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Multi-factor Authentication by Default for Administrators in Azure AD and Office 365

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Microsoft is rolling out a new baseline security policy for Azure Active Directory and Office 365 that requires multi-factor authentication for privileged accounts. The policy is in public preview right now, meaning it is visible in tenants but not yet enabled.

The baseline security policy will require multi-factor authentication for accounts that are members of one of the following privileged roles:

  • Global administrator
  • SharePoint administrator
  • Exchange administrator
  • Conditional access administrator
  • Security administrator

You can view the policy in the Azure AD portal by navigating to the Conditional access section.

Although the baseline security policy is implemented as a conditional access policy there is no customization available except for excluding users and groups. Conditional access rules that you can fully customize require Azure AD Premium licenses, whereas the baseline security policy is available to all customers. You can use the exclusion option to exclude at least one global administrator account from all conditional access policies. Microsoft recommends doing so to ensure that you still have a way to log in if you inadvertently lock yourself out of all admin portals. Think of it as a “break glass in case of emergency” account. The account should have a strong password that is stored in a secure location, and is not regularly used for day to day administration tasks.

The new baseline security policy has been reported elsewhere as “mandatory” or as Microsoft “forcing” multi-factor authentication on customers’ administrative accounts. This is not true of course. You can opt-out of the policy before it goes live by choosing Do not use policy, and you can set exclusions as I just mentioned a moment ago. Aside from the emergency access account you should aim to minimize the exclusions that you add to the policy. Microsoft recommends if possible switching to Managed Service Identity (MSI) or service principals with certificates.

The nature of the policy also ensures that accounts that are temporarily elevated to a privileged role (either manually or via privileged identity management) have MFA enforced on them, reducing the risk of compromise during the period of time they hold privileged access. This is similar to another recent addition to conditional access allowing policies to be targeted at directory roles. That capability extends to a wider range of directory roles than the five that are targeted by the baseline security policy.

Overall this is a good move for Microsoft to make, strongly pushing customers towards securing privileged accounts. When I surveyed readers last year, 55% of respondents were not using MFA at all (even for admin accounts). That’s despite MFA for admin accounts being one of the recommend first steps for new Office 365 tenants, being flagged by Office 365 Secure Score, and being one of the general account security recommendations from Microsoft.

What do you think? Will you be enabling the new baseline security policy in your tenant?

Abdulsalam Garba

The author Abdulsalam Garba

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