Fixing the Weakest Link — The Passwords — in Cybersecurity Today

Cyber Security

Password security has long been an issue for businesses and their cybersecurity standards. Account passwords are often the weakest link in the overall security posture for many organizations.

Many companies have used Microsoft’s default password policies for decades. While these can be customized, businesses often accept the default values for their organization.

The Windows default password policy is a good start, but are there security vulnerabilities associated with it? Let’s look at the current recommendations from leading cybersecurity authorities and see how they measure up against the Windows default password policy.

Windows default password policy settings

Many, if not most, business environments today use Microsoft Active Directory as their identity and access management solution in the enterprise. Active Directory has served organizations in this capacity for decades.

One of the built-in capabilities provided by Microsoft Active Directory Domain Services (ADDS) is the built-in capability to provide password policy for an organization.

What is a password policy? A password policy provides the set of required password characteristics that end-users must meet when choosing their account password. Below is a look at Active Directory Default Domain Policy Password Policy configuration with typical values that many organizations may use.

A newly promoted Windows Server 2019 Domain Controller Default Domain Group Policy shows the default settings for Password Policy.

Domain Group Policy
Default Windows Password Policy settings defined in Default Domain Group Policy

As you can see, specific policy settings are configured for you by default. These include:

  • Enforce password history – 24 passwords remembered
  • Maximum password age – 42 days
  • Minimum password age – 1 day
  • Minimum password length – 7 characters
  • Password must meet complexity requirements – Enabled
  • Store passwords using reversible encryption – Disabled

How do these defaults hold up with the current recommendations from leading cybersecurity authorities regarding password recommendations?

Are Windows default password policy settings insecure?

There have been changes and strong recommendations made in recent years regarding password security that represent a shift in password security recommendations. Industry cybersecurity experts are emphasizing the need to check passwords against known weak password lists (dictionaries) and are placing less focus on password expiration policies that have long been a part of enterprise password policies.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) released the NIST Special Publication 800-63B (Digital Identity Guidelines – Authentication and Lifecycle Management).

In Section 5.1.1, ‘Memorized Secrets,’ they note this specific guidance in regards to comparing passwords with known passwords from a dictionary or breach list:

“When processing requests to establish and change memorized secrets, verifiers SHALL compare the prospective secrets against a list that contains values known to be commonly-used, expected, or compromised. For example, the list MAY include, but is not limited to:

  • Passwords obtained from previous breach corpuses.
  • Dictionary words.
  • Repetitive or sequential characters (e.g. ‘aaaaaa’, ‘1234abcd’).
  • Context-specific words, such as the name of the service, the username, and derivatives
  • thereof.”

Another section of the NIST guidance to note regarding obligatory password changes on periodic intervals:

“Verifiers SHOULD NOT require memorized secrets to be changed arbitrarily (e.g., periodically). However, verifiers SHALL force a change if there is evidence of compromise of the authenticator.”

The NIST guidance in regards to periodic password changes is now passively recommended by Microsoft. In the Security baseline (DRAFT) for Windows 10 v1903 and Windows Server v1903, Microsoft notes the following regarding enforced periodic password changes:

“Recent scientific research calls into question the value of many long-standing password-security practices such as password expiration policies, and points instead to better alternatives such as enforcing banned-password lists (a great example being Azure AD password protection) and multi-factor authentication. While we recommend these alternatives, they cannot be expressed or enforced with our recommended security configuration baselines, which are built on Windows’ built-in Group Policy settings and cannot include customer-specific values.”

Microsoft’s guidance helps to point out a flaw with the built-in Active Directory Group Policy capabilities. There are no built-in means to enforce banned-passwords easily. While Microsoft does document the process to register a password filter .dll in its guide here, organizations must write their own custom password filter .dlls. This process can entail its own set of challenges.

Looking at the other Group Policy Password Policy defaults enabled, the 7-character minimum password length falls short of what is noted by many leading cybersecurity best practices and recommendations from leading authorities.

Note below the specific password policy standard minimum password length and if they recommend comparing passwords with a dictionary list.

  • SANS Institute (admins) – 12 characters, dictionary
  • NIST – 8 characters, dictionary
  • NCSC – dictionary
  • Microsoft Technet – 14 characters
  • Microsoft Research – 8 characters, dictionary

How can organizations easily audit their current password policies in their environment and ensure these meet the recommended password security best practices? How can banned password lists be easily implemented in Active Directory environments without this built-in capability?

Specops Password Auditor and Password Policy

Both the Specops Password Auditor (Free) and Specops Password Policy from Specops Software provide extremely robust tools that can help organizations audit their current password policies and quickly implement breached password protection and custom dictionaries.

Organizations can implement this functionality without the need to program and develop a custom password filter .dll.

Specops Password Auditor provides an easy way to gain visibility to password security risks in your environment quickly. Notably, this includes accounts with blank passwords, passwords set not to expire, breached passwords, stale admin accounts, and many others. One of the features it provides is the ability to audit your password policies.

Below, the Specops Password Auditor allows you to quickly and easily audit your current domain password policies and compare them against leading industry-standard password policy recommendations.

Comparing Active Directory Domain Policy with industry best practice recommendations for passwords

You can drill into each recommendation and see which specific requirement is not met by your current Active Directory password policy.

Viewing password policy settings compared to specific industry best practices

In addition to the visibility and features provided by Specops Password Auditor, Specops Password Policy provides an effortless way to implement banned-password lists in your Active Directory environment. It also takes this a step further by allowing you to implement breached password protection.

Specops Password Policy breached password protection

You can also force users to change passwords if their password becomes breached.

Force a password change if an end-user password becomes breached

The breached and banned-password list functionality provided by Specops Password Policy extends the Windows default password policy. Hence, organizations have a much more robust and secure password policy for their environment.

Wrapping Up

Password security is crucial for the effective overall security of your business-critical data. Hackers are commonly using credential theft as an easy way into your IT infrastructure.

Microsoft Active Directory Domain Services (ADDS) is a widely used solution in most enterprise environments for identity and access management. It also handles the enforcement of password policy for many.

The Windows default password policy as configured and enforced by Active Directory falls short in many areas. Notably, it lacks any built-in ability to check passwords against custom dictionary lists or breached password lists.

Specops Password Auditor and Password Policy helps businesses quickly gain visibility to password risks in the environment and easily add banned-passwords and breached password list protection.

Download Specops Password Auditor.

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