methods for launching attacks. For example, AI can optimize phishing campaigns by customizing messages that are more likely to trick specific users into revealing their passwords based on their online behaviour and personal information.

Additionally, AI automate the process of password cracking. This method increases the speed and success rate of brute-force attacks. AI also assists in identifying security vulnerabilities within software that are exploited to capture user credentials directly, such as through SQL injection or cross-site scripting attacks.

Moreover, AI enhances the capabilities of social engineering attacks by creating deep fake audio and video content that appears convincingly real, tricking users into disclosing sensitive information. This sophisticated approach makes it increasingly difficult for users to distinguish between legitimate requests and malicious ones, thereby increasing the risk of credential theft.

These AI driven tactics represent a significant evolution in the methods used by cybercriminals, necessitating advanced defensive strategies that also leverage AI to detect and respond to threats effectively. The strategy must include techniques that prevent attacks based on social engineering, such as end-user awareness sessions to teach users identifying phishing attempts.

Cloud-Based Attacks on Hybrid Environments

Hybrid environments combine on-premises and cloud infrastructures, often linking Active Directory with cloud services like Azure AD. These setups increase the complexity of the security landscape. Attackers might exploit misconfigurations, inadequate access controls, or inconsistencies between cloud and on-premises security policies. 

With IT resources spread across both on-premises and multiple cloud platforms, it becomes challenging for IT departments to maintain full visibility and control over all the software and services being used. This fragmentation leads to gaps in policy enforcement and increase the likelihood of unauthorized services being used without proper vetting (so called “shadow IT”).

Additionally, the rapid pace of change in cloud services compared to the typically slower evolution of on-premises solutions might encourage teams to seek out quicker or more cutting-edge cloud solutions that bypass slower, more controlled on-premises deployment processes. 

All these factors increase the probability of credentials being stolen. And, because both environments usually use Active Directory as an identity provider, compromised credentials can be used to access both on-premises and cloud resources. To mitigate this risk, use the following measures:

  • Apply consistent security policies across both on-prem and cloud environments to avoid gaps that can be exploited.
  • Deploy Cloud Access Security Brokers (more details can be found here) to gain visibility into shadow IT, enforce security policies, and protect against threats across cloud services.
  • Ensure that identity and access management policies are regularly synchronized between on-prem and cloud environments and conduct audits to identify and remediate any discrepancies.

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Supply Chain Attacks

While performing a Supply Chain Attacks, malicious actors exploit vulnerabilities in some trusted subsystem, rather than attacking the primary target directly. In the case of Active Directory, Supply Chain Attacks are performed through some system that uses AD for authentication purposes or simply located in the same network as domain controllers. Two examples of popular supply chain attacks on Active Directory are attacks through Internet of Things (IoT) devices and attacks through federated identity solutions.

Attacks on IoT Devices

IoT devices, often interconnected and integrated into an organization’s network, serve as entry points for attackers. Once an attacker has compromised an IoT device through a supply chain attack, they exploit it to gain a foothold in the network. This involves escalating privileges or exploiting network vulnerabilities to move laterally within the infrastructure. Active Directory, could then be accessed through this lateral movement. Attackers could use it to execute commands or deploy malware that interacts with Active Directory. This leads to the exfiltration of credentials, manipulation of security policies, or even the complete takeover of the Active Directory server, allowing for broad control over the network and its resources.

To mitigate this risk, ensure to:

  • Have a solid patch management policy to keep all the devices and servers in your organization fully updated.
  • Implement network segmentation, to keep IoT devices separated from the core services, such as Active Directory.

Attacks on Federated Identity Solutions

Federated Identity Solutions, such as Active Directory Federation Services (AD FS), are used for facilitating access to systems and applications across organizational boundaries through Single Sign-On. If an attacker compromises AD FS, they potentially access all federated systems. Attacks might involve redirecting users to malicious login pages to harvest credentials or manipulating tokens to gain unauthorized access. Mitigation Strategies for this risk include:

  • Implementation of Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) to increase security even if passwords are compromised.
  • Perform regular security assessments of AD FS deployments, looking for vulnerabilities such as open redirects, insecure endpoints, and exposed interfaces. Keep all the federation connections of Active Directory well documented.
  • Follow best practices for securing AD FS servers, including using HTTPS, securing cookies, and regularly updating software.

Below is a summary of Emerging Cybersecurity Threats in Active Directory: Security & Mitigation. I hope you found it useful.

Conclusion for Emerging Cybersecurity Threats in Active Directory

As the backbone of authentication and authorization, Active Directory remains under constant threat from various sophisticated cyber attacks. Emerging Cybersecurity Threats, such as zero-day vulnerabilities and AI-driven attacks keeps the security landscape increasingly complex. To safeguard against these threats, organizations must adopt a multifaceted approach to cybersecurity. This includes maintaining rigorous patch management policies, employing advanced defensive strategies that leverage AI, consistently applying robust security policies across hybrid environments, and ensuring thorough visibility and control over both on-premises and cloud-based resources. Additionally, educating users on recognizing social engineering tactics and enforcing strong authentication methods, such as MFA, are critical steps in securing AD and, by extension, the entire network.

Additionally, IT security specialists should monitor new trends in the field of cyber threats in order to be ready to perform the necessary preventive actions.


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Marat M

Marat M

System administrator with 14 years of practical experience. Specializes in Microsoft products such as Exchange Server, Active Directory, Microsoft 365 and Azure.

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