What is a Privilege Escalation Attack?

What is a Privilege Escalation Attack

Attackers utilize privilege escalation for many purposes. By increasing permission levels, attackers are able to bypass security warnings, install malware and perform other illegal actions more easily.

Utilizing a log system capable of gathering and analyzing user actions and setting rules to detect unusual activity is one way to detect these attacks, while teaching users to avoid social engineering tactics and phishing attempts is another. To further reduce risks, training users is also key.

What is a Privilege Escalation Attack?

Privilege escalation attacks are cyber attacks which focus on threat actors increasing their access and privileges in your systems, often through exploitable software vulnerabilities, social engineering tactics and password exploitation. Once attackers gain a foothold within your systems, they often use that elevated access to gain further access and control over it.

As with other forms of security risks, privilege escalation attacks can often be mitigated through practicing good cybersecurity hygiene – such as setting strong password policies and multi-factor authentication (MFA). You should also segment and implement other best practices like patch management and vulnerability scanning to further minimize risks.

However, these measures are never fully effective, since no system or application can evade an attempted privilege escalation attack. Therefore, it’s crucial that you gain an understanding of all of the possible attack vectors which could be utilized in an attempted privilege escalation attack and how they work; this will allow for more targeted defense strategies against this form of threat.

How does Privilege Escalation Work?

Exploitation of privilege escalation vulnerabilities is often the starting point for cyber attacks, so it is crucial that you understand their workings and which security controls you can put into place in order to thwart them.

Privilege escalation attacks occur when an attacker gains increased rights, permissions or entitlements beyond what are assigned to an account, user or asset. This may be achieved through exploiting software vulnerabilities such as firmware updates or kernel upgrades on an operating system.

Hackers can gain entry to a privileged account through social engineering, misconfiguration or exploits like buffer overflows or kernel flaws. Once in, they can launch either horizontal or vertical privilege escalation attacks against it.

Horizontal privilege escalation occurs when non-administrative accounts have the ability to reset passwords or gain access to administrative features. One method involves manipulating session identifiers between web servers and browsers in order to gain entry to hidden pages that provide access to privileged functionality – this technique is known as cross-site scripting (XSS).

Privilege Escalation Techniques

Attackers use many tactics to elevate privileges on compromised endpoints. Once granted, attackers can use those privileges to exfiltrate data, disrupt business functions or open backdoor users for continued attacks on your network. It is critical to proactively manage privileged accounts, their sessions and suspicious activity – attackers often run enumeration commands during privilege escalation processes to gather information that may indicate hijacked accounts or suspicious behaviour in general.

Privilege escalation attacks can be divided into two distinct categories: horizontal and vertical. Horizontal privilege escalation begins from an insecure account and gradually escalates their access levels across various accounts, ultimately reaching domain administrative level or system administrator accounts to control critical systems. One common example would be an attacker exploiting bugs in Linux kernel security to gain initial foothold on a system before using local privilege escalation attacks such as Dirty Cow to gain root access on it.

Vertical vs Horizontal Privilege Escalation

Once an attacker gains access to a low-privileged account, they need to quickly escalate their privileges until they achieve those of a superuser or administrator. Social engineering techniques, malware attacks and brute-force methods may all be utilized by attackers for this purpose; exploits can either be horizontal or vertical in nature.

Horizontal privilege escalation, also referred to as lateral movement, is a type of attack where an attacker leverages their initial foothold on a target system in order to expand their permissions and privileges by gaining access to accounts with similar permissions as their current one. For instance, once they gain entry through Bob on their system they may continue searching file systems until they locate credentials belonging to John which will give them additional permissions and privileges.

Once an attacker obtains John credentials, they can quickly switch over to log-in as administrator, giving them access to sensitive data as well as potentially altering applications and web servers. Therefore, IT teams should make privilege account management a top priority.

How to Detect a Privilege Escalation Attack?

Privilege escalation attacks involve attackers gaining elevated access to systems, applications and data – which could allow them to take over your entire network, steal valuable information and control even your most essential business processes.

Attackers employ various strategies to gain unauthorized privilege access, including security vulnerabilities and exploits, human behavior issues and design flaws or oversights in operating systems, web applications or other software products. A combination of effective prevention, detection and swift action must be implemented to deter such extensive cyberattacks.

While most attention is often focused on passwords for privileged accounts such as domain administrators or root users, attackers are increasingly targeting standard accounts with standard credentials as a means to gain elevated privileges – this practice is known as horizontal privilege escalation and may use techniques ranging from brute force password cracking and pass-the-hash cracking through to silver ticket and golden ticket attacks. Most attacks can be detected using network analysis; most can even be flagged via comprehensive PAM solutions which monitor network activity for suspicious activity that alert IT teams about suspicious activities on network.

Privilege Escalation Attack Vectors

Attackers use various methods to conduct privilege escalation attacks. Some methods may be more dangerous than others, yet all can be used to steal credentials, gain access to sensitive information, disrupt business processes or even create backdoors.

Attackers typically classify privilege escalation attacks into two broad categories: vertical and horizontal. With vertical privilege escalation, an attacker starts with a standard user account with limited permissions before gradually moving up the hierarchy towards more powerful accounts on an application, system or network; for instance from standard user to administrator account in web applications.

Horizontal privilege escalation occurs when an attacker moves between computers or applications on the same network and gains more privileges each time; for instance, from standard or admin accounts to root access in remote sessions.

Privileged escalation attack vectors include flaws in operating systems, software or hardware; social engineering attacks; malware; but it’s important to remember that many vulnerabilities don’t necessarily pose immediate threats or impact depending on their severity, availability of exploits and resources exposed through exploitable flaws, as well as any mitigating controls available that could reduce risks.

Brute Force Password Attacks

Hackers employ brute force attacks to guess passwords by trying every possible combination until the correct one is found. While this approach works effectively with short passwords or simple characters, its effectiveness quickly declines with longer or more complex ones.

Once hackers gain access to a standard user account, they can move laterally across the network in search of more privileges. They might employ phishing attacks to obtain username and password details for an administrator account before using those credentials to gain access to files, web applications, subnetworks and other systems using those credentials.

To combat this form of attack, businesses should adhere to the principle of least privilege to limit the permissions that any user possesses. They should also implement authentication mechanisms like adaptive multi-factor authentication and policies encouraging password hygiene such as strong complexity. A throttling mechanism that locks accounts after multiple failed login attempts may help deter attacks while blacklisting known attacker IP addresses will further help keep hackers out. For added protections they could implement Zero Trust models with security tools like SIEM solutions or intrusion detection systems as part of their defense arsenals.

Pass-the-Hash PtH

Pass-the-Hash (PtH) attacks use hashed representations of user credentials to bypass authentication protocols and facilitate unauthorized lateral movement within networks. Once an attacker gains initial access via methods like phishing, malware infection or exploiting software vulnerabilities on Windows systems, they can harvest hashes stored in memory for use on other systems without having to reveal passwords in plain text – gradually expanding privileges while gathering sensitive data along the way.

Organizations looking to avoid Pass-the-Ticket (PtT) attacks should implement least privilege access policies and limit local administrator accounts on workstations; require regular password rotation; implement intrusion detection and monitoring solutions, such as QOMPLX Privileged Access Management solutions; as well as rigorously monitor login and credential-use events by Privileged Access Management solutions such as QOMPLX. Such steps will help detect any irregular activities that could indicate that an attacker may be using stolen credentials to gain a foothold within their network.

Like other Pay-to-Enforce (PtE) tactics, detecting Pay-to-Hide and Pay-to-Target requires correlating multiple security logs on a networked workstation. Luckily, though, an organization with proper structures in place should be able to quickly detect such anomalies.

Types of Privilege Escalation Technique

Privilege escalation attacks involve hacking systems to gain access to higher-level privileges than were originally granted, which may lead to security breaches, theft of sensitive information or other malicious acts.

Privilege escalation attacks come in two flavors: vertical and horizontal. Vertical privilege escalation involves an attacker logging in through an account with lower privileges and gradually raising them until they gain access to accounts with greater access.

1. Cybersquatting or typosquatting

Once an adversary gains access to your environment, whether through stolen credentials or exploiting misconfigurations, they will look for opportunities to escalate privileges. Once in control of an account they could then engage in malicious activities which pose a major threat to cloud environments like deleting data or installing malware.

Cybercriminals often utilize typosquatting, in which they register domains similar to popular and trustworthy brands in order to gain personal or financial data from unsuspecting users. Furthermore, they create fake websites designed to look like popular ecommerce stores, banks or credit card portals in order to steal login credentials or any sensitive data that might be stored therein.

Vertical privilege escalation is another technique attackers can employ, which involves gaining administrative or root privileges on your system through software vulnerabilities like SQL injection attacks or buffer overflows. Vulnerability management and patching your systems regularly are two ways you can lower risk associated with these types of attacks by closing security holes and closing gaps in existing identities in your environment.

2. Password exposure

Bad actors with access to credentials allowing unauthorized privilege escalation attacks can do significant harm to your cloud environment, from minor inconveniences and data breaches, all the way up to system deletion. According to Forrester Research, approximately 80% of security breaches involve privileged credentials.

Privilege escalation attacks involve an attacker gaining unauthorized access to higher-level permissions within a network through human error, misconfigurations, design or security architecture flaws or phishing tactics used to obtain credentials used for accessing more sensitive data or taking other unauthorized actions.

Privilege escalation attacks typically fall into two main categories: vertical and horizontal. Vertical privilege escalation attempts target accounts with higher-level privileges while horizontal attacks work by expanding the scope of an already privileged account across peer accounts. Preventing such attacks involves employing the principle of least privilege, conducting regular vulnerability scans, and installing security patches onto all applications and systems as soon as they become available.

3. Security question exposure

Malicious actors can leverage privilege escalation vulnerabilities such as web application flaws to access critical data that they require for their activities. A key risk associated with privilege escalation is compromised sensitive data which could disrupt workflows and damage company brand.

Security questions, which require users to provide personal or trivial details such as their date of birth, favorite sports team or where they grew up can also be used as an effective method to authenticate and gain privileged access to accounts. Attackers frequently know the answers either from personal experience or from publicly available information on social media.

Security question vulnerabilities can be exploited via vertical and horizontal privilege escalation attacks, starting from a low privilege level before increasing it up the privilege ladder, such as by taking control of a domain administrative account; while horizontal escalation begins by gaining unauthorised access to standard user accounts before moving up to kernel or root access levels – such attacks often use techniques like password guessing, brute force attacks, session hijacking etc. to gain control.

4. Vishing or voice phishing

Vishing scammers use phone-based social engineering tactics called vishing to gain access to sensitive data by imitating trusted institutions by simulating calls that appear from them, for instance claiming your credit card account has been compromised or that the IRS needs to speak with you regarding tax refunds. Such calls can be highly convincing and constitute horizontal privilege escalation.

Vishers employ machine learning, a subset of Artificial Intelligence (AI), to craft voice simulations tailored to match their targets’ tone, accent, age and gender. Once their attack begins they often spoof caller ID to make their attempts more credible and increase the chance of success.

Vigilance is your best defense against vishing attacks. If a suspicious call comes in, always let it go to voicemail without providing any personal data over the phone. Furthermore, legitimate representatives from banks or other institutions should never request account numbers, PINs and passwords over the phone; any attempt at collecting them through calls claiming to come from Medicare, law enforcement, or Social Security should be treated as potential vishing attacks.

5. Brute force attacks

Hackers use brute force attacks, a type of cyberattack which uses trial and error to guess passwords or account credentials, to gain privileged access. Brute force attacks are difficult to detect but often successful as hackers keep trying until they discover the necessary details.

Once an attacker gains access through one of these vulnerabilities, they can use various means to increase their privileges and launch an all-out attack. They may do this through changing identity permissions or exploiting vulnerabilities within the system to gain administrative rights.

Vertical privilege escalation is another form of privileged attack, in which access levels increase over time. A threat actor could start with a regular user account before moving up the hierarchy into more senior levels such as superuser or domain administrator access.

Accounts with elevated privileges grant threat actors access to your entire environment, making them vulnerable against attacks. To safeguard against this scenario, organizations must constantly monitor their networks in real time for suspicious activity and block potentially malicious accounts quickly when identified – protecting systems against further attacks.

6. Credential dumping

Retrieving account credentials (password hashes) from memory is one of the most frequently employed privilege escalation techniques. Attackers may do this via phishing attacks, software vulnerabilities, keylogging, network traffic sniffing or by using tools like Mimikatz to extract password hashes directly from system memory. Once an attacker obtains valid credentials they can move laterally across networks to access sensitive data.

Attackers with access to your IT administrator’s password hashes can use them to gain entry to other machines until they acquire network administrator’s credentials, giving them entry to critical infrastructure like domain controllers, medical records and more.

To protect against such attacks, ensure all employees use multifactor authentication and use a SIEM to monitor security events and detect suspicious activities that could indicate breaches or attempts at privilege escalation. Finally, to abide by the principle of least privilege and help safeguard systems and applications against exploiting software vulnerabilities that allow attackers to gain lateral movement or even root privileges, implement multifactor authentication for employee systems as well as use SIEM for monitoring events to detect breaches.

7. Password spraying

Most computer systems feature multiple user accounts, each with their own set of privileges. When an attacker gains access to one, they gain access to files, data, and functionality otherwise unavailable to them – including installing malware, changing system files, altering data and applications and taking other malicious actions that would normally not be possible otherwise. When malicious actors gain control of one, it’s usually game over for them!

Malicious actors usually utilize vulnerabilities in software and hardware to gain entry to your network by stealing credentials or employing privilege escalation techniques to gain a foothold there. A successful attack can expose sensitive information, interrupt business operations and compromise your reputation – potentially jeopardizing both.

To reduce privilege escalation risks, it’s essential that employees understand password security and implement strong authentication methods like two-factor authentication (2FA), multi-factor authentication (3FA) or password security tools. Furthermore, follow the principle of least privilege by giving only what’s necessary for their roles; deploy network segmentation as a defensive measure against lateral movement; use monitoring/detection tools like SIEM solutions and User and Entity Behavior Analytics (UEBA) solutions as monitoring/detection solutions and watch out for suspicious or unauthorized activity – these steps should help mitigate risks against privilege escalation risks effectively.

8. Credential stuffing

Attackers use this attack to gain privileged access to systems, applications or resources in a way that’s hard for security systems or users to detect. Once an attacker gains privileged access, they have free reign over any part of the system or application they gain access to.

Cybercriminals obtain stolen login credentials (usernames and passwords) through data breaches, phishing campaigns or dark web marketplaces and then use automated tools to test them against multiple websites or services in hopes that some will work since many people reuse similar login information across multiple platforms – this makes credential stuffing attacks an attractive low-risk, high-reward option for hackers.

Once hackers gain a valid login to an account, they are free to do whatever it takes to gain control. This includes stealing credit card numbers, personally identifiable information and trade secrets as well as sensitive data that is held within. Furthermore, it provides them access to laterally moving through networks, installing back doors and gaining more knowledge about security infrastructures.

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.