The stunning rise of privilege escalation attacks and how to defend against them

As technology continues to advance at an unprecedented rate, the pervasiveness of cyber threats continue to escalate. Among the most notorious of these attacks is privilege escalation – a notorious hacking technique used to obtain unauthorized access to critical systems. An escalation of privilege occurs when a user gains access to a higher level of authority than was initially granted to them, allowing them to execute commands and take actions that were previously off-limits. Organizations of all sizes and sectors are susceptible to such attacks, with devastating consequences that can range from stolen sensitive information, altered data, and even complete control over IT infrastructure.

In this article, we will explore the various types of privilege escalation attacks, the reasons why they occur, and how to prevent them from occurring in the first place.

## What are Privilege Escalation Attacks?

Most computer systems adopt some form of hierarchical security, a means of granting users access its functions. Least privilege access, which is the opposite of privilege escalation, usually restricts user privileges only to those which are essential to complete a particular task. Consequently, it limits the exposure of any potential vulnerabilities. In contrast, privilege escalation involves the acquisition of elevated privileges or permissions, allowing the attacker to evade security and access information that should otherwise be restricted.

There are two types of privilege escalation attacks: vertical privilege escalation and horizontal privilege escalation.

### Vertical Privilege Escalation

Vertical privilege escalation, as the name suggests, is the illicit exploitation of higher-level access that goes beyond what a specific user is permitted to have. In vertical privilege escalation attacks, the attacker goes from regular user status to having root/administrator privileges, thereby gaining control over the system’s activities and valuable data assets.

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### Horizontal Privilege Escalation

On the other hand, horizontal privilege escalation is a method used to gain unauthorized control of another user's data. In this scenario, the attacker does not gain root/administrator status. Instead, they seek to gain the same level of permissions as another user. This tactic is used in instances where accounts don’t have a root-level or admin account privilege, but the attacker still wants access to the system.

Both vertical and horizontal privilege escalations have notable cybercriminal impacts, as they allow hackers to avoid security protocols while expanding their reach on targeted systems and assets.

## Causes of Privilege Escalation Attacks

Privilege escalation attacks occur due to three primary reasons: Human error, software vulnerabilities, and configuration weaknesses.

### Human Error

Human error is the most common cause of any security breaches. An accidental grant of higher access or the use of easy-to-guess passwords, among other forms of mistakes, are some common examples of how a human error can lead to privilege escalation.

### Software Vulnerabilities

Software vulnerabilities are another major cause of privilege escalation attacks. In most instances, attackers exploit vulnerabilities found in unpatched versions of software programs to gain higher access.

### Configuration Weaknesses

Lastly, Configuration weaknesses occur due to poor network policies that grant excessive access controls and privileges to users. Typically, if users possess too many permissions, cyber criminals can manipulate any existing configuration flaw to gain administrative access to a system.

## Real World Examples of Privilege Escalation Attacks

Some of the most infamous cyber-attacks have exploited privilege escalation.

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The WannaCry ransomware virus is one example. In May 2017, the malware that took advantage of a vulnerability found only in Windows allowed the attackers to penetrate computers, encrypt their data, and demand money for its release. The attackers had used a combination of horizontal and vertical privilege escalation methods to access the computers and gain higher access, encrypting a wide range of files on affected systems, including files beyond user documents.

Similarly, NotPetya Ransomware uses the same tactics as WannaCry but goes one step further to use legitimate software as an attack vector. Using privileged credentials stolen from intended targets, it infects other systems, destroys files and records, and causes damage that continues to linger.

These attacks illustrate the devastating consequences that could occur if privileged access controls are not managed correctly.

## Measures to Prevent Privilege Escalation Attacks

There are numerous security measures companies can adopt to prevent privilege escalation attacks. These include:

### Least Privilege Access

Least privilege access, which gives users the minimum access needed to perform a particular task, should be the norm in companies. This approach can significantly minimize the damage perpetrators can cause if an attack occurs.

### Limit the Number of Administrators

Limiting the number of users with administrative access controls can reduce the possibility of exposure to malicious actors.

### Configure Proper Password Management

Weak credentials are an easy target for cybercriminals. Companies can minimize the likelihood of a privilege escalation attack by mandating the timely updating of passwords.

### Update Software Regularly

Regular software updates (specifically when vulnerabilities are discovered) are critical to system security. Updates patch out any vulnerabilities, reducing the possibility of an attack.

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### Be Vigilant and Discern Phishing Attacks

Finally, maintaining vigilance and being discerning in phishing and other social engineering attempts is critical to prevent privilege escalation attacks from occurring.

## Conclusion

In conclusion, privilege escalation attacks continue to be a significant cybersecurity threat, and one that can seriously undermine organizational integrity, jeopardizing sensitive data, finance, and operational infrastructure. Mitigating these attacks require good cybersecurity hygiene, a zero-trust environment, and adherence to least privilege access. It’s up to organizations of all types to safeguard confidential data and maintain the trust of their customers – before it’s too late.

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