Combat Password Spraying & Brute Force Attacks in Universities & Colleges

Bryan Christ

June 28, 2024

Cybersecurity threats are evolving, and higher education institutions are not immune. With many user accounts, universities and colleges present attractive cybercriminals targets. Among the most prevalent threats are password spraying and brute force attacks. These methods attempt to gain unauthorized access to accounts by exploiting weak passwords and ineffective security measures. In this comprehensive guide, we will delve into strategies for tackling these cyber threats, ensuring the protection of academic networks without compromising user experience. 

Understanding the Threat Landscape 

Password spraying attacks involve trying commonly used passwords against many accounts before moving on to the next password to avoid account lockouts that typically occur after several failed login attempts. On the other hand, brute force attacks attempt to crack passwords by systematically trying every possible combination until the correct one is found. These attacks can lead to data breaches, loss of intellectual property, and compromised personal information.  

For instance, a well-known university experienced a significant data breach when attackers used password spraying to gain unauthorized access. The attackers systematically tried common passwords like "Password123" and "Fall2023" across multiple faculty and student accounts. In another incident, a college faced a brute force attack where cybercriminals used automated software to try every possible password combination on the institution's online library system. The result was the unauthorized download of valuable research papers and sensitive data. 

These real-world examples highlight the importance of understanding the threat landscape in higher education. Such attacks not only compromise personal information but also put academic integrity and intellectual property at risk, leading to a loss of trust and potential financial repercussions for the institutions involved. It is critical for universities and colleges to implement robust cybersecurity measures to prevent these types of incidents. 

Combating Password Risk with a Traditional Multi-Pronged Approach 

Many institutions rely on a foundational set of traditional strategies to safeguard their digital environments. From establishing a robust password policy to implementing multi-factor authentication and designing adaptive account lockout measures, these practices form the first line of defense against password spraying and brute force attacks. Additionally, a strong emphasis is placed on user education and awareness, regular system audits, and comprehensive incident response planning. Advanced security technologies, including AI-driven systems and Single Sign-On (SSO) solutions, complement these measures, while the adoption of zero-trust architecture further fortifies the network against external and internal threats. Each of these strategies plays a crucial role in building a comprehensive and resilient defense system for universities and colleges, which will be explored in greater detail in the following sections. 

Creating a Robust Password Policy 

Typically, the first line of defense against these attacks is a strong password policy which helps aid in password protection. Institutions should enforce the use of complex passwords that combine upper- and lower-case letters, numbers, and special characters. Passwords should be changed regularly, and policies should prevent the reuse of old passwords.  

Educating users about the importance of password strength and uniqueness is essential in fostering a secure password culture. However, human error plays a significant role in password security, with simple mistakes like choosing obvious passwords or sharing them carelessly leading to vulnerabilities. 


Bravura OneAuth

Implementing Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) 

Adding layers of authentication can significantly enhance security. Multi-factor authentication requires users to provide two or more verification factors, which drastically reduces the success rate of password spraying and brute force attacks. These factors can include something the user knows (a password or PIN), something the user has (a smartphone or token), or something the user is (biometric data). 

Implementing multi-factor authentication (MFA) can significantly bolster security but brings potential downsides, such as user inconvenience due to additional verification steps and a rise in support requests from those experiencing issues with MFA. There are also technical challenges that can result in access denial, increased costs and complexity in deployment, and accessibility issues for users without the necessary technology. Additionally, MFA isn't completely immune to sophisticated phishing attacks, such as real-time token interception or SIM swapping. To address these concerns, providing user-friendly MFA options, clear guidance, and continuous education on secure practices is essential. 

Account Lockout Policies 

While account lockout policies can prevent unauthorized access after several failed login attempts, they can also be a double-edged sword. Attackers using password spraying take advantage of this by staying below the lockout threshold. It is important to find a balance that protects accounts without significantly impacting user experience. Adaptive lockout measures that respond to the context of login attempts can be more effective than rigid lockout thresholds. 

Account lockout policies, while intended to enhance security by blocking access after successive failed login attempts, can inadvertently inconvenience legitimate users, increase help desk workloads, and potentially expose the system to denial-of-service attacks. Attackers might exploit these policies by staying under lockout thresholds during password spraying attacks, and the administrative burden of managing these policies can be significant. To mitigate these issues, adaptive lockout measures that consider user behavior and context are recommended, as they offer a more balanced approach to security and user experience. 

User Education and Awareness Training 

Educating users about the risks of password spraying and brute force attacks is crucial. Training sessions should cover the importance of secure password practices, how to identify phishing attempts, and the procedures to follow if users suspect their account has been compromised. Regularly updated training can adapt to the latest threats and reinforce a culture of security awareness. This includes teaching users about the dangers of weak passwords, the risks of sharing credentials, and the correct procedures for managing passwords. Additionally, institutions hold the responsibility for enforcing these policies and holding users accountable.  

User education and awareness training on cybersecurity can face challenges such as keeping users engaged, the substantial resources required for creating and updating relevant content, and the difficulty in measuring the program's effectiveness. As the threat landscape rapidly evolves, there is also the risk of information becoming quickly outdated. Furthermore, ensuring compliance and accountability among all users presents an ongoing challenge, especially when training does not cater to varying levels of technical knowledge and role-specific security requirements. Institutions need to design engaging, regularly updated training that is tailored to their audience to effectively reinforce a culture of security awareness. 

IAM Lifecycle:  Orphan Account Prevention Diagram

Regular Audits and Monitoring 

Continuous monitoring of login attempts, and user behavior can help detect unusual activities indicative of a cyber attack. Regular audits of system access logs can reveal patterns that suggest password spraying or brute force attacks in progress. Early detection is key to preventing a successful breach.  

However, regular audits and continuous monitoring come with downsides, such as the significant allocation of resources and the potential for data overload, which can make it challenging to identify actual threats among false positives. One such issue may be orphaned and dormant accounts. Privacy concerns from monitored users can lead to trust issues, while over-reliance on automated systems may result in complacency among IT staff. Additionally, standard monitoring may not always catch clever or novel cyber threats, necessitating more sophisticated and costly solutions. It's important to find a balance that ensures effective threat detection while maintaining user privacy and vigilance in cybersecurity practices. 

Incident Response Planning 

Having a well-defined incident response plan is essential for quickly addressing security breaches. The plan should outline the steps to be taken in the event of a password spraying or brute force attack, including how to isolate affected systems, communicate with stakeholders, and restore services.  

Creating a comprehensive incident response plan can be resource-intensive, requiring careful coordination across various teams that may complicate the rapid action needed during a security breach. Moreover, as cyber threats evolve, plans can quickly become outdated, necessitating frequent updates. Additionally, during a crisis, communication challenges can arise, potentially leading to misinformation or confusion that can damage the institution's reputation. To maintain effectiveness, continuous review and adaptation of the incident response plan are necessary. 

Leveraging Advanced Security Technologies and Modern Solutions 

Investing in advanced security solutions that analyze login behavior and detect anomalies can help thwart password-related attacks. These technologies can include AI-driven threat detection systems that learn normal user behaviors and flag irregularities, as well as security information and event management (SIEM) systems that provide real-time analysis of security alerts. 

Deploying a Single Sign-On (SSO) Solution 

SSO solutions allow users to access multiple applications with a single set of credentials, reducing the burden of managing numerous passwords. When combined with MFA, SSO can provide a balance of security and convenience. It also centralizes the management of user access, making it easier to monitor and protect against threats. 

Password Managers 

Encouraging the use of password managers can help users maintain unique, complex passwords for their accounts. Password managers store and autofill login credentials, which reduces the temptation to use simple, memorable passwords that are vulnerable to attacks. 

Securing Third-Party Access 

Many institutions rely on third-party services and vendors, which can be an additional vector for attacks. Ensuring that third-party access is secured with strong passwords, MFA, and regular reviews of access privileges is critical for maintaining overall security. 

Embracing a Zero-Trust Security Model 

A zero-trust security model assumes that threats exist both outside and inside the network. It requires strict identity verification for every person and device trying to access resources on a private network, regardless of whether they are within or outside of the network perimeter. 

Password Management Dashboard

Modern Solutions for Higher Education Cybersecurity 

To address the issue that universities and colleges are faced with the dual challenge of protecting their networks from cyber threats while also providing a user-friendly experience, many institutions are turning to a new approach, leveraging the power Bravura Pass Plus to eliminate lockouts altogether and a component of the solution for Self-Service Password Reset (SSPR). Through password-free logins and automated password lifecycle management, it removes the potential for human error and empowers users to access their accounts seamlessly. It also empowers administrators with critical insights into password health across the entire network so they can address concerns before they become a problem. The solution adds password rotation, a technique typically reserved for privileged access management solutions, to your password management framework and combines it with personal user vaults to streamline the user experience and ensure institutions can instantly resecure all accounts with a click if a breach is suspected. This approach not only simplifies users access but also ensures institutions maintain compliance and provides a robust defense against credential-based attacks. 

By deploying Bravura Pass Plus, educational institutions can offer a comprehensive solution that addresses the full spectrum of password management challenges: 

  • Enhanced Security: Bravura Pass Plus's password-free feel and real-time analytics ensure a secure environment by minimizing the risk of account lockouts and related attacks. 
  • User Empowerment: Bravura Pass Plus vaulting feature gives users access to the latest auto-generated passwords for managed applications with the ability to generate passwords that meet policy for unmanaged applications. This means users will never be locked out. In the event they need a password reset, the SSPR feature also enables users to quickly regain access to their accounts, reducing downtime and frustration. 
  • One-Click Re-Secure: Implement a one-click immediate defense against security breaches. Swiftly change passwords for selected or all users, groups, or systems, preempting threats and bolstering security before investigations begin. This method uniformly secures all passwords, enhancing overall data protection and assisting with compliance. 
  • Proactive Password Health Analytics: Access instant password security insights through our visual dashboard, identifying strengths and weaknesses. Use real-time data to uncover vulnerabilities, create strategic defenses, and generate reports for compliance. Enhance analysis with tools like Tableau, Power BI, or Excel. Our REST API ensures ongoing protection and easy compliance across your network and third-party systems. 
  • Operational Efficiency: The combined solution reduces the number of helpdesk calls, saving time and money while allowing IT staff to concentrate on more strategic initiatives. 
  • Seamless User Experience: It is designed with the end-user in mind, offering a streamlined and intuitive interface that mirrors the ease of use found in personal digital experiences. 
  • Comprehensive Oversight: Administrators gain visibility into password health and can respond instantly to any security incidents, ensuring rapid re-securing of accounts and maintaining compliance. 

The implementation of Bravura Pass Plus creates a layered defense strategy that is both proactive and responsive. Most importantly, the modern approach empowers users with the experiences they have come to expect in their personal lives to make them an active participant in password security. It acknowledges the reality of cybersecurity threats while prioritizing the user experience—a balance that is essential for the success of any academic institution in the digital age. With these tools, universities and colleges can not only prevent the headaches associated with account lockouts but also pave the way for a more secure, efficient, and user-friendly future in higher education. 

By investing in the right mix of policies, training, and technology, universities and colleges can create a secure and resilient digital environment. This not only safeguards valuable data and resources but also ensures that the academic mission can proceed without the disruption and danger posed by cyber threats.