Endpoint Security: No Admin Rights, No Malware? Yeah, Right!

What is the single most important way to improve endpoint security? According to Gartner’s Neil MacDonald, organizations should remove administrative rights from all users. Administrative rights on enterprise endpoints provide users with complete control over the device. These rights allow users to install software, change the Windows Registry settings, change a wide variety of configuration files and generally do whatever they want on the device.

So, why are administrative rights a problem? Mainly because users might change the endpoint configuration or install unauthorized software. If a user installs benign unauthorized software, at most, it will become a nuisance. However, if unauthorized software is malicious and installed under administrative rights, its impact can be devastating.

Additionally, since many Windows vulnerabilities that enable code execution do so in the context of the logged-in user, exploits might be able to execute without any restrictions on the endpoint. Therefore, we certainly agree that limiting administrative privileges for corporate end users improves the organization’s security posture, however, it’s not a panacea. Also, in today’s environments, which support BYOD policies and the consumerization of information technology, removing administrative rights for endpoint security is often unfeasible.

Protecting Endpoint Security

Removing administrative rights from the user does not prevent advanced malware infections. In his blog, MacDonald wrote that removing these rights isn’t a “lockdown,” users will still be able to install software, drivers, ActiveX controls and more — including potentially malicious files. Moreover, today’s advanced malware does not require user interaction or administrative rights to compromise an endpoint. Drive-by downloads, which exploit browser vulnerabilities and browser plug-in vulnerabilities, can infect the endpoint when a user simply views a compromised Web page, with or without administrative rights.

This was the case in a recent malvertising campaign recorded by the research team at IBM Security. The attack utilizes a Java zero-day vulnerability (CVE-2013-0422) to automate the exploitation of the Java virtual machine. Embedded into ads that are displayed on legitimate websites, the exploit is able to automatically infect users with unpatched browsers when they visit these sites, even when the users don’t click on the ad.

It is important to note that advanced malware can infect an endpoint when running under the context of either “administrative” or “standard” user rights, and in both cases, the malware can survive a reboot.

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Drive-by downloads are a top attack method and are growing in popularity among hackers. Today, drive-by downloads that are completely independent of user interaction pose a significant threat to enterprises because they are so difficult to prevent. Attackers are taking advantage of the fact that many enterprises fall behind on patching endpoint vulnerabilities and are also exploiting zero-day vulnerabilities for which a patch is not available.

We agree with MacDonald’s recommendation to use application control and white-listing to lock down environments. Furthermore, we recommend that enterprises implement an exploit-prevention security layer that uses application control and white-listing technology to effectively protect vulnerable endpoint applications.

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George Tubin

Sr. Security Strategist

George Tubin is the Senior Security Strategist for Trusteer, an IBM company, where he heads the thought leadership program to advance online and mobile banking security and adoption, and advise enterprises on best practices for protecting corporate assets from targeted attacks. With over 25 years in the banking and high-technology industries, his areas of expertise include consumer online and mobile banking, online fraud and identity theft prevention, and enterprise fraud management strategies.