Macros force people to choose between productivity and security. On the one hand, macros save end users a lot of time by automating repetitive processes. But on the other hand, it is very easy for hackers to implant malware into a macro that may avoid security detection.

The answer to this problem is not black and white. It’s a gray area. Macros are essential in today’s workplace. And in today’s dangerous scenario, strong security is a must. Therefore, no matter how hard companies try, they should refrain from banning macros (which would result in significant productivity losses) or disregarding security.

Understanding what Microsoft macros are, their benefits, and the risks that target them have become critical as IT teams try to find a balance between productivity and security.

What are macros?

Macros are geared towards automation, reducing the tedious work of end users and increasing business efficiency. A Microsoft user can combine multiple job functions into a single command that runs automatically. For example, Excel macros allow us to organize worksheets alphabetically or numerically.

Macros are also responsible for worksheets’ capacity to merge or unmerge groups of cells. The same is true when converting data within a cell to a different format. These are just a few examples of daily macro-enabled operations end users perform. Many professions, particularly those in finance, depend significantly on Microsoft (namely, Excel), making macros a game changer. Organizations may save hours, if not a full day’s labour if macros automate 10 to 15 processes in Excel.

Macros and bad actors: a marriage made in heaven

Bad actors learned long ago that they could conceal harmful code inside Office macros and have a high success rate in activating the payload. Microsoft documents, whether Excel, PowerPoint, Word, or others, are among the most often exploited file formats in attacks since they are extensively used in enterprises. Macro-based viruses have been known for decades, with the first concept attacking Microsoft Word in July 1995. Not long after, macro viruses targeting Excel surfaced. There are two key reasons why this problem persists more than 30 years later:

Overreliance on detection methodology: As a community, we have placed too much emphasis on detection-based principles, which means that many of our security tactics are built on the hunt for known malware signatures or recognized threats. This often entails putting the burden on the end user to detect malicious efforts via phishing awareness training and other threat education tactics. However, there are so many unknowns and sophisticated threats that detection-based techniques are defective by definition. A malicious actor can easily create an unknown zero-day threat. All it takes is a slightly updated piece of known dangerous code to become a zero-day threat that isn’t in malware signature databases and can evade antivirus or sandboxing technology. Malicious code is often inserted so deeply inside macro and file contents that detection systems cannot identify it. Detection does not equal prevention; in certain circumstances, it is too late once security personnel notice the danger.

Social engineering at its most advanced: Bad actors disguise dangerous code as legitimate stuff. Even the most security-conscious people get duped. Attackers may fake send-from email addresses/servers to make them seem to be from a trustworthy source, such as a colleague or an entire organization, such as FedEx. The attacker uses jargon and terminology that the receiver would expect from the expected source. This is related to the notion that detection-based concepts are insufficient for today’s threats. Phishing awareness training can help decrease an organization’s risk, but it cannot and should not be the only defence source. Human mistake is almost always present when it comes to socially designed attacks. If these attacks are socially engineered so that they can deceive and overcome security mechanisms, consider how many end users they can bamboozle and access the network.

Power comes from knowledge.

Macro-based dangers are not new, yet they continue to trouble organizations worldwide. Preventing macro- and other file-borne attacks is a minor aspect of overall security tactics, yet it has the most significant effect. For example, Microsoft Office has billions of users globally, creating a massive attack surface with opportunities for opportunistic hackers. These attacks do not need sophisticated nation-state equipment; Amateur hackers always use macros.

Knowledge is the most effective weapon when it comes to avoiding macro-based risks. Understanding what macros are and how bad actors exploit them will shed light on security strategy flaws and help us to put that information into action. When developing a file security strategy and looking for a solution provider, security teams should consider the following questions:

  • How does the company recognize and neutralize unknown file objects? Is this inclusive of harmful macros?
  • How does the organization protect itself against threats? How does it look for known good or known bad?
  • Is file fidelity and usability compromised? What effect will it have on productivity?

The answers to these questions are highly instructive and may help security professionals better grasp the realities of their entire programmes and where they can improve to benefit not just security but the organization as a whole.


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