What Is Lateral Movement?

What is Lateral Movement

Lateral movement is an established technique cyber attackers, also known as threat actors, use to maneuver within compromised networks once they gain initial access. It allows them to avoid detection while expanding their control and presence within an environment; ultimately enabling them to locate and steal valuable data for ransomware, cyberespionage or other illicit uses.

Laterality is a critical step of an attack lifecycle since traditional preventative controls such as firewalls, SIEM tools and IDS/IPS are ineffective at detecting it. Unfortunately, many attackers take this route anyway and become victims themselves when investigation and recovery costs skyrocket post-damage.

Attackers using lateral movement typically pursue one of two goals when using this strategy: gain access to one account or device; or gain control of as many systems as possible. The ultimate aim depends on the attack type used – ransomware typically involves encrypting data then demanding payment to unlock them or gain access. Or they could try exfiltrating sensitive data for sale on dark web markets or use in further extortion/sabotage schemes.

Detecting Lateral Movement

Once attackers gain entry to a network, they use lateral movement techniques to explore its depths, discover vulnerabilities and access privileges, escalate privileges as necessary and reach their end goal. Threat actors use different techniques – infiltration attacks, phishing attacks, credential dumps and escalation techniques among many others – for lateral movement.

Security teams need a variety of technologies at their disposal in order to detect lateral movement effectively and detect suspicious activities, including Unified Endpoint Detection and Response (UEDR), Threat Intelligence, and Advanced Analytics solutions. UEDR solutions give visibility into an entire network and allow analysts to quickly spot threats by recording suspicious activities and alerting on them quickly.

Detecting lateral movement is vital because, the longer an attack goes unnoticed, the greater its damage potential becomes. Implementing best practices like enforcing least privilege, whitelisting applications, requiring multi-factor authentication and deploying an EDR solution are proven ways to strengthen your defensive posture and detect attacks faster. Mapping potential lateral movement paths within your network may help your team detect threats faster – when Defender for Identity security alerts detect possible LMPs within your organization, select the “Observed in Your Organization” tab to view previous LMP detections related to users within that organization and react quickly as quickly as possible!

Common Stages of Lateral Movement

Lateral movement allows attackers to access systems, applications, and data through various techniques in the network. It is an integral component of many forms of attacks such as ransomware or phishing campaigns and APT attacks which often rely on these tactics as means for infiltrating networks.

Reconnaissance is the initial stage in any lateral move; attackers first conduct reconnaissance on networks to gain an understanding of their layout, discover active hosts and open ports, as well as identify targets. They may use tools to detect vulnerabilities like network scanners to search for open services as well as passwords or credentials on compromised devices.

Once a threat actor gains access to your network, they can begin exploiting it by obtaining stolen user account credentials or exploiting misconfigurations or software vulnerabilities to gain entry. They may use other techniques like credential dumping and privilege escalation to gain entry to more crucial systems, such as domain controllers or operator accounts for business-related accounts – and use those credentials to control or steal sensitive data from them.

1. Reconnaissance

Opponents employ lateral movement to uncover an infected network, identify vulnerabilities, and elevate privileges – with their ultimate aim being gaining access and controlling as many devices or applications as possible – be that for cyber espionage purposes, data exfiltration, or ransomware attacks.

Zone reconnaissance involves reconnoitering specific zones or axes in order to assess their trafficability and environment, such as finding bypasses around built-up areas, obstacles or contaminated terrain. Scout platoons also conduct reconnaissance searches in order to locate enemy forces – equipment, weapons or vehicles as well as any information of use – within those areas.

With so much interconnection between networks and cloud services today, attackers find it increasingly easier to move laterally and spread malicious code. Implementing cybersecurity best practices such as network segmentation and access control together with continuous monitoring using security orchestration, automation and response (SOAR) platforms is critical to stopping lateral movement attacks from reaching their destinations – early detection can prevent data breaches, financial losses or reputational harm from reaching critical thresholds; understanding attackers is also required as well as adopting robust security measures against such attacks.

2. Credential Dumping and Privilege Escalation

Once attackers gain entry to a system, their goal should be to expand and deepen their access by gaining more privileges – this is known as “lateral movement techniques”. By exploiting credentials or increasing privileges on multiple systems across a network without risk of detection.

Internal reconnaissance allows attackers to understand the target network’s architecture, device naming conventions and observe legitimate users to identify potential escalation points – all while remaining undetected by security monitoring tools.

As such, many attacks go undetected until it’s too late, enabling attackers to carry out their malicious objectives – which may include stealing data for financial gain, conducting cyber espionage operations or ransomware attacks that encrypt a company’s files and demand payment in exchange for unlocking them.

Security teams must take measures to minimize lateral movement risks in order to mitigate lateral movement risks, including making critical systems inaccessible to all users and segmenting networks. Strict access control policies based on least privilege can prevent an attacker from moving laterally across your network while using zero trust architecture – where all users are presumed threats until proven otherwise – further limits their movement laterally within your environment.

3. Gaining Access

After breaching an initial device, attackers use lateral movement techniques to penetrate deeper into a network in search of high-value information. Their aim is to remain undetected while gaining privileged access to additional systems and exfiltrating data – this tactic has been employed successfully in cyberattacks including ransomware attacks, data theft operations and cyber espionage activities.

Organizations should monitor for unauthorised logins from unknown devices as well as discrepancies in file-sharing and administrative tasks that might indicate lateral movement. Network segmentation to limit the attack surface and zero-trust security that assumes all users pose a threat may also help provide adequate defenses against this form of attack.

Blocking lateral movement attacks is essential to avoiding catastrophic data breaches with their attendant financial losses, regulatory penalties, brand damage and customer trust issues. In order to combat lateral movement attacks effectively a variety of tools must be employed such as continuous monitoring and threat detection as well as network segmentation to limit threat surface area, regular patch management practices, as well as creating an environment in which all users and devices should be treated as potential threats until proven otherwise.

How does lateral movement happen?

Recognizing lateral movement attacks requires understanding the techniques attackers employ and taking proactive cybersecurity measures that include continuous monitoring and detection. Recognizing potential lateral movement pathways within your network is also key, since this is where attackers may hide from traditional security controls and remain undetected.

Cyberattackers utilize modern networks’ interconnectivity to move laterally and search for valuable assets such as sensitive data or intellectual property, using lateral movement methods to locate and exfiltrate data over time.

Unfortunately, detecting lateral movement can be challenging. Security tools, like SIEM systems, often lack the capacity to accurately interpret this type of attack behavior or recognize attacks against it. Furthermore, such movements often appear like normal network activity making automatic blocking difficult – this is especially challenging in cloud environments with complex architecture making monitoring threats harder.

Privilege escalation

After initially breaching one system or data source, attackers seek access to more systems and data with the aim of stealing proprietary information, disrupting business operations or inflicting reputational harm.

Threat actors require valid account credentials that grant them access to an environment in order to conduct their malicious campaigns successfully. They often rely on techniques like password attacks, brute force and session hijacking in order to gain these credentials.

Once an attacker obtains these credentials, they can perform vertical or horizontal privilege escalation attacks. A vertical escalation involves moving from a lower-level account to one with higher privileges, for example moving from standard user account to administrator on specific machine.

Horizontal Escalation involves expanding an attacker’s span of control by gaining access to accounts with similar privilege levels across multiple systems, which expands their scope and allows them to remain undetected for extended periods. To combat such threats, companies should establish zero trust architectures that constantly verify and authenticate network activity as well as proactive threat hunting tools that search for indicators of compromise or signs of lateral movement.

Lateral Movement and IT Security

Information technology (IT) encompasses computer systems, hardware, software, networks and the processing and distribution of data.

Cybercriminals utilize lateral movement as a strategy to gain entry to compromised network infrastructure, gather credentials and increase privileges to reach their intended targets.

Implementing robust cybersecurity measures such as network segmentation, multifactor authentication for remote access and privileged accounts, endpoint detection and response (EDR), can assist organizations in detecting lateral movement attacks more quickly.

1. Ransomware

After breaching an organization’s systems, cybercriminals use lateral movement techniques to gain control of additional systems and access higher-value data, helping them meet their attack objectives – whether that be ransoming confidential information for ransom or harvesting corporate secrets for cyber espionage. Lateral movement techniques also form the backbone of other cyber attacks such as extortion and sabotage attacks.

Blocking lateral movement can be challenging, as it often requires an attacker to be present for some time in a network. Therefore, continuous monitoring solutions such as Zero Trust provide essential continuous protection. While traditional SIEM platforms focus on normalizing and correlating activity without targeting actual cyber attacks as effectively, Zero Trust takes a more targeted approach which can detect anomalous behavioral patterns more accurately.

To prevent lateral movement, it’s crucial to keep an eye out for unfamiliar devices on the network and search for any suspicious file-sharing activity or login anomalies (especially using multiple credentials). It’s also essential that critical data backups exist so they can be restored after ransomware attacks occur. Network segmentation provides another effective solution that reduces pathways for attackers while blocking malicious code spreading throughout an organization.

2. Data exfiltration

Once inside a network, attackers use lateral movement techniques to expand their attack surface and gain access to sensitive information or assets. Unfortunately, due to its ability to mimic normal system and network activity, detecting lateral-movement attacks is a daunting challenge for cybersecurity professionals.

Criminals use this phase to probe infected systems for vulnerabilities and exploit them to increase access privileges. They also perform reconnaissance to gain more insight into network infrastructure – for instance identifying hosts’ naming conventions or the locations of valuable data assets that they could exploit later. Such intelligence helps attackers better target their payload, decrease detection time and ensure prevention controls do not block their attacks.

At this phase, various lateral movement techniques are utilized to obtain and exfiltrate data from infected systems, including “pass-the-hash,” which involves attackers stealing hashed passwords on one system to authenticate with others. Finally, persistence is established through creating backdoors or malicious software which will enable attackers to return later and gain entry back into infected systems, access additional systems and steal further data while coercing victims into paying ransom fees.

3. Espionage

Once attackers gain entry to a compromised system, their goal is to expand their control and acquire valuable information or systems by employing techniques such as pass-the-hash for horizontal privilege escalation.

Adversaries employing lateral movement techniques can quickly amass information about an organization’s infrastructure, domain users, machine accounts, servers, group policies and OS credentials in order to determine which parts of its network they should target next.

Attacks like these often focus on particular companies, organizations, or individuals for economic gain or political activism purposes – Kroll Corporation helped recover funds looted by dictators; Black Cube infiltrated activist groups to turn them against each other; while the CIA’s Operation Dark Butterfly helped discredit Harvey Weinstein’s accusers.

Attracting attackers through cyberspace requires strong security policies, regular patch management, and advanced monitoring technologies that detect suspicious activity. Cybersecurity awareness training for employees allows them to recognize and report unusual behaviour; security orchestration and automation (SOAR) platforms also assist with responding faster to identified threats that threaten networks.

4. Botnet infection

After breaking into an organization’s system, attackers frequently employ lateral movement techniques to gain entry to other systems within its network and further compromise them – this practice is known as horizontal privilege escalation attack. Their aim? To quietly exfiltrate data or monetize compromised machines for profit.

Ransomware attacks rely on lateral movement to gain entry to systems and encrypt data before demanding payment for decryption keys from threat actors. This same technique has also been employed in cyber espionage or theft of information to sell on black markets, among other attacks that take advantage of compromised computers to profit.

To prevent lateral movement attacks, security teams should focus on improving security hygiene and investing in tools to detect anomalous behavior, including network segmentation and user privilege reduction. Backup critical data regularly so if an attack does happen it can be mitigated quickly and with minimal disruption; other best practices include performing regular patch management on systems; avoiding downloads from P2P networks such as file sharing; training employees how to recognize suspicious emails/links etc; together these proactive measures combined with zero trust security can greatly decrease the chance of such attacks while limiting damages caused by these attacks.

Prevent & Control Lateral Movement with Zero Trust

As football players use lateral movements to catch opponents off guard, attackers employ similar lateral movement techniques in their attack against your network. After breaching its perimeter defenses and exploiting one host machine to gain access to other systems and apps, attackers use stolen credentials, malware and privilege escalation techniques to maintain access while closing in on their targets – and hide their activities within normal east-west traffic flows to avoid detection.

Good news is there are proven strategies you can employ to combat lateral movement attacks and strengthen your security posture. Zero trust network access offers one effective solution.

Zero trust is an access-control model based on the “guilt until proven innocent” principle first proposed by John Kindervag of Forrester Research in 2010. By replacing traditional network perimeters with microsegmented zones that offer different degrees of trust, this security model limits communications between applications based on need-to-know principles.

Combining zero trust with BeyondTrust Privileged Password Management’s visibility and control over all your privileged accounts and passwords across your endpoints, zero trust can help break the lateral movement chain and protect against full-scale cyberattack. Discover how today!

Final Thoughts

Attackers that penetrate a network’s perimeter defenses typically utilize lateral movement techniques to expand their foothold, get closer to critical systems and data, and eventually launch attacks. Once they gain entry, whether through opportunistic phishing attacks, compromised credentials or malware infections, attackers employ techniques like privilege escalation and island jumping in order to access additional resources before unleashing their payload or exfiltrating information, or conducting reconnaissance.

Lateral movement can be likened to the act of using seam and bounce to take wickets during middle overs of cricket matches, providing key wickets that help build towards an impressive innings score.

Reversal of control can allow threat actors to avoid detection and maintain persistence within networks without proper internal safeguards.

To combat lateral movement, security teams should employ a zero trust approach with strict access controls that restrict trusted communications until authorized and authenticated; doing so will make it much more difficult for attackers to navigate networks while giving time for defenders to detect any movement and remove the potential threat. Download our free guide here for more details about protecting your network against lateral movement!

Sam is an experienced information security specialist who works with enterprises to mature and improve their enterprise security programs. Previously, he worked as a security news reporter.