How to prevent privilege escalation attacks

By Joseph Carson

Image source: 123RF

As the digital landscape evolves rapidly, businesses increasingly rely on complex cloud infrastructures and remote workforce to drive their operations. While unlocking fresh business opportunities, this transition also inadvertently paves the way for increased cybersecurity threats. One of these risks is the surge in privilege escalation attacks, which can result in data breaches and other serious security incidents.

The real truth is that no network is immune to privilege escalation attacks. These cyber assaults can stealthily breach your systems, potentially wreaking havoc on your data integrity and interrupting all levels of business.

This underscores the importance of security teams understanding privilege escalation attacks – their occurrence, their impact, and, most importantly, how you can bolster your cybersecurity measures to ward off these threats.

What is a privilege escalation attack?

A privilege escalation attack is a type of business security threat wherein a cyber attacker exploits a system vulnerability to gain unauthorized access to resources that are typically beyond their reach. This form of attack occurs when the attacker elevates their user privileges – unlawfully changing from a standard user to an administrator, for instance.

How do privilege escalation attacks happen?

Privilege escalation attacks are a calculated and sophisticated form of cybercrime. They typically involve the following steps:

  1. Gaining System Access: The first step for many malicious attacks is to find a way to infiltrate a system. This can be done through various strategies such as taking advantage of weak spots in the system, employing manipulation tactics like tricking people into revealing sensitive information, using malicious software, or capitalizing on incorrectly configured systems.
  2. Exploiting Credentials: Attackers often exploit credentials to move laterally or vertically within a system once they have gained entry. They may use stolen or weak credentials or even create new ones to impersonate legitimate users.
  3. Bypassing Account Control: In this stage, the attacker bypasses user account control mechanisms designed to prevent unauthorized changes to the system. By doing so, they can perform actions that typically require administrative permissions.
  4. Manipulating Access Tokens: Access tokens are used in operating systems to determine the resources a user can access. Attackers manipulate these tokens to escalate their privileges and gain unauthorized access to resources.
  5. Using Valid Account Credentials: In some cases, attackers might obtain valid account credentials, either through social engineering, data breaches, or other means. These credentials can then be used to access systems and escalate privileges without triggering alarms, making these types of attacks particularly difficult to detect.

Types of privilege escalation attacks: vertical vs. horizontal

Privilege escalation attacks can be broadly categorized into two types – vertical and horizontal. Understanding the differences between these two can help organizations better protect their systems and data.

Vertical privilege escalation

Also known as privilege elevation, vertical privilege escalation involves an attacker gaining higher-level privileges than they initially had. For instance, a cybercriminal might start off with standard user permissions but exploit a system vulnerability to obtain administrator-level privileges for themselves.

This elevated access allows them to perform actions that would typically be restricted, such as altering system configurations or accessing and manipulating sensitive data. Given their high access level, vertical privilege escalation attacks can pose a significant threat to an organization’s cybersecurity infrastructure.

Horizontal privilege escalation

In contrast, horizontal privilege escalation does not involve increasing the attacker’s privilege level. Instead, the attacker acquires identical permissions to those they already possess for a distinct user.

For instance, a malicious actor with standard user permissions could exploit a system vulnerability to seize control of another user’s account at the same level. While they don’t acquire any extra privileges, they can gain access to sensitive or proprietary information linked to the other user’s account.

While horizontal privilege escalation might seem less dangerous than its vertical counterpart due to the absence of elevated permissions, it still poses a serious risk. It can allow attackers to access sensitive data, impersonate legitimate users, and bypass security measures designed to prevent unauthorized access.

Strategies to prevent privilege escalation attacks

Privilege escalation attacks pose a significant threat to organizations, but several strategies can be employed to prevent them. Here are some key measures to consider:

Use vulnerability scanning tools

Regularly scanning your systems for vulnerabilities is essential to preventing privilege escalation attacks. These tools can identify potential weaknesses in your systems before attackers do, allowing you to patch these vulnerabilities and secure your environment.

Manage privileged accounts

Privileged accounts, such as those of administrators, have access to sensitive areas of your system and are attractive targets for attackers. It’s crucial to monitor these accounts closely, limit who has access to them, and review their activities regularly to detect any unusual behavior. Privileged Access Management (PAM) solutions can also be used to manage and monitor privileged accounts. These work by limiting access to certain resources and setting up user authentication rules, which can help secure your system.

Establish and enforce security policies

Clear, comprehensive security policies can help ensure that all team members understand their roles in maintaining business security. These policies should outline acceptable systems use, required security measures, and procedures for reporting suspicious activity.

Security awareness programs

Cyber education initiatives can train teams regarding the dangers associated with the risk of access rights attacks and methods to evade them. This might encompass education on identifying phishing emails, best password management practices, and the importance of Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) as well as optimal ways to leverage secure network channels.

Password diligence with multi-factor authentication (MFA)

MFA requires users to provide multiple verification factors to access a resource, adding an extra layer of protection. This not only makes it more challenging for attackers to gain access but also mitigates the impact of stolen user credentials. With MFA, you can add a second layer of protection for your systems against unauthorized access while keeping your data safe.

Secure databases

Databases often contain an organization’s most sensitive information. Ensuring that they are properly secured can help prevent privilege escalation attacks. This includes using Active Directory, encrypting data, restricting access, and regularly updating and patching database management systems.

Keep your business shielded from privilege escalation attacks

The rising threat of privilege escalation in cybersecurity necessitates proactive measures to safeguard against it. By implementing robust cybersecurity measures and adopting proactive monitoring, you can harden your security defenses and effectively stay ahead of malicious attackers.

About the author

Joseph Carson

Joseph Carson is a cybersecurity professional with more than 25 years’ experience in enterprise security and infrastructure. Currently, Carson is the Chief Security Scientist & Advisory CISO at Delinea. He is an active member of the cybersecurity community and a Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP). Carson is also a cybersecurity adviser to several governments, critical infrastructure organizations, and financial and transportation industries, and speaks at conferences globally.

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