Glossary Glossary

Security Misconfiguration

A security misconfiguration is a cybersecurity issue that occurs when a system’s or an application’s settings are either missing or wrongly implemented, possibly allowing unauthorized access.

Security misconfigurations are a major cause of cyber attacks and data breaches, contributing to the attack surfaces of organizations of all sizes. They can happen in any part of an IT environment, including networks, systems, applications, and cloud infrastructure. The Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP) consistently names security misconfigurations among their top 10 mobile, API, and web application risks year after year.

Table of Contents

Security Misconfiguration: A Deep Dive

What Is the Difference between a Security Misconfiguration and a Vulnerability?

Although the meaning and potential consequences of security misconfigurations and vulnerabilities overlap, understanding their subtle differences is vital to prioritizing security efforts.

Vulnerabilities refer to security issues in a system that can provide attackers unauthorized access, including security misconfigurations, programming errors, and flaws in software design. Remediation efforts would depend on the type of vulnerability.

Meanwhile, security misconfigurations are a type of vulnerabilities that stem from the way a system, software, or network is set up. They can be avoided by setting up systems correctly, following security best practices, and regularly monitoring the integrity of security settings.

An example of a security misconfiguration would be when default passwords are left unchanged or multifactor authentication (MFA) is not set up. In this case, security efforts should be geared toward employee security awareness education.

What Causes a Security Misconfiguration?

Security misconfigurations can be caused by various factors, including:

  • Human error: People may accidentally misconfigure a system or an application. For example, a developer may accidentally leave the debug mode enabled (CWE-489: Active Debug Code), creating an entry point for attackers or exposing sensitive information.
  • Use of default settings: Most systems come with default settings designed for convenience and ease of use. However, these settings are often insecure. A security best practice is to check the default settings of any system or application and ensure they comply with security standards. For instance, some systems may use weak cipher suites by default, so IT teams must switch to more secure ones.
  • IT system complexity: Modern IT systems and applications often have many different configuration options, making it difficult for administrators to keep track of all options and ensure they are configured securely. That is where attack surface management (ASM) solutions come in handy. They can automatically scan for issues, including weak cipher suites, CWE-489, and other common weaknesses and vulnerabilities listed by MITRE.

What Are Common Examples of Security Misconfigurations?

Misconfigurations occur in various ways. Some examples are listed below.

  • Default settings: Leaving default usernames, passwords, or security settings unchanged creates easy entry points for attackers.
  • Outdated software: Failing to update software with security patches leaves systems open to known vulnerabilities attackers can exploit.
  • Misconfigured access controls: Improperly granted permissions or overly broad access rights can give attackers access to sensitive data.
  • Insecure data storage: Storing sensitive data in unencrypted format or insecure locations exposes it to data breaches.
  • Open ports: Leaving unnecessary network ports open creates gateways for attackers to infiltrate systems.
  • Misconfigured firewalls: Improperly configured firewalls can allow unauthorized traffic to bypass security measures.
  • Disabled security features: Disabling built-in security features like antivirus software or encryption weakens overall system protection.
  • Outdated configurations: Failing to update security configurations and policies leaves devices vulnerable to evolving threats and exploitation techniques.

What Are the Potential Impacts of a Security Misconfiguration?

Security misconfigurations can cause severe damage to an organization, especially when it involves sensitive data and systems.

security misconfiguration impacts

A security misconfiguration can cause data breaches as it may allow attackers to gain unauthorized access to sensitive data, such as customer records, financial information, or intellectual property. It can also allow threat actors to insert malicious code into a system, giving way to ransomware attacks.

An organization may suffer reputational and financial damages if a security misconfiguration leads to a data breach or ransomware or other cyber attacks. It may also find itself in violation of specific regulations.

How Do You Prevent a Security Misconfiguration?

Organizations can follow these tips to avoid the risks a security misconfiguration poses.

  • Set and enforce configuration standards for all systems.
  • Install software updates and security patches immediately.
  • Use automated tools like ASM platforms to continuously scan for misconfigurations.
  • Conduct regular security audits to assess the security of all systems, including their configurations.
  • Provide security training to employees to help them understand the security implications of misconfigurations.
  • Scan for shadow IT and other unknown assets regularly.
  • Close unnecessary ports and services.

Key Takeaways

  • A security misconfiguration is a security issue that occurs when system or application settings are either missing or improperly implemented.
  • A security misconfiguration is often the result of human error, failure to change default settings, and the complexity of IT systems. It can lead to data breaches and ransomware attacks, causing reputational and financial damage.
  • To prevent security misconfigurations, organizations should set standards, install software updates, use automated tools, conduct regular security audits, provide security training to employees, and scan for shadow IT.

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