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Trouble at t’ Office

Many organizations are failing to address security issues surrounding vital software like Microsoft Office, often at their peril.

Despite the cyber security industry being at the forefront of technological breakthroughs and generally thought of as a forward thinking industry, it can be just as susceptible to incomprehensive policy enactments as any other sector.

In a presentation given at September’s MWR Briefing London, we highlighted that a large number of organizations are not placing Office settings as high up on their list of security concerns as they should.

Office, while not a component of an operating system per se, is still an essential piece of software to most users within an organization. From email to Word, Excel and PowerPoint, nearly every employee using a machine with a Windows operating system is reliant on Office.

The problem, as MWR’s research explains, is that Office’s settings effectively impact a company’s exposed attack surface, as it is their abuse that will give an attacker the initial foothold through the delivery of malware within Office files. Malicious code can be deployed via Visual Basic for Applications (VBA), a scripting language that is enabled by default in all Office versions and is used in macros, templates or other active content. This downside to VBA has been known for nearly 20 years but is often ignored when implementing security.

Many organizations can’t simply disable VBA as to do so would prevent their employees using a variety of useful functionality within macros and templates. Therefore, MWR recommends that tailoring such functionality to specific user needs and deploying it through central policies, such as Active Directory’s Group Policy, the Windows component that controls a user’s working environment.

However, it is also a far too common occurrence that Office settings are not centrally managed. As a result, the responsibility for keeping them in a secure state falls to individual users, who often do not understand their security implications.

Finally, even in “locked down” Office deployments where settings are centrally controlled and addressed on a user basis, the configuration may still be complex enough to fail, leaving holes in the system’s defenses. Therefore additional controls, such as a threat detection system like MWR’s Countercept, are always advised.

The abuse of Office’s functionality still remains the dominant mechanism for delivering malicious code, particularly in targeted attacks. As such it is vital that organizations treat its security settings with the same seriousness as other aspects of their cyber security profile.

To find out more about the abuse of Office templates and their persistence implications within today's end user environments, as well as the importance of treating program settings with the attention it deserves, view the presentation given by MWR’s Senior Security Consultant Kostas Lintovois here.

 

 

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