Ghost users, commonly referred to as “ghost accounts,” are active accounts tied to former employees on a corporate network. Despite their departure from the company, these accounts remain accessible, presenting security and operational challenges that organizations must address.

Ghost users introduce a dual threat to corporate networks. Criminals exploit these accounts to obtain credentials for cyberattacks, taking advantage of their inconspicuous behavior to avoid detection. Consequently, it is crucial to comprehend both the security and operational risks posed by these lingering accounts.

Challenges related to ghost users stem from communication breakdowns and intentional retention. Process failures lead to accounts of departed employees not being disabled promptly. Additionally, high-level employees’ accounts are sometimes deliberately kept active due to their credentials’ importance in accessing critical systems.

Another contributing factor is the presence of legacy systems and insufficient documentation. Departing employees might be the sole holders of access credentials for certain systems, making their removal complex. The lack of comprehensive knowledge about these assets further complicates efforts to eliminate ghost users.

Mitigation Strategies and Future Preparedness

To combat the ghost user issue, organizations should adopt proactive measures. IT teams with a strong security focus should prioritize swift account disablement upon an employee’s departure. Implementing streamlined communication channels and efficient processes is essential to ensure a timely response.

Maintaining a secure corporate network requires recognizing the threat of ghost users and taking strategic actions. By appreciating the risks, comprehending the challenges, and implementing effective strategies, organizations can bolster their cybersecurity defenses, safeguard sensitive data, and mitigate potential breaches.

Here’s How Ghosts Take Down Networks

As mentioned earlier, ghost users pose the most significant risk due to a higher frequency of compromised accounts compared to active users. Here are five reasons they’re especially prone to attack:

1. Ghost accounts are often unmonitored accounts.

If an account is not used very often, it is less likely to be noticed if it is hacked. This means that a hacker could have access to the network for weeks or months before anyone realizes it.

2. Ghost accounts are likely to have high-level network access.

Ghost users are often created for employees who have access to sensitive data or systems. This means that a hacker who gains access to a ghost account could have a lot of control over the network. If the account was intentionally left active, it was probably because it had access to tools that most other accounts didn’t.

3. Ghost accounts were last actively managed years ago.

Ghost accounts are often created years ago and may not have the latest security features enabled. Because of this, they are less likely to have newer security features like multi-factor authentication enabled.

4. Ghost accounts that are still in use are often being shared.

Ghost accounts are sometimes shared by multiple employees. This is a security risk because it means that multiple people have access to the same credentials. Sharing account credentials is a bad idea. Shared accounts grant greater access than is necessary for some users, are less likely to have multi-factor authentication enabled, and make it more difficult to determine the source of a breach (even if the employees sharing the account are innocent of any wrongdoing and the credentials were stolen by an external party).

5. Ghost accounts perpetuate bad habits.

Ghost accounts can lead to bad habits, such as password sharing and weak passwords. These bad habits can make the network more vulnerable to attack. One-user, one-account policies help to ensure that access permissions are understood, well-documented, and limited only to those that need it. The opposite is true when multiple users each juggle several accounts to access various company hardware and software.  Over time, these users are left with a messy web of widely shared passwords and account lockouts, creating a drag on productivity and a security risk.

Worth the Effort

Cleaning up access to a network with many ghost users can be a significant undertaking.  It’s also time-consuming to shift access to multiple systems to new users when a high-level employee leaves.  It’s easier to maintain appropriate user permissions on an already well-maintained network, although it does require focus and prioritization.

But the most costly scenario of all is dealing with a network breach – and unfortunately, each ghost user on your network increases the odds of that becoming a reality. It is well worth the time to have your IT support team investigate to see what ghost accounts may exist in your organization, create a plan to eliminate them, and then also build a process to prevent future ghost users. This will greatly increase your protection from having ghost users come back to haunt you later on.

Not sure how to get started addressing ghost users? Our cybersecurity experts are just a call away.
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