Security defaults in Azure AD

Microsoft is making security defaults available to everyone, because managing security can be difficult. Identity-related attacks like password spray, replay, and phishing are common in today's environment. More than 99.9% of these identity-related attacks are stopped by using multi-factor authentication (MFA) and blocking legacy authentication. The goal is to ensure that all organizations have at least a basic level of security enabled at no extra cost.

Security defaults make it easier to help protect your organization from these identity-related attacks with preconfigured security settings:

Who's it for?

  • Organizations who want to increase their security posture, but don't know how or where to start.
  • Organizations using the free tier of Azure Active Directory licensing.

Who should use Conditional Access?

  • If you're an organization currently using Conditional Access policies, security defaults are probably not right for you.
  • If you're an organization with Azure Active Directory Premium licenses, security defaults are probably not right for you.
  • If your organization has complex security requirements, you should consider Conditional Access.

Enabling security defaults

If your tenant was created on or after October 22, 2019, security defaults may be enabled in your tenant. To protect all of our users, security defaults are being rolled out to all new tenants at creation.

To enable security defaults in your directory:

  1. Sign in to the Azure portal as a security administrator, Conditional Access administrator, or global administrator.
  2. Browse to Azure Active Directory > Properties.
  3. Select Manage security defaults.
  4. Set the Enable security defaults toggle to Yes.
  5. Select Save.

Screenshot of the Azure portal with the toggle to enable security defaults

Enforced security policies

Require all users to register for Azure AD Multi-Factor Authentication

All users in your tenant must register for multi-factor authentication (MFA) in the form of the Azure AD Multi-Factor Authentication. Users have 14 days to register for Azure AD Multi-Factor Authentication by using the Microsoft Authenticator app. After the 14 days have passed, the user can't sign in until registration is completed. A user's 14-day period begins after their first successful interactive sign-in after enabling security defaults.

Require administrators to do multi-factor authentication

Administrators have increased access to your environment. Because of the power these highly privileged accounts have, you should treat them with special care. One common method to improve the protection of privileged accounts is to require a stronger form of account verification for sign-in. In Azure AD, you can get a stronger account verification by requiring multi-factor authentication.

Tip

We recommend having separate accounts for administration and standard productivity tasks to significantly reduce the number of times your admins are prompted for MFA.

After registration with Azure AD Multi-Factor Authentication is finished, the following Azure AD administrator roles will be required to do extra authentication every time they sign in:

  • Global administrator
  • Application administrator
  • Authentication administrator
  • Billing administrator
  • Cloud application administrator
  • Conditional Access administrator
  • Exchange administrator
  • Helpdesk administrator
  • Password administrator
  • Privileged authentication administrator
  • Security administrator
  • SharePoint administrator
  • User administrator

Require users to do multi-factor authentication when necessary

We tend to think that administrator accounts are the only accounts that need extra layers of authentication. Administrators have broad access to sensitive information and can make changes to subscription-wide settings. But attackers frequently target end users.

After these attackers gain access, they can request access to privileged information for the original account holder. They can even download the entire directory to do a phishing attack on your whole organization.

One common method to improve protection for all users is to require a stronger form of account verification, such as Multi-Factor Authentication, for everyone. After users complete Multi-Factor Authentication registration, they'll be prompted for another authentication whenever necessary. Azure AD decides when a user will be prompted for Multi-Factor Authentication, based on factors such as location, device, role and task. This functionality protects all applications registered with Azure AD including SaaS applications.

Block legacy authentication protocols

To give your users easy access to your cloud apps, Azure AD supports various authentication protocols, including legacy authentication. Legacy authentication is a term that refers to an authentication request made by:

  • Clients that don't use modern authentication (for example, an Office 2010 client).
  • Any client that uses older mail protocols such as IMAP, SMTP, or POP3.

Today, most compromising sign-in attempts come from legacy authentication. Legacy authentication doesn't support Multi-Factor Authentication. Even if you have a Multi-Factor Authentication policy enabled on your directory, an attacker can authenticate by using an older protocol and bypass Multi-Factor Authentication.

After security defaults are enabled in your tenant, all authentication requests made by an older protocol will be blocked. Security defaults blocks Exchange Active Sync basic authentication.

Warning

Before you enable security defaults, make sure your administrators aren't using older authentication protocols. For more information, see How to move away from legacy authentication.

Protect privileged activities like access to the Azure portal

Organizations use various Azure services managed through the Azure Resource Manager API, including:

  • Azure portal
  • Azure PowerShell
  • Azure CLI

Using Azure Resource Manager to manage your services is a highly privileged action. Azure Resource Manager can alter tenant-wide configurations, such as service settings and subscription billing. Single-factor authentication is vulnerable to various attacks like phishing and password spray.

It's important to verify the identity of users who want to access Azure Resource Manager and update configurations. You verify their identity by requiring more authentication before you allow access.

After you enable security defaults in your tenant, any user accessing the following services must complete multi-factor authentication:

  • Azure portal
  • Azure PowerShell
  • Azure CLI

This policy applies to all users who are accessing Azure Resource Manager services, whether they're an administrator or a user.

Note

Pre-2017 Exchange Online tenants have modern authentication disabled by default. In order to avoid the possibility of a login loop while authenticating through these tenants, you must enable modern authentication.

Note

The Azure AD Connect synchronization account is excluded from security defaults and will not be prompted to register for or perform multi-factor authentication. Organizations should not be using this account for other purposes.

Deployment considerations

Authentication methods

Security defaults allow registration and use of Azure AD Multi-Factor Authentication using only the Microsoft Authenticator app using notifications. Conditional Access allows the use of any authentication method the administrator chooses to enable.

Method Security defaults Conditional Access
Notification through mobile app X X
Verification code from mobile app or hardware token X** X
Text message to phone X
Call to phone X
App passwords X***
  • ** Users may use verification codes from the Microsoft Authenticator app but can only register using the notification option.
  • *** App passwords are only available in per-user MFA with legacy authentication scenarios only if enabled by administrators.

Warning

Do not disable methods for your organization if you are using security defaults. Disabling methods may lead to locking yourself out of your tenant. Leave all Methods available to users enabled in the MFA service settings portal.

Backup administrator accounts

Every organization should have at least two backup administrator accounts configured. We call these emergency access accounts.

These accounts may be used in scenarios where your normal administrator accounts can't be used. For example: The person with the most recent Global Administrator access has left the organization. Azure AD prevents the last Global Administrator account from being deleted, but it doesn't prevent the account from being deleted or disabled on-premises. Either situation might make the organization unable to recover the account.

Emergency access accounts are:

  • Assigned Global Administrator rights in Azure AD.
  • Aren't used on a daily basis.
  • Are protected with a long complex password.

The credentials for these emergency access accounts should be stored offline in a secure location such as a fireproof safe. Only authorized individuals should have access to these credentials.

To create an emergency access account:

  1. Sign in to the Azure portal as an existing Global Administrator.
  2. Browse to Azure Active Directory > Users.
  3. Select New user.
  4. Select Create user.
  5. Give the account a User name.
  6. Give the account a Name.
  7. Create a long and complex password for the account.
  8. Under Roles, assign the Global Administrator role.
  9. Under Usage location, select the appropriate location.
  10. Select Create.

You may choose to disable password expiration for these accounts using Azure AD PowerShell.

For more detailed information about emergency access accounts, see the article Manage emergency access accounts in Azure AD.

Disabled MFA status

If your organization is a previous user of per-user based Azure AD Multi-Factor Authentication, don't be alarmed to not see users in an Enabled or Enforced status if you look at the Multi-Factor Auth status page. Disabled is the appropriate status for users who are using security defaults or Conditional Access based Azure AD Multi-Factor Authentication.

Conditional Access

You can use Conditional Access to configure policies similar to security defaults, but with more granularity including user exclusions, which aren't available in security defaults. If you're using Conditional Access in your environment today, security defaults won't be available to you.

Warning message that you can have security defaults or Conditional Access not both

If you want to enable Conditional Access to configure a set of policies, which form a good starting point for protecting your identities:

Disabling security defaults

Organizations that choose to implement Conditional Access policies that replace security defaults must disable security defaults.

Warning message disable security defaults to enable Conditional Access

To disable security defaults in your directory:

  1. Sign in to the Azure portal as a security administrator, Conditional Access administrator, or global administrator.
  2. Browse to Azure Active Directory > Properties.
  3. Select Manage security defaults.
  4. Set the Enable security defaults toggle to No.
  5. Select Save.

Next steps