Microsoft

Malicious Domain in SolarWinds Hack Turned into ‘Killswitch’

A key malicious domain name used to control potentially thousands of computer systems compromised via the months-long breach at network monitoring software vendor SolarWinds was commandeered by security experts and used as a “killswitch” designed to turn the sprawling cybercrime operation against itself, KrebsOnSecurity has learned.

Austin, Texas-based SolarWinds disclosed this week that a compromise of its software update servers earlier this year may have resulted in malicious code being pushed to nearly 18,000 customers of its Orion platform. Many U.S. federal agencies and Fortune 500 firms use(d) Orion to monitor the health of their IT networks.

On Dec. 13, cyber incident response firm FireEye published a detailed writeup on the malware infrastructure used in the SolarWinds compromise, presenting evidence that the Orion software was first compromised back in March 2020. FireEye said hacked networks were seen communicating with a malicious domain name — avsvmcloud[.]com — one of several domains the attackers had set up to control affected systems.

As first reported here on Tuesday, there were signs over the past few days that control over the domain had been transferred to Microsoft. Asked about the changeover, Microsoft referred questions to FireEye and to GoDaddy, the current domain name registrar for the malicious site.

Today, FireEye responded that the domain seizure was part of a collaborative effort to prevent networks that may have been affected by the compromised SolarWinds software update from communicating with the attackers. What’s more, the company said the domain was reconfigured to act as a “killswitch” that would prevent the malware from continuing to operate in some circumstances.

“SUNBURST is the malware that was distributed through SolarWinds software,” FireEye said in a statement shared with KrebsOnSecurity. “As part of FireEye’s analysis of SUNBURST, we identified a killswitch that would prevent SUNBURST from continuing to operate.”

The statement continues:

“Depending on the IP address returned when the malware resolves avsvmcloud[.]com, under certain conditions, the malware would terminate itself and prevent further execution. FireEye collaborated with GoDaddy and Microsoft to deactivate SUNBURST infections.”

“This killswitch will affect new and previous SUNBURST infections by disabling SUNBURST deployments that are still beaconing to avsvmcloud[.]com. However, in the intrusions FireEye has seen, this actor moved quickly to establish additional persistent mechanisms to access to victim networks beyond the SUNBURST backdoor.

This killswitch will not remove the actor from victim networks where they have established other backdoors. However, it will make it more difficult to for the actor to leverage the previously distributed versions of SUNBURST.”

It is likely that given their visibility into and control over the malicious domain, Microsoft, FireEye, GoDaddy and others now have a decent idea which companies may still be struggling with SUNBURST infections.

The killswitch revelations came as security researchers said they’d made progress in decoding SUNBURST’s obfuscated communications methods. Chinese cybersecurity firm RedDrip Team published their findings on Github, saying its decoder tool had identified nearly a hundred suspected victims of the SolarWinds/Orion breach, including universities, governments and high tech companies.

Meanwhile, the potential legal fallout for SolarWinds in the wake of this breach continues to worsen. The Washington Post reported Tuesday that top investors in SolarWinds sold millions of dollars in stock in the days before the intrusion was revealed. SolarWinds’s stock price has fallen more than 20 percent in the past few days. The Post cited former enforcement officials at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) saying the sales were likely to prompt an insider trading investigation.

SolarWinds Hack Could Affect 18K Customers

The still-unfolding breach at network management software firm SolarWinds may have resulted in malicious code being pushed to nearly 18,000 customers, the company said in a legal filing on Monday. Meanwhile, Microsoft should soon have some idea which and how many SolarWinds customers were affected, as it recently took possession of a key domain name used by the intruders to control infected systems.

On Dec. 13, SolarWinds acknowledged that hackers had inserted malware into a service that provided software updates for its Orion platform, a suite of products broadly used across the U.S. federal government and Fortune 500 firms to monitor the health of their IT networks.

In a Dec. 14 filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), SolarWinds said roughly 33,000 of its more than 300,000 customers were Orion customers, and that fewer than 18,000 customers may have had an installation of the Orion product that contained the malicious code. SolarWinds said the intrusion also compromised its Microsoft Office 365 accounts.

The initial breach disclosure from SolarWinds came five days after cybersecurity incident response firm FireEye announced it had suffered an intrusion that resulted in the theft of some 300 proprietary software tools the company provides to clients to help secure their IT operations.

On Dec. 13, FireEye published a detailed writeup on the malware infrastructure used in the SolarWinds compromise, presenting evidence that the Orion software was first compromised back in March 2020. FireEye didn’t explicitly say its own intrusion was the result of the SolarWinds hack, but the company confirmed as much to KrebsOnSecurity earlier today.

Also on Dec. 13, news broke that the SolarWinds hack resulted in attackers reading the email communications at the U.S. Treasury and Commerce departments.

On Dec. 14, Reuters reported the SolarWinds intrusion also had been used to infiltrate computer networks at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). That disclosure came less than 24 hours after DHS’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) took the unusual step of issuing an emergency directive ordering all federal agencies to immediately disconnect the affected Orion products from their networks.

ANALYSIS

Security experts have been speculating as to the extent of the damage from the SolarWinds hack, combing through details in the FireEye analysis and elsewhere for clues about how many other organizations may have been hit.

And it seems that Microsoft may now be in perhaps the best position to take stock of the carnage. That’s because sometime on Dec. 14, the software giant took control over a key domain name — avsvmcloud[.]com — that was used by the SolarWinds hackers to communicate with systems compromised by the backdoored Orion product updates.



Armed with that access, Microsoft should be able to tell which organizations have IT systems that are still trying to ping the malicious domain. However, because many Internet service providers and affected companies are already blocking systems from accessing that malicious control domain or have disconnected the vulnerable Orion services, Microsoft’s visibility may be somewhat limited.

Microsoft has a long history of working with federal investigators and the U.S. courts to seize control over domains involved in global malware menaces, particularly when those sites are being used primarily to attack Microsoft Windows customers.

Microsoft dodged direct questions about its visibility into the malware control domain, suggesting those queries would be better put to FireEye or GoDaddy (the current domain registrar for the malware control server). But in a response on Twitter, Microsoft spokesperson Jeff Jones seemed to confirm that control of the malicious domain had changed hands.

“We worked closely with FireEye, Microsoft and others to help keep the internet safe and secure,” GoDaddy said in a written statement. “Due to an ongoing investigation and our customer privacy policy, we can’t comment further at this time.”

FireEye declined to answer questions about exactly when it learned of its own intrusion via the Orion compromise, or approximately when attackers first started offloading sensitive tools from FireEye’s network. But the question is an interesting one because its answer may speak to the motivations and priorities of the hackers.

Based on the timeline known so far, the perpetrators of this elaborate hack would have had a fairly good idea back in March which of SolarWinds’ 18,000 Orion customers were worth targeting, and perhaps even in what order.

Alan Paller, director of research for the SANS Institute, a security education and training company based in Maryland, said the attackers likely chose to prioritize their targets based on some calculation of risk versus reward.

Paller said the bad guys probably sought to balance the perceived strategic value of compromising each target with the relative likelihood that exploiting them might result in the entire operation being found out and dismantled.

“The way this probably played out is the guy running the cybercrime team asked his people to build a spreadsheet where they ranked targets by the value of what they could get from each victim,” Paller said. “And then next to that they likely put a score for how good the malware hunters are at the targets, and said let’s first go after the highest priority ones that have a hunter score of less than a certain amount.”

The breach at SolarWinds could well turn into an existential event for the company, depending on how customers react and how SolarWinds is able to weather the lawsuits that will almost certainly ensue.

“The lawsuits are coming, and I hope they have a good general counsel,” said James Lewis, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Now that the government is telling people to turn off [the SolarWinds] software, the question is will anyone turn it back on?”

According to its SEC filing, total revenue from the Orion products across all customers — including those who may have had an installation of the Orion products that contained the malicious update — was approximately $343 million, or roughly 45 percent of the firm’s total revenue. SolarWinds’ stock price has fallen 25 percent since news of the breach first broke.

Some of the legal and regulatory fallout may hinge on what SolarWinds knew or should have known about the incident, when, and how it responded. For example, Vinoth Kumar, a cybersecurity “bug hunter” who has earned cash bounties and recognition from multiple companies for reporting security flaws in their products and services, posted on Twitter that he notified SolarWinds in November 2019 that the company’s software download website was protected by a simple password that was published in the clear on SolarWinds’ code repository at Github.

Andrew Morris, founder of the security firm GreyNoise Intelligence, on said that as of Tuesday evening SolarWinds still hadn’t removed the compromised Orion software updates from its distribution server.

Another open question is how or whether the incoming U.S. Congress and presidential administration will react to this apparently broad cybersecurity event. CSIS’s Lewis says he doubts lawmakers will be able to agree on any legislative response, but he said it’s likely the Biden administration will do something.

“It will be a good new focus for DHS, and the administration can issue an executive order that says federal agencies with regulatory authority need to manage these things better,” Lewis said. “But whoever did this couldn’t have picked a better time to cause a problem, because their timing almost guarantees a fumbled U.S. response.”

U.S. Treasury, Commerce Depts. Hacked Through SolarWinds Compromise

Communications at the U.S. Treasury and Commerce Departments were reportedly compromised by a supply chain attack on SolarWinds, a security vendor that helps the federal government and a range of Fortune 500 companies monitor the health of their IT networks. Given the breadth of the company’s customer base, experts say the incident may be just the first of many such disclosures.

Some of SolarWinds’ customers. Source: solarwinds.com

According to a Reuters story, hackers believed to be working for Russia have been monitoring internal email traffic at the U.S. Treasury and Commerce departments. Reuters reports the attackers were able to surreptitiously tamper with updates released by SolarWinds for its Orion platform, a suite of network management tools.

In a security advisory, Austin, Texas based SolarWinds acknowledged its systems “experienced a highly sophisticated, manual supply chain attack on SolarWinds Orion Platform software builds for versions 2019.4 HF 5 through 2020.2.1, released between March 2020 and June 2020.”

In response to the intrusions at Treasury and Commerce, the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) took the unusual step of issuing an emergency directive ordering all federal agencies to immediately disconnect the affected Orion products from their networks.

“Treat all hosts monitored by the SolarWinds Orion monitoring software as compromised by threat actors and assume that further persistence mechanisms have been deployed,” CISA advised.

A blog post by Microsoft says the attackers were able to add malicious code to software updates provided by SolarWinds for Orion users. “This results in the attacker gaining a foothold in the network, which the attacker can use to gain elevated credentials,” Microsoft wrote.

From there, the attackers would be able to forge single sign-on tokens that impersonate any of the organization’s existing users and accounts, including highly privileged accounts on the network.

“Using highly privileged accounts acquired through the technique above or other means, attackers may add their own credentials to existing application service principals, enabling them to call APIs with the permission assigned to that application,” Microsoft explained.

Malicious code added to an Orion software update may have gone undetected by antivirus software and other security tools on host systems thanks in part to guidance from SolarWinds itself. In this support advisory, SolarWinds says its products may not work properly unless their file directories are exempted from antivirus scans and group policy object restrictions.

The Reuters story quotes several anonymous sources saying the intrusions at the Commerce and Treasury departments could be just the tip of the iceberg. That seems like a fair bet.

SolarWinds says it has over 300,000 customers including:

-more than 425 of the U.S. Fortune 500
-all ten of the top ten US telecommunications companies
-all five branches of the U.S. military
-all five of the top five U.S. accounting firms
-the Pentagon
-the State Department
-the National Security Agency
-the Department of Justice
-The White House.

It’s unclear how many of the customers listed on SolarWinds’ website are users of the affected Orion products. But Reuters reports the supply chain attack on SolarWinds is connected to a broad campaign that also involved the recently disclosed hack at FireEye, wherein hackers gained access to a slew of proprietary tools the company uses to help customers find security weaknesses in their computers and networks.

The compromises at the U.S. federal agencies are thought to date back to earlier this summer, and are being blamed on hackers working for the Russian government.

In its own advisory, FireEye said multiple updates poisoned with a malicious backdoor program were digitally signed with a SolarWinds certificate from March through May 2020, and posted to the SolarWindws update website.

FireEye posits the impact of the hack on SolarWinds is widespread, affecting public and private organizations around the world.

“The victims have included government, consulting, technology, telecom and extractive entities in North America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East,” the company’s analysts wrote. “We anticipate there are additional victims in other countries and verticals.”

Update, 8:30 p.m. ET: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that FireEye attributed the SolarWinds attack to APT29. That information has been removed from the story.

US Cyber Command and Microsoft Are Both Disrupting TrickBot

Earlier this month, we learned that someone is disrupting the TrickBot botnet network.

Over the past 10 days, someone has been launching a series of coordinated attacks designed to disrupt Trickbot, an enormous collection of more than two million malware-infected Windows PCs that are constantly being harvested for financial data and are often used as the entry point for deploying ransomware within compromised organizations.

On Sept. 22, someone pushed out a new configuration file to Windows computers currently infected with Trickbot. The crooks running the Trickbot botnet typically use these config files to pass new instructions to their fleet of infected PCs, such as the Internet address where hacked systems should download new updates to the malware.

But the new configuration file pushed on Sept. 22 told all systems infected with Trickbot that their new malware control server had the address 127.0.0.1, which is a “localhost” address that is not reachable over the public Internet, according to an analysis by cyber intelligence firm Intel 471.

A few days ago, the Washington Post reported that it’s the work of US Cyber Command:

U.S. Cyber Command’s campaign against the Trickbot botnet, an army of at least 1 million hijacked computers run by Russian-speaking criminals, is not expected to permanently dismantle the network, said four U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity. But it is one way to distract them at least for a while as they seek to restore operations.

The network is controlled by “Russian speaking criminals,” and the fear is that it will be used to disrupt the US election next month.

The effort is part of what Gen. Paul Nakasone, the head of Cyber Command, calls “persistent engagement,” or the imposition of cumulative costs on an adversary by keeping them constantly engaged. And that is a key feature of CyberCom’s activities to help protect the election against foreign threats, officials said.

Here’s General Nakasone talking about persistent engagement.

Microsoft is also disrupting Trickbot:

We disrupted Trickbot through a court order we obtained as well as technical action we executed in partnership with telecommunications providers around the world. We have now cut off key infrastructure so those operating Trickbot will no longer be able to initiate new infections or activate ransomware already dropped into computer systems.

[…]

We took today’s action after the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia granted our request for a court order to halt Trickbot’s operations.

During the investigation that underpinned our case, we were able to identify operational details including the infrastructure Trickbot used to communicate with and control victim computers, the way infected computers talk with each other, and Trickbot’s mechanisms to evade detection and attempts to disrupt its operation. As we observed the infected computers connect to and receive instructions from command and control servers, we were able to identify the precise IP addresses of those servers. With this evidence, the court granted approval for Microsoft and our partners to disable the IP addresses, render the content stored on the command and control servers inaccessible, suspend all services to the botnet operators, and block any effort by the Trickbot operators to purchase or lease additional servers.

To execute this action, Microsoft formed an international group of industry and telecommunications providers. Our Digital Crimes Unit (DCU) led investigation efforts including detection, analysis, telemetry, and reverse engineering, with additional data and insights to strengthen our legal case from a global network of partners including FS-ISAC, ESET, Lumen’s Black Lotus Labs, NTT and Symantec, a division of Broadcom, in addition to our Microsoft Defender team. Further action to remediate victims will be supported by internet service providers (ISPs) and computer emergency readiness teams (CERTs) around the world.

This action also represents a new legal approach that our DCU is using for the first time. Our case includes copyright claims against Trickbot’s malicious use of our software code. This approach is an important development in our efforts to stop the spread of malware, allowing us to take civil action to protect customers in the large number of countries around the world that have these laws in place.

Brian Krebs comments:

In legal filings, Microsoft argued that Trickbot irreparably harms the company “by damaging its reputation, brands, and customer goodwill. Defendants physically alter and corrupt Microsoft products such as the Microsoft Windows products. Once infected, altered and controlled by Trickbot, the Windows operating system ceases to operate normally and becomes tools for Defendants to conduct their theft.”

This is a novel use of trademark law.

Who’s Behind Monday’s 14-State 911 Outage?

Emergency 911 systems were down for more than an hour on Monday in towns and cities across 14 U.S. states. The outages led many news outlets to speculate the problem was related to Microsoft‘s Azure web services platform, which also was struggling with a widespread outage at the time. However, multiple sources tell KrebsOnSecurity the 911 issues stemmed from some kind of technical snafu involving Intrado and Lumen, two companies that together handle 911 calls for a broad swath of the United States.

Image: West.com

On the afternoon of Monday, Sept. 28, several states including Arizona, California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Washington reported 911 outages in various cities and localities.

Multiple news reports suggested the outages might have been related to an ongoing service disruption at Microsoft. But a spokesperson for the software giant told KrebsOnSecurity, “we’ve seen no indication that the multi-state 911 outage was a result of yesterday’s Azure service disruption.”

Inquiries made with emergency dispatch centers at several of the towns and cities hit by the 911 outage pointed to a different source: Omaha, Neb.-based Intrado — until last year known as West Safety Communications — a provider of 911 and emergency communications infrastructure, systems and services to telecommunications companies and public safety agencies throughout the country.

Intrado did not respond to multiple requests for comment. But according to officials in Henderson County, NC, which experienced its own 911 failures yesterday, Intrado said the outage was the result of a problem with an unspecified service provider.

“On September 28, 2020, at 4:30pm MT, our 911 Service Provider observed conditions internal to their network that resulted in impacts to 911 call delivery,” reads a statement Intrado provided to county officials. “The impact was mitigated, and service was restored and confirmed to be functional by 5:47PM MT.  Our service provider is currently working to determine root cause.”

The service provider referenced in Intrado’s statement appears to be Lumen, a communications firm and 911 provider that until very recently was known as CenturyLink Inc. A look at the company’s status page indicates multiple Lumen systems experienced total or partial service disruptions on Monday, including its private and internal cloud networks and its control systems network.

Lumen’s status page indicates the company’s private and internal cloud and control system networks had outages or service disruptions on Monday.

In a statement provided to KrebsOnSecurity, Lumen blamed the issue on Intrado.

“At approximately 4:30 p.m. MT, some Lumen customers were affected by a vendor partner event that impacted 911 services in AZ, CO, NC, ND, MN, SD, and UT,” the statement reads. “Service was restored in less than an hour and all 911 traffic is routing properly at this time. The vendor partner is in the process of investigating the event.”

It may be no accident that both of these companies are now operating under new names, as this would hardly be the first time a problem between the two of them has disrupted 911 access for a large number of Americans.

In 2019, Intrado/West and CenturyLink agreed to pay $575,000 to settle an investigation by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) into an Aug. 2018 outage that lasted 65 minutes. The FCC found that incident was the result of a West Safety technician bungling a configuration change to the company’s 911 routing network.

On April 6, 2014, some 11 million people across the United States were disconnected from 911 services for eight hours thanks to an “entirely preventable” software error tied to Intrado’s systems. The incident affected 81 call dispatch centers, rendering emergency services inoperable in all of Washington and parts of North Carolina, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, California, Minnesota and Florida.

According to a 2014 Washington Post story about a subsequent investigation and report released by the FCC, that issue involved a problem with the way Intrado’s automated system assigns a unique identifying code to each incoming call before passing it on to the appropriate “public safety answering point,” or PSAP.

“On April 9, the software responsible for assigning the codes maxed out at a pre-set limit,” The Post explained. “The counter literally stopped counting at 40 million calls. As a result, the routing system stopped accepting new calls, leading to a bottleneck and a series of cascading failures elsewhere in the 911 infrastructure.”

Compounding the length of the 2014 outage, the FCC found, was that the Intrado server responsible for categorizing and keeping track of service interruptions classified them as “low level” incidents that were never flagged for manual review by human beings.

The FCC ultimately fined Intrado and CenturyLink $17.4 million for the multi-state 2014 outage. An FCC spokesperson declined to comment on Monday’s outage, but said the agency was investigating the incident.

Microsoft: Attackers Exploiting ‘ZeroLogon’ Windows Flaw

Microsoft warned on Wednesday that malicious hackers are exploiting a particularly dangerous flaw in Windows Server systems that could be used to give attackers the keys to the kingdom inside a vulnerable corporate network. Microsoft’s warning comes just days after the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued an emergency directive instructing all federal agencies to patch the vulnerability by Sept. 21 at the latest.

DHS’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency (CISA) said in the directive that it expected imminent exploitation of the flaw — CVE-2020-1472 and dubbed “ZeroLogon” — because exploit code which can be used to take advantage of it was circulating online.

Last night, Microsoft’s Security Intelligence unit tweeted that the company is “tracking threat actor activity using exploits for the CVE-2020-1472 Netlogon vulnerability.”

“We have observed attacks where public exploits have been incorporated into attacker playbooks,” Microsoft said. “We strongly recommend customers to immediately apply security updates.”

Microsoft released a patch for the vulnerability in August, but it is not uncommon for businesses to delay deploying updates for days or weeks while testing to ensure the fixes do not interfere with or disrupt specific applications and software.

CVE-2020-1472 earned Microsoft’s most-dire “critical” severity rating, meaning attackers can exploit it with little or no help from users. The flaw is present in most supported versions of Windows Server, from Server 2008 through Server 2019.

The vulnerability could let an unauthenticated attacker gain administrative access to a Windows domain controller and run an application of their choosing. A domain controller is a server that responds to security authentication requests in a Windows environment, and a compromised domain controller can give attackers the keys to the kingdom inside a corporate network.

Scott Caveza, research engineering manager at security firm Tenable, said several samples of malicious .NET executables with the filename ‘SharpZeroLogon.exe’ have been uploaded to VirusTotal, a service owned by Google that scans suspicious files against dozens of antivirus products.

“Given the flaw is easily exploitable and would allow an attacker to completely take over a Windows domain, it should come as no surprise that we’re seeing attacks in the wild,” Caveza said. “Administrators should prioritize patching this flaw as soon as possible. Based on the rapid speed of exploitation already, we anticipate this flaw will be a popular choice amongst attackers and integrated into malicious campaigns.”

Microsoft is adding Linux, Android, and firmware protections to Windows

Screenshot of antivirus protection.

Microsoft is moving forward with its promise to extend enterprise security protections to non-Windows platforms with the general release of a Linux version and a preview of one for Android. The software maker is also beefing up Windows security protections to scan for malicious firmware.

The Linux and Android moves—detailed in posts published on Tuesday here, here, and here—follow a move last year to ship antivirus protections to macOS. Microsoft disclosed the firmware feature last week.

Premium pricing

All the new protections are available to users of Microsoft Advanced Threat Protection and require Windows 10 Enterprise Edition. Public pricing from Microsoft is either non-existent or difficult to find, but according to this site, costs range from $30 to $72 per machine per year to enterprise customers.

In February, when the Linux preview became available, Microsoft said it included antivirus alerts and “preventive capabilities.” Using a command line, admins can manage user machines, initiate and configure antivirus scans, monitor network events, and manage various threats.

“We are just at the beginning of our Linux journey and we are not stopping here!” Tuesday’s post announcing the Linux general availability said. “We are committed to continuous expansion of our capabilities for Linux and will be bringing you enhancements in the coming months.”

The Android preview, meanwhile, provides several protections, including:

  • The blocking of phishing sites and other high-risk domains and URLs accessed through SMS/text, WhatsApp, email, browsers, and other apps. The features use the same Microsoft Defender SmartScreen services that are already available for Windows so that decisions to block suspicious sites will apply across all devices on a network.
  • Proactive scanning for malicious or potentially unwanted applications and files that may be downloaded to a mobile device.
  • Measures to block access to network resources when devices show signs of being compromised with malicious apps or malware.
  • Integration to the same Microsoft Defender Security Center that’s already available for Windows, macOS, and Linux.

Last week, Microsoft said it had added firmware protection to the premium Microsoft Defender. The new offering scans Unified Extensible Firmware Interface, which is the successor to the traditional BIOS that most computers used during the boot process to locate and enumerate hardware installed.

The firmware scanner uses a new component added to virus protection already built into Defender. Hacks that infect firmware are particularly pernicious because they survive reinstallations of the operating system and other security measures. And because firmware runs before Windows starts, it has the ability to burrow deep into an infected system. Until now, there have been only limited ways to detect such attacks on large fleets of machines.

It makes sense that the extensions to non-Windows platforms are available only to enterprises and cost extra. I was surprised, however, that Microsoft is charging a premium for the firmware protection and only offering it to enterprises. Plenty of journalists, attorneys, and activists are equally if not more threatened by so-called evil maid attacks, in which a housekeeper or other stranger has the ability to tamper with firmware during brief physical access to a computer.

Microsoft has a strong financial incentive to make Windows secure for all users. Company representatives didn’t respond to an email asking if the firmware scanner will become more widely available.

Turn on MFA Before Crooks Do It For You

Hundreds of popular websites now offer some form of multi-factor authentication (MFA), which can help users safeguard access to accounts when their password is breached or stolen. But people who don’t take advantage of these added safeguards may find it far more difficult to regain access when their account gets hacked, because increasingly thieves will enable multi-factor options and tie the account to a device they control. Here’s the story of one such incident.

As a career chief privacy officer for different organizations, Dennis Dayman has tried to instill in his twin boys the importance of securing their online identities against account takeovers. Both are avid gamers on Microsoft’s Xbox platform, and for years their father managed their accounts via his own Microsoft account. But when the boys turned 18, they converted their child accounts to adult, effectively taking themselves out from under their dad’s control.

On a recent morning, one of Dayman’s sons found he could no longer access his Xbox account. The younger Dayman admitted to his dad that he’d reused his Xbox profile password elsewhere, and that he hadn’t enabled multi-factor authentication for the account.

When the two of them sat down to reset his password, the screen displayed a notice saying there was a new Gmail address tied to his Xbox account. When they went to turn on multi-factor authentication for his son’s Xbox profile — which was tied to a non-Microsoft email address — the Xbox service said it would send a notification of the change to unauthorized Gmail account in his profile.

Wary of alerting the hackers that they were wise to their intrusion, Dennis tried contacting Microsoft Xbox support, but found he couldn’t open a support ticket from a non-Microsoft account. Using his other son’s Outlook account, he filed a ticket about the incident with Microsoft.

Dennis soon learned the unauthorized Gmail address added to his son’s hacked Xbox account also had enabled MFA. Meaning, his son would be unable to reset the account’s password without approval from the person in control of the Gmail account.

Luckily for Dayman’s son, he hadn’t re-used the same password for the email address tied to his Xbox profile. Nevertheless, the thieves began abusing their access to purchase games on Xbox and third-party sites.

“During this period, we started realizing that his bank account was being drawn down through purchases of games from Xbox and [Electronic Arts],” Dayman the elder recalled. “I pulled the recovery codes for his Xbox account out of the safe, but because the hacker came in and turned on multi-factor, those codes were useless to us.”

Microsoft support sent Dayman and his son a list of 20 questions to answer about their account, such as the serial number on the Xbox console originally tied to the account when it was created. But despite answering all of those questions successfully, Microsoft refused to let them reset the password, Dayman said.

“They said their policy was not to turn over accounts to someone who couldn’t provide the second factor,” he said.

Dayman’s case was eventually escalated to Tier 3 Support at Microsoft, which was able to walk him through creating a new Microsoft account, enabling MFA on it, and then migrating his son’s Xbox profile over to the new account.

Microsoft told KrebsOnSecurity that while users currently are not prompted to enable two-step verification upon sign-up, they always have the option to enable the feature.

“Users are also prompted shortly after account creation to add additional security information if they have not yet done so, which enables the customer to receive security alerts and security promotions when they login to their account,” the company said in a written statement. “When we notice an unusual sign-in attempt from a new location or device, we help protect the account by challenging the login and send the user a notification. If a customer’s account is ever compromised, we will take the necessary steps to help them recover the account.”

Certainly, not enabling MFA when it is offered is far more of a risk for people in the habit of reusing or recycling passwords across multiple sites. But any service to which you entrust sensitive information can get hacked, and enabling multi-factor authentication is a good hedge against having leaked or stolen credentials used to plunder your account.

What’s more, a great many online sites and services that do support multi-factor authentication are completely automated and extremely difficult to reach for help when account takeovers occur. This is doubly so if the attackers also can modify and/or remove the original email address associated with the account.

KrebsOnSecurity has long steered readers to the site twofactorauth.org, which details the various MFA options offered by popular websites. Currently, twofactorauth.org lists nearly 900 sites that have some form of MFA available. These range from authentication options like one-time codes sent via email, phone calls, SMS or mobile app, to more robust, true “2-factor authentication” or 2FA options (something you have and something you know), such as security keys or push-based 2FA such as Duo Security (an advertiser on this site and a service I have used for years).

Email, SMS and app-based one-time codes are considered less robust from a security perspective because they can be undermined by a variety of well-established attack scenarios, from SIM-swapping to mobile-based malware. So it makes sense to secure your accounts with the strongest form of MFA available. But please bear in mind that if the only added authentication options offered by a site you frequent are SMS and/or phone calls, this is still better than simply relying on a password to secure your account.