Privilege Escalation: What It Is And How To Prevent And Detect It

August 6, 2021 in Cyber Attacks

Wondering what privilege escalation is? You’ve come to the right page. This article will cover everything you need to know about what privilege escalation is, how to detect privilege escalation, and tips for privilege escalation attack prevention.

What is a privilege escalation attack?

For the most part, privilege escalation is exactly what it sounds like. In the world of cybersecurity, “privileges” relate directly to how much information a system user can access—and how much they can’t. The more privileges one has, the more they’re privy to.

A privilege escalation attack involves a user gaining access to elevated rights or privileges, beyond (or above) what’s intended for their level of access. Whether it’s access to a network, application, or other mission- or business-critical system—and whether it’s executed by an internal or external bad actor—the result is the same: information, data, or power in the hands of someone to which it doesn’t belong.

Types of privilege escalation attacks

Generally speaking, there are two types of privilege escalation attacks—horizontal privilege escalation and vertical privilege escalation. Both fall under the same umbrella, with some key differences:

  • Horizontal privilege escalation involves an actor gaining access to the rights of another account—whether human or machine—with a similar level of privileges. These attacks are referred to as “account takeovers,” through which lower-level, standard user accounts are infiltrated and taken control of. Though horizontal privilege escalation may seem less dangerous, the stakes can quickly grow. With each new horizontal account compromised, the bad actor broadens their sphere of influence, along with the amount of damage they can do.
  • Vertical privilege escalation involves an actor gaining access to the rights of an account with a higher level of privileges. Sometimes referred to as privilege elevation attacks, vertical privilege escalation involves an attacker moving from a low-level of privileged access to a higher one. While horizontal privilege escalation often results from poor account protection or compromised credentials, vertical privilege escalation can be more complex, requiring bad actors to take multiple intermediary steps to bypass, override, or exploit privilege controls.

How does privilege escalation work?

Regardless of whether it’s horizontal or vertical, a privilege escalation attack typically involves the exploitation of some sort of privilege escalation vulnerability—such as a system bug, misconfiguration, or inadequate access controls.

Every account that interacts with a system has some level of privileges assigned, whether they’re known by the account holder or not. Standard users are typically restricted from accessing a system’s database, sensitive files, or any other sources of valuable information. Part of the reason standard users may not even realize they’re operating under privileges is because, unlike bad actors, they have no reason to access anything beyond what they’re entitled to.

In terms of how privilege escalation works, attackers will typically use one of the following five methods to gain elevated rights or access: credential exploitation (for example, taking advantage of a weak password), system vulnerabilities and exploits, misconfigurations, malware, or social engineering.

By employing one of these strategiesor tactics, bad actors can gain their entry point into a system. Once they’ve infiltrated the environment, they’ll surveil it until it’s time to take their next step—eventually initializing and executing privilege escalation to accounts with greater rights than the account initially compromised. Depending on their goals, they may continue to elevate their privileges to take control of an administrative or root account, or continue to work horizontally, until ultimately, they own the entire environment.

How can privilege escalation be detected?

When understanding how to detect privilege escalation, there’s not one single answer. There are a range of ways a privilege escalation can be detected whether through proven cybersecurity tools and software solutions, or mistakes on the part of the attacker.

Ideally, a bad actor will clean their tracks to remain undetected—masking their source IP address, deleting logs based on the credentials they are using, and more—but there isn’t always time to make every action untraceable. Because of this, a big part of understanding how to detect privilege escalation is learning to identify the most common mistakes bad actors make in these attacks.

Privilege escalation attacks are unpredictable, and even the best cybercriminals can find themselves in a bind. Once an organization detects an indicator that their system has been compromised, they can take the necessary steps to neutralize it—pausing or terminating the access session or monitoring the threat actor to see what exactly they’re after.

How can privilege escalation be prevented?

Of course, prevention is better than detection. When it comes to privilege escalation attack prevention, ensuring that standard, everyday users are up to speed on the basics of cybersecurity is essential. Uninformed users tend to be the weakest link—and their missteps can lead to a whole host of issues down the line.

By implementing consistent security training across your organization, and modifying it over time to ensure its efficacy, you can take the proper steps to prevent privilege escalation attacks on your system. Beyond education, implement cybersecurity solutions that help mitigate vulnerabilities and alert you to any suspicious activity. From system-wide vulnerability management solutions to password management tools, adopting effective technology is important, especially amid a time of increased remote work and organizational attacks.

In addition to the above, putting organizational processes in place to ensure that every user account maintains secure credentials, is set to the least amount of privilege necessary to do their jobs, remains protected through remote access, and is deactivated the moment the user leaves the organization can all help with privilege escalation attack prevention—today and into the future.

To learn more about how bad actors can gain access to your system, check out this article.

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