A Step-by-Step Guide to Spotting a Security Misconfiguration Vulnerability

Hackers are all diabolical geniuses, clad in hoodies, who sneak past our best defenses like ninjas… or not. Their job is actually a bit dull. Most hacking involves automated software looking for easy break-ins enabled by security misconfigurations.

11% of successful breaches result from cloud misconfigurations. These mishaps are not just widespread but deceptively dangerous. Based on OWASP’s Top 10, “security misconfiguration” is the 5th most critical vulnerability worldwide, having moved up from 6th place in the previous edition. 

It’s not just about spotting misconfigurations but being quick at spotting them. With hackers taking as little as one minute to exploit a weakness, your team can’t afford to take weeks to discover and respond to it (if it ever discovers it at all). 


What is a security misconfiguration vulnerability?

A security misconfiguration vulnerability is any system setting that causes exposure to cyber threats. It often originates from a lack of security controls and processes. For instance, it may be caused by not switching on recommended app security settings, enabling unnecessary features like legacy encryption protocols, incomplete hardening of servers, or allowing default passwords.  These vulnerabilities can affect operating systems, web servers, databases, applications, and cloud services. 

SaaS applications present a distinct challenge when it comes to misconfiguration risks. For example, a SaaS system user might be granted temporary privileged (administrative) access, but the person who added the privilege forgets to revoke it. If a malicious actor compromises that user’s account, he now has administrative access. The average company uses over a hundred SaaS apps, so the attack surface is vast. 

The impact of security misconfiguration vulnerability attacks

Attacks that exploit security misconfiguration vulnerabilities can take many forms. Ransomware, data breaches and exfiltration, impersonation of employees, and phishing attacks are among the most impactful. 


Compliance problems are also a related risk. If a malicious actor can access and exfiltrate consumers’ Personal Identifiable Information (PII), that could result in penalties and legal liability for violating privacy laws such as GDPR and CCPA. 

Common challenges in spotting security misconfigurations 

Spotting security misconfigurations is inherently challenging because these are often easy-to-miss errors. Vulnerabilities may emerge from seemingly minor lapses like failing to require periodic password changes or allowing anonymous file shares. 

Then there’s the extra complexity we’re all dealing with today—a high level of interconnectivity between apps and systems. With SaaS, this takes the form of third-party integration plugins that link SaaS apps to one another, creating risk exposure.

Configurations also tend to be dynamic, and as the landscape continually changes, it is increasingly difficult to keep up with new integrations and settings. If detailed documentation is unavailable, it becomes all the more challenging to see misconfigurations because you don’t know what the configurations should look like. 

A step-by-step guide to spotting a security misconfiguration vulnerability

Step #1: Enforce security policies

The best scenario is one where you have as few security misconfiguration vulnerabilities as possible. That will mean less work spotting them and less risk. This is easier said than done, but investing in process and technology can pay dividends. 

For example, adopting repeatable hardening processes for applications and servers can help you avoid misconfigurations at the outset. Automating repetitive admin tasks can also help in this regard, as can rapidly deploying software patches. 

Step #2: Understand your complete architecture

Spotting misconfigurations depends on knowing what you have in your IT estate. The best practice is to develop a comprehensive architecture map and commit to keeping it updated. This map should include SaaS apps, which may integrate with productivity apps, storage systems, and other platforms. 

For example, it is common for SaaS-based CRM solutions to link with order management systems. You should track all such connections. If a SaaS vendor discloses that its third-party plugin has a security problem, your architecture map will tell you where it could be causing a vulnerability. 


Step #3: Conduct automated scans

The reality of today’s highly complex IT environments is that manual processes for detecting security misconfigurations are doomed to failure. Automated tooling is essential for scanning the entirety of the network, the SaaS landscape, applications, databases, and operating systems. 

For example, a SaaS Security Posture Management (SSPM) platform like Suridata can automatically scan all your organization’s SaaS apps and identify misconfigured apps, creating risk. For example, the SSPM platform might discover that a user has decided to allow anyone in public to access files on a SaaS storage drive and automatically alert your team.

Step #4: Review IAM practices

Many insecure configurations involve Identity and Access Management (IAM). For instance, if your users can access SaaS apps without MFA, you risk hackers accessing your SaaS data with stolen credentials. 

Hackers also look for Broken Access Controls (BACs). This OWASP Top 10 vulnerability results from a poorly configured web application. Specialized security tools can detect such vulnerabilities and flag them for remediation. 


Step #5: Check your data

Most cyberattacks target data. Therefore, hackers tend to look for misconfigurations that expose data to breach. Examples include unencrypted data and Structured Query Language (SQL) messages that inadvertently reveal sensitive information. 

SSPM can be helpful in this context. These tools will scan all your SaaS apps and discover where sensitive data is stored and who can access it. The results of such scans may surprise you, as your data is often stored in more places than you’re aware of, but it’s best to be surprised at this stage than later when your data has already been exploited. 

Step #6: Check for unused features and default settings

An unused feature hidden from view can allow access that doesn’t conform to policies and become a breeding ground for misconfigurations. Similarly, default settings might violate any number of security policies. For instance, they could allow access by people with Gmail addresses or permit access from insecure IP addresses. It’s a good practice to audit your systems for unused features and default settings and update these as soon as possible. 

Step #7: Review your SaaS vendor for compliance certifications

Your SaaS vendor’s approach to security can significantly impact your security, positively or negatively. From cryptographic failures to cross-site scripting (XSS) risks, the SaaS software can present itself with many insecure configurations. Compliance certifications such as SOC2 or PCI-DSS show that a SaaS vendor has demonstrated adherence to rigorous security frameworks. By reviewing your SaaS vendors’ compliance certifications, you can make sure you’re working with vendors that take your security seriously.

You can never stop looking for security misconfiguration vulnerabilities

Misconfigurations are a significant source of cyber risk, so you have to be able to spot them and resolve them promptly. This must be an ongoing process, however. Given the pace at which systems and connections evolve, new security misconfiguration vulnerabilities will arise continuously. 

Automation is your best friend in spotting misconfiguration vulnerabilities, helping you gain visibility across all layers of your SaaS apps. Suridata combines SSPM and SSDR, enabling you not just to gain visibility over your misconfigurations but to activate the proper response workflows as soon as a misconfiguration is spotted. Book a quick demo to see how it works.

Haviv Ohayon

Co-Founder & COO

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