From user to admin: the mechanics of privilege escalation attacks

Privilege Escalation Attack: When Intruders Rise up the Ranks

The internet has opened up endless possibilities for both individuals and businesses and yet, it has also given rise to certain security concerns that cannot be ignored. Cyberattacks have become increasingly sophisticated, and one of the most damaging attacks in the cyber world today is the privilege escalation attack. In this article, we’ll delve into what a privilege escalation attack is, how it works, and some real-life examples of such attacks.

What is a Privilege Escalation Attack?

Simply put, privilege escalation attacks are when intruders or attackers gain access to higher privileges than they’re supposed to have. They could get into low-level user accounts and work their way up to high-level administrative permission, or they could directly attack high-level permissions. Whatever the path they take, the end result is a way in to access sensitive data that could cause a lot of damage.

In a system or network, not all users have the same level of authorization. For example, employees usually have their access levels defined by their organization. The CEO or the board members might have the highest administrative access while lower-level employees have limited access to their respective departments. Access ranges for employees should be kept controlled and secure to prevent attackers from exploiting their account access to accomplish their malicious goals.

Attackers bypass security measures, exploit vulnerabilities, and use tools to gain entry into a system or network. Once they gain low-level access, they can attack higher-level permissions by exploring the system, carrying out reconnaissance, deploying malware, or exploiting unpatched vulnerabilities to gain the administrative privileges. This is the privilege escalation attack. If they achieve their goal, they will have unauthorized access to sensitive data and could use it for malicious purposes, or worse.

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Types of Privilege Escalation:

In general, there are two types of privilege escalations: local and remote.

Local privilege escalation: This type of attack is carried out when an attacker gains access to a local system or machine. It could happen, for example, when an attacker gains, through a phishing scam, a user’s credentials (username and password). Once the attacker has compromised the user’s system or machine, they can then, through the use of malware, escalate their privileges in the system, to a level where they can steal sensitive data or cause harm.

Remote privilege escalation: This type of attack takes place when an attacker is able to bypass security mechanisms on the main server. Cybercriminals can exploit vulnerabilities like unsecured network services, weak passwords or outdated software to get into the server. It could also happen when a user account with higher-level privileges is compromised, giving the attacker the same level of access they’d need to cause damage.

How it works:

A privilege escalation attack can happen using various methods, including Buffer Overflows, Man in the Middle (MITM) Attack, Social Engineering, and Zero-Day Exploits.

Buffer Overflows: A buffer overflow is when an attacker overflows a buffer, which is a temporary storage space that’s only supposed to hold a certain number of characters, with too much data. The buffer spills over into other parts of the system, leaving it vulnerable to attack. Attackers can then use the overflow to gain access to higher-level permissions, steal sensitive data or cause harm.

Man in the Middle (MITM) Attack: In this type of attack, an attacker intercepts communication between two separate entities, either between a user and an online service or between a client and a server. The attacker then eavesdrops and intercepts data transmitted between the two with the aim of stealing sensitive data or intercepting the authentication credentials used to gain access to higher-level permissions.

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Social Engineering: Social engineering is a method of manipulating people through actions or communication to divulge sensitive information. Phishing scam is an example of social engineering. Attackers use it to obtain account details, user credentials or other sensitive data through deception and manipulation.

Zero-Day Exploits: A Zero-Day exploit is a vulnerability in the system or network that’s unknown to those who develop and maintain it. Attackers can gain knowledge of these weaknesses and then develop exploits to take fraudulent advantage to escalate its privileges to higher levels.

Examples of Privilege Escalation Attacks:

Privilege escalation attacks are constantly evolving. With each advancement in security measures, attackers come up with new ways to access higher privileges to steal information. Here are some notable examples of privilege escalation attacks that have occurred in recent years:

Equifax data breach:
In 2017, one of the biggest data breaches in history happened. Equifax, a major American credit bureau, announced that attackers had compromised its network, breached its security defenses, and stolen sensitive data belonging to nearly 143 million US citizens. Further investigations showed that attackers had used a web application attack to gain administrative access through Escalation of Privilege and ultimately exploited a vulnerability to gain access to highly sensitive customer personal data.

Petya ransomware:
Petya ransomware is a perfect example of a privilege escalation attack. In this case, attackers were able to gain high-level administrative access and used it to deploy their ransomware, encrypting hundreds of large-scale businesses’ files in 2017. The attackers, all of whom remain unknown, succeeded in using the encryption key to lock up all corporate files for a hefty ransom.

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In conclusion, privilege escalation attacks pose a significant threat to organizations and businesses, with potentially catastrophic consequences. The attacker can cause data breaches, data theft, ransomware, impede business continuity, harm reputation, and incur financial losses for businesses that cater to important sectors like finance, data storage, and transactions. Therefore, it is critical that companies protect their networks and systems against these attacks, regularly update their security mechanisms and ensure they are current with cybersecurity best practices. Remember, prevention is always better than cure.

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