The anatomy of a privilege escalation attack: how hackers gain control

What is a Privilege Escalation Attack? Understanding Cybersecurity’s Groundhog Day

Picture this. It’s Groundhog Day, and you’re Bill Murray. You are forced to relive the same day over and over again. No matter what you do differently, you always end up in the same place. In the world of cybersecurity, privilege escalation attacks are a similar scenario.

A privilege escalation attack is when an attacker takes advantage of a vulnerability in a system to gain access to higher levels of control or permissions. It’s like opening a door to a room that you weren’t supposed to enter. Only in this case, the door leads to sensitive data, applications, or administrative controls.

Some of the most dangerous cyber attacks start with a simple privilege escalation exploit. Once the attacker gains higher levels of control, they can use this position to launch other types of cyber attacks. This can be anything from ransomware to exfiltrating sensitive data or stealing user credentials.

While privilege escalation attacks may seem like a new threat to the average person, the reality is that cyber attackers have been using these methods for decades. Many organizations struggle to understand the scope of this threat and how to mitigate it effectively.

In this article, we’ll explore the basics of privilege escalation attacks, how attackers pull them off, and what you can do to protect yourself from them.

## The Basics of Privilege Escalation:
Before we dive deeper into the world of privilege escalation, let's look at some of the basics. Simply put, privilege escalation is about gaining additional permissions that you shouldn’t have. For instance, starting with access as a regular user and gaining admin privileges gives you access to more capabilities and permissions on the system you’re exploiting.

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Attackers seek privilege escalation because it opens doors that would otherwise remain closed. Attacking with limited permissions is like taking shots in the dark. With elevated privileges, you can accurately aim and successfully hit your target.

## How Privilege Escalation occurs:
There are several techniques that attackers may use for privilege escalation. Let's go over some of them.

### 1. Exploiting Vulnerabilities:
Attackers love exploiting vulnerabilities. These can be anything from missing patches or configurations to software bugs or logical flaws within the system.

Exploiting vulnerabilities is one of the most common ways attackers can escalate privileges. They use tools and methods that allow them to identify these vulnerabilities and then exploit them.

Once the attacker has exploited a vulnerability, they can then execute a code with privileged access to the system. This code may allow the attacker to take control over the system.

### 2. Brute Force Attack:
In some scenarios, the possible password combinations can be guessed automatically through a mechanism that tries different combinations of passwords until they find one or more that work.

A brute force attack is a method of gaining privileged access by guessing the login details for a user account with the intention of finding the correct login details. Once the correct login details have been guessed, the attacker has the ability to carry out administrative actions and even create new admin accounts for them to use.

### 3. Social Engineering:
Social engineering is a broad term for methods that involve deceiving or manipulating individuals with the intention of gaining privileged access.

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Phishing, for example, is a type of social engineering attack that is typically executed via email or instant messaging. The goal is to trick the recipient into voluntarily sharing sensitive information such as login credentials or personal data.

Attackers can also use other social engineering tactics, such as pretexting or impersonation, to gain the trust of their target and convince them to give up privileged access.

### 4. Injection Attacks:
Injection attacks involve injecting code into programs or web applications to gain privileged access or modify the behaviour of an application. There are several types of injection attacks, including SQL, DOS, and buffer overflow.

## How to protect yourself from Privilege Escalation Attacks:
Privilege escalation attacks have been around for a while, but that doesn’t mean you can’t protect yourself from them.

### 1. Keep Your Software Up to Date:
You must keep your software patched and updated to the latest version. Updated software usually contains security patches to address any known vulnerabilities.

### 2. Implement Access Controls:
Access control is a process of ensuring that the right people have access to the appropriate resources. Organizations can implement measures such as restricting privilege and granting users access only to relevant resources.

### 3. Train Users and IT Staff:
Training on cybersecurity is critical for employees at all levels. This will make it easier to spot any suspicious activities and avoid becoming victims of social engineering attacks.

### 4. Limit Exposed Services:
Attackers often target exposed services that are internet-facing. Limiting the exposed services can help to reduce the attack surface and make it harder for attackers to escalate privileges.

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### 5. Practice Principle of Least Privilege:
Limit the amount of privileged access given to users or devices to their required roles and restrict excess privileges. This ensures both the user and privileged systems are safer and less susceptible to a privilege escalation attack.

## Conclusion:
Privilege escalation attacks are a threat to organizations as well as individuals. Understanding the ways that attackers can exploit systems and implementing appropriate security measures is crucial to preventing them.

Organizations should not forget that human error is one of the biggest threats to security and consider both technical and non-technical countermeasures when protecting against privilege escalation attacks.

As more organizations rely on technology to handle sensitive information, privilege escalation attacks remain a constant threat. But with the right measures in place, you can prevent these attacks from ever succeeding. Don’t let privilege escalation attacks be your cybersecurity Groundhog Day.

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