An orphan account is a user account within a network or system that no longer has a valid owner. It is also known as an “orphaned account” or a “dead user account.”

Orphan accounts arise for various reasons, including role changes, employee resignations, and changes in vendor relationships. Regardless of the reason behind the emergence of an orphan account, it poses security risks, especially when it has access to sensitive data or critical systems.

Read More about an Orphan Account

Learn more about orphan accounts, including the security risks associated with and how to manage them.

How Do Orphan Accounts Emerge?

Several scenarios can lead to the existence of orphan accounts. Here are some real-world examples.

Employee Departures

John Smith, the marketing manager, leaves the company. His account with access to customer relationship management (CRM) systems and customer data remains active and accessible to anyone who finds it.

Role Changes

Previously an admin, Jane Doe transitioned to a developer role. However, her admin account with extensive privileges remains unused but still accessible.

Vendor Contract Terminations

Company XYZ, a former IT security provider, ends its contract. Their service account with remote access to the network stays active, creating a potential back door for unauthorized entry.

Inactive Accounts

“Test_user_123,” an account created for internal testing purposes, sits dormant for years, accumulating unused privileges and posing hidden vulnerabilities.

Forgotten Accounts

The intern from last summer’s project still has an active account, granting access to confidential documents and servers simply because no one remembered to deactivate it.

The scenarios presented above are just a few examples. An orphan account can emerge in other situations, so keep in mind that any user account not actively used by a legitimate owner within the organization qualifies as an orphan.

These are just a few examples. An orphan account can emerge in other situations, so keep in mind that any user account not actively used by a legitimate owner within the organization qualifies as an orphan.

What Security Risks Does an Orphan Account Pose?

When employees, contractors, or interns leave, companies immediately remove them from the payroll. However, their user accounts with access to corporate systems and data may not be deactivated as promptly. How dangerous is that?

In 2021, a company suffered a ransomware attack after threat actors gained access to a user account with high-level access that belonged to a deceased employee. The account compromise happened around three months after the employee passed away. The attackers then spent one month using the orphan account, gaining access to a domain admin account, and stealing hundreds of gigabytes of data before announcing a ransomware attack.

Therefore, an orphan account is not dangerous by itself unless it gets exploited by external threat actors or used for insider threats. Below are some specific security risks orphan accounts bring.

Orphan accounts security risks

Unsecured Entry Points

Orphan accounts with weak passwords or that lack multifactor authentication (MFA) become easy targets for attackers to crack, granting them unauthorized access to systems and sensitive data.

Lateral Movement

Once inside, attackers can leverage an orphan account with higher privileges to move laterally within the network, escalating their access and potentially reaching critical systems.

Botnet Recruitment

Orphan accounts can be incorporated into botnets, amplifying attackers’ capabilities for launching distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks or spamming campaigns.

Misuse by Disgruntled Employees

Disgruntled former employees or individuals with knowledge of the orphan account can exploit it for malicious purposes, such as stealing confidential data, sabotaging systems, or planting malware.

Data Privacy Breaches

Orphan accounts with access to sensitive data, like customer personally identifiable information (PII) or financial data, can lead to data breaches, potentially violating regulations like the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and incurring hefty fines.

Attack Surface Expansion

Every orphan account expands the attack surface available to malicious actors, making it harder to secure the entire IT environment. The more accounts there are, the more potential entry points attackers can exploit.

The Colonial Pipeline Attack: An Attack Leveraging an Orphan Account

The Colonial Pipeline, the largest pipeline system for refined oil products in the U.S., suffered from a massive ransomware attack in May 2021. The company was forced to pay the attackers close to US$5 million after about a month of operational disruptions.

Paying the ransom to regain access to critical infrastructure, systems, and data is not novel, but this attack stands out in that it stemmed from compromising an inactive virtual private network (VPN) account—an orphan account. That sole flaw allowed the attackers to not only lock the company’s employees out of the network but also interrupt pipeline services to the detriment of customers throughout the country.

How to Avoid Orphan Accounts

Organizations need to avoid the creation of orphan accounts. Below are some best practices.

  • Least privilege access control: Enforce the principle of least privilege and grant only the minimum access required for each user based on their role.
  • MFA: Implement MFA  for all accounts to add an extra layer of security and deter unauthorized access.
  • Raise awareness: Train employees on the dangers of orphan accounts and encourage them to report any suspicious activity.
  • Regular account audits: Conduct periodic reviews of all user accounts, identifying inactive ones exceeding a predefined time frame. Identity and access management (IAM) solutions and similar tools can automate this process.
  • Review access logs: Analyze system and application logs for activity patterns, looking for dormant accounts with no recent logins.
  • Data analysis: Leverage data analytics platforms to identify user accounts associated with terminated employees, inactive roles, or outdated projects.

How to Deal with Orphan Accounts

When you do find orphan accounts, you can manage them by following the steps below.

Classify Accounts

Categorize orphan accounts based on their access level, associated data, and potential impact if compromised. Prioritize high-risk accounts with access to sensitive data or critical systems.

Review Data Access Controls

Review and restrict access to sensitive data previously accessed by orphan accounts, minimizing potential exposure.

Deactivate Inactive Accounts

Promptly disable or delete identified orphan accounts, revoking their access to systems and data.

Reset Passwords

For accounts requiring retention, consider mandatory password resets upon employee departures or role changes.

Orphan accounts may seem harmless, but in the hands of malicious actors, they can be potent. Implementing the aforementioned strategies enables organizations to effectively handle orphan accounts, minimize their security risks, and build a more resilient digital environment.

Key Takeaways