Securing Exchange Online and SharePoint in a Hybrid Environment

Securing Exchange Online and SharePoint in a Hybrid Environment

Migration to cloud-based solutions such as Microsoft 365 has become a need of the hour for businesses worldwide. However, many organizations also go for a hybrid model, combining cloud services with on-premises solutions.

Although it opens new opportunities, a hybrid environment also raises additional security issues, including those related to Exchange Online and SharePoint, as they are two of the most critical office productivity services.

In this blog, we delve into the best approach and practices for securing hybrid environments for Exchange Online and SharePoint.

We will discuss why Professional services for these solutions are no longer just one more level of defense against modern cyber threats but the only dependable way an organization can protect its sensitive data and conform to regulatory mandates. 

Without further ado, let’s explore ways of making your hybrid Microsoft 365 environment more secure!

Hybrid Cloud Security Challenges

➔ In 2023, the average total cost of a data breach is $4.45 million per incident.

➔ For Hybrid Microsoft 365 environments, the year 2023 showed that approximately 60% of the enterprises experienced cases of unauthorized access or breaches, proving the complexity and problems of security in handling on-premises components and cloud.

➔ In 2022, approximately 85% of companies using Microsoft 365 experienced security breaches.

➔ In 2023, phishing aimed towards organizations fell just under 70%, with Exchange Online users as the prime target because of the widespread usage of email communication.

➔ Over 65% of data leaks in SharePoint Online in 2022 were due to misconfigured permissions and accidental sharing of sensitive information.

Security Best Practices in SharePoint

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Securing The Microsoft 365 Exchange Online & SharePoint Hybrid Experience

Let’s explore how to strengthen the walls of your hybrid M365 castle.

We’ll see how to create a secure hybrid environment to protect your data and communications in Exchange Online and SharePoint.

The Moat and the Walls: Securing Mail Flow

MX Record Mastery:  With a legacy hybrid, your MX record points to your on-premises server. However, with the modern hybrid, your MX record points to Microsoft 365 as an added layer of protection.

The hybrid leverages Microsoft’s robust anti-spam and anti-malware filters before they reach your on-prem environment.

Exchange Online Protection: EOP is the best protection against most modern threats. By enabling EOP Advanced Threat Protection (ATP), you will achieve advanced protection against zero-day threats and malicious links.

Guarding the Gates: Authentication & Authorization

Azure AD Connect: It’s the most crucial tool in this regard. This tool will keep the “barbarians” out of your cloud. Leveraging synchronized identities between your on-prem Active Directory and Azure Active Directory (AAD), it ensures top-notch password policies and MFA mechanisms.

Azure AD Conditional Access: It defines granular access rules. MFA is mandated for accessing Exchange Online and SharePoint from specific locations/devices.

Mind the Drawbridge: Permissions & Data Sharing

  • Least Privilege: Assign mailbox permissions in both environments (on-premises and EXO) with a “least privilege” approach.
  • External Sharing with Caution: Sharing SharePoint data externally demands extra vigilance. You can leverage permission levels and access controls and restrict data access only to authorized users. You can utilize Azure Information Protection (AIP) for extra protection i.e. encryption, access restrictions, etc.

Let’s Understand Azure Information Protection (AIP)

Azure Information Protection (AIP) enables an organization to classify, label, and protect its documents and emails.

Below are some key features:

Classification and Labeling: Admins can classify/label data according to the sensitivity of the information.

Example: A rule might be established by an organization to automatically classify anything that contains a credit card number as “Confidential”.

Protection: Protection based on the label, post-classification. Another aspect is encryption, identity, and authorization policies.

Example: Documents marked with the level of confidentiality “Highly Confidential” can be subjected to encryption and access control to an extent that only specific persons in the organization can access them.

Policy Enforcement: No matter where the data resides and with whom it is shared, the policy enforcement for data protection should be clear.

Example: If a confidential document were sent to a personal e-mail address, that person would still have to be properly authorized to open it.

Tracking and Revoking: The ability to track shared files and revoke access if needed.

Example: A sensitive document is sent to the wrong person, and the access can be withdrawn immediately to prevent unauthorized viewing.

Integration with Microsoft Services: Seamless integration with Microsoft 365 services, giving seamless protection across Microsoft’s services.

Example: AIP automatically applies protection for documents shared on SharePoint Online based on classification labels and protection policies within the organization.

End User Empowerment: Empowers end users with the ability to classify and label information at the time of creation based on organizational guidelines.

Example: A newly created document can be manually labelled by the employee as being “Internal” or “Public” depending on its contents and intended use.

So, Azure Information Protection lets organizations retain control over the data and guarantees its protection both on-premises and outside the company.

Keeping the Watchtowers Vigilant: Monitoring & Auditing

  • Unified Logging: Be the captain of your data. Utilize the M365 Security & Compliance Center for a centralized view of security events across both solutions.
  • Regular Reviews: Conduct periodic security audits to identify potential pitfalls.

Remember the Rangers: Ongoing Security Maintenance

  • Software Updates: Keep your on-prem Exchange servers and M365 patched with the latest updates.
  • User Education: Empower your users to recognize phishing attempts and conduct awareness training.

Hackers Are Targeting Microsoft 365 Hybrid Environments

One of the most extensive cybersecurity attacks in early 2021 stunned the IT world when the HAFNIUM group utilized several zero-day vulnerabilities in Microsoft Exchange servers.

➔ A well-researched systematic review explores the raid in great detail, arriving at multiple methodological strengths and weaknesses as well as the impact of the findings relatable for businesses.

➔ The attackers managed to exploit several vulnerabilities of the Exchange server’s software to gain unauthorized access to the communications and data of multiple corporations and governments.

➔ The HAFNIUM group managed to utilize security gaps to deploy web shells into the server environments, allowing for long-term access and control of the breached systems.

➔ The immediate response to the HAFNIUM attack included prompt public release and dissemination of critical patches by Microsoft to alleviate the vulnerabilities.

➔ However, due to the extensive scope of compromised systems, approximately 400,000 servers worldwide were estimated to be affected by the end of the second week of the attack, with a significant portion of them remaining vulnerable long after applying the immediate patches.

➔ The implications for businesses are extensive as well, starting with the importance of continuous vigilance, especially when it comes to maintaining and updating systems.

➔ The incident’s impact highlighted the importance of implementing a layered security approach, regular security audits, and intensive cybersecurity training for employees to mitigate similar incidents.

➔ This highly damaging attack changed the perception of how businesses view and address cybersecurity risks and the implementation of proactive threat detection and reaction strategies to preserve the integrity and trust of sensitive data.

Best Practices for Migrating to SharePoint and OneDrive

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Real-World Security Breaches in Hybrid Microsoft 365 Environments

Considering the dire implications that may arise from such breaches, there is a need to examine some examples of security breaches through Exchange Online and SharePoint in hybrid environments.

Ransomware Attack on SharePoint Online via SaaS Admin Account:

In June 2023, a ransomware attack was launched at SharePoint Online. According to the security firm thatd detected it, the attack was introduced to SharePoint through Microsoft Global SaaS admin account instead of a more typical route,  exploiting endpoints.

This incident was a clear demonstration of the vulnerability of administrative accounts and the need to monitor admin accounts’ interactions with critical software such as SharePoint.

Hybrid Sharepoint Environment: Organizations should maintain a close watch on security because some aspects of their hybrid Sharepoint environment is managed by them while the remainder is managed by SaaS providers.

The Cloud is Critical Attack Surface At Bay

Organizations need to be careful with their storage and be aware of its potential vulnerability to attacks due to the rising use of such technology.

Stay aware: Microsoft automatically scans file uploads for known malware and spam in SharePoint Online.

Microsoft utilize Exchange Online Protection to protect the cloud mailboxes. Microsoft 365 E3 or E5 has Microsoft Defender for Endpoint that aids the device to enhance protection against cyber security administrative privileges on devices as well as assess the Microsoft network.

Benefits of SharePoint Business Process Automation

Zero-day Vulnerabilities: The Silent Assassins of Cybersecurity

Zero-day vulnerabilities are essentially software or hardware chinks in the armour that nobody knows about – not even the developers or security experts.

Zero-day flaws are like having a secret backdoor into your system, only the enemy knows about it. Businesses are particularly vulnerable to zero-day vulnerabilities.

Zero-Day Vulnerability Attacks: Potential Impacts

  • Data breaches: Hackers use zero-day flaws to steal sensitive customer or company data. This action can result in financial losses, reputational harm, and legal prosecutions.
  • System takeovers: Attackers take control over their machines if the former can access critical systems. It results in losses affecting millions of dollars.
  • Malicious software installation: Zero-day flaws help distribute malware, such as ransomware that encrypts your organization’s data and demands money in return for decryption.

Zero-day vulnerabilities are particularly dangerous because there is no available patch to remove the vulnerability. Therefore, businesses must take defensive actions until the issue is resolved.

Battling the Unknown: How Companies Can Mitigate Zero Day Attacks to Hybrid Cloud

Zero-day flaws are a constant threat.

However, companies can align zero-day issues through the following actions:

  • Patch management: Businesses should constantly update/patch all software, hardware, and firmware. Such actions reduce the timeliness for attackers to exploit known threats.
  • Layered Defense: Businesses must engage multiple security levels, including firewalls, intrusion detection, endpoint protection, and more.
  •  Vulnerability Assessments & Penetration Testing: Companies should proactively locate potential weaknesses in systems through assessing and testing. It provides valuable insights to respond promptly to zero-days.
  • Incident Response Plan: Businesses should have a designated team to identify, counter, and recover from a cyber incident.
  •  Employee training: Employees should receive training on recognizing phishing and social engineering tactics.

Government: The Watchdogs of Cyberspace

Governments are responsible for the following actions:

  • Issuing advisories and policy: Governments partner with software vendors to issue security advisories concerning zero-day flaws.
  •  Intelligence sharing: Countries share information concerning cyber intelligence to enable businesses to prepare properly.
  •  Regulation and law enforcement: Making regulations compelling businesses to implement cybersecurity measures.

Get Professional Services to Enhance Your Hybrid Security

Although this blog post has covered crucial steps to secure your Exchange Online and SharePoint in a hybrid environment, performing them can prove challenging.

Fortunately, professional security services exist to offer the much-needed expertise to reinforce your security posture.

Windows Management Experts (WME)

Professional Services for Exchange Online & SharePoint in a Hybrid Environment

Depth of Expertise: Security experts understand Microsoft 365, on-premises systems, and the nuances of hybrid systems. Given the ever-changing threat landscape, they are best suited to recommend the most effective security protocols for your needs.

Implementation Excellence: From setting up tools like Azure AD Connect to ensuring the necessary EOP features along with setting up the optimal permissions, professionals can expertly implement all facets of the security measures to avoid risks or downtimes.

Comprehensive assessments: Security analysts can examine your hybrid environment and pinpoint existing vulnerabilities. They can then suggest suitable solutions to prevent future security postures. The process is proactive to help you evade any potential threats.

Continuous Support: Modern security is dynamic, and experts will adjust your strategies to accommodate new threats. Especially, they help you leverage new security features offered by Microsoft 365.

Risk Minimization and ROI: Keep in mind that recovery from even a single successful attack is expensive. There are cost savings attributable to such considerations.

Importantly, who needs professional help?

➔ Organizations with limited security experience

➔ Organizations without time or money to address complicated hybrid security configurations

➔ Any organization transitioning to modern hybridization.

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Windows Management Experts

We Are Now A Microsoft Solutions Partner for:

✓ Data & AI

✓ Digital and App Innovation

✓ Infrastructure

✓ Security

Know the Impact of Microsoft Solution Partner Status The Solutions Partner badge highlights WME’s excellence and commitment. Microsoft’s thorough evaluation ensures we’re skilled, deliver successful projects, and prioritize security over everything. This positions WME in a global tech community, ready to innovate on the cloud for your evolving business needs.

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