Understanding privilege escalation attacks: the key to securing your data

What Is a Privilege Escalation Attack?

As companies progress through their digital transformation journey, cyber-attacks continue to increase at an alarming rate. Cybercriminals have become more sophisticated and inventive in their approach, and one such method that they have tactfully mastered is privilege escalation attacks. In this article, we'll explore what a privilege escalation attack is, how it works, and ways to safeguard yourself and your business from falling victim to such attacks.

What Is a Privilege Escalation Attack?

To understand privilege escalation attacks, we must first define what privilege is. In computing, privilege refers to the level of authorization or permission a user has to access or manipulate data and resources on the network. For instance, an ordinary user may have limited permission to view and edit certain files, while an administrator has full permission to access all the files on the network.

A privilege escalation attack is a type of attack that aims at gaining elevated access to a network or system, beyond what the attacker has permission or authorization to access. In most cases, the attacker starts with a lower level of privilege and then attempts to gain higher access levels, usually with the end goal of gaining administrative privileges. Once the attacker has administrative access, they can execute almost any command or application on the network, including installing malware, accessing sensitive information or causing system-wide disruptions.

Types of Privilege Escalation Attacks

We can classify privilege escalation attacks into two main categories.

1. Local Privilege Escalation Attacks

As the name suggests, local privilege escalation attacks happen on a single device or system. In such attacks, the attacker exploits a vulnerability on the target system to elevate privileges. Some common vulnerabilities that attackers use to carry out a local privilege escalation attack are:

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- Unpatched or outdated software that has known vulnerabilities.
- Compromised user accounts that have higher privileges than they require.
- Security misconfigurations that attackers can exploit to gain access to sensitive data.

2. Remote Privilege Escalation Attacks

A remote privilege escalation attack happens when an attacker gains access to a system remotely, either through the internet or the organization's network. Unlike local privilege escalation attacks, remote attacks are often more challenging to execute, as attackers need to bypass security measures like firewalls and intrusion detection systems. Some of the commonly used methods to launch remote privilege escalation attacks are:

- SQL injection attacks that exploit vulnerabilities in web applications, thereby providing attackers with access to sensitive system files.
- Cross-site scripting, which is similar to SQL injection, is an attack that allows the attacker to inject scripts into a web application, thereby gaining access to sensitive data.
- Phishing scams, where the attacker uses social engineering tactics to trick users into giving away their login credentials.

Real-Life Examples of Privilege Escalation Attacks

Privilege escalation attacks are not new and have been around since the early days of computing. Let's take a look at some recent examples of privilege escalation attacks that made headlines.

1. Equifax Breach

In 2017, consumer credit reporting agency Equifax suffered a major data breach that resulted in the exposure of personal data belonging to 143 million users. The breach was due to an unpatched vulnerability in the Apache Struts framework, giving attackers access to sensitive data.

The attackers exploited a vulnerability that allowed them to execute arbitrary code and escalate privileges to the level of the web application server. Once they had elevated access, they were able to access and exfiltrate sensitive data from the Equifax network.

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2. Marriott Breach

In 2018, Marriott Hotels suffered a major data breach, where cybercriminals gained access to the personal data of over 500 million customers. The attack started when the attackers gained access to the Marriott network by compromising the login credentials of two employees.

Once inside the network, the attackers used a technique called "pass-the-hash" to escalate their privileges and gain access to sensitive data. The attack was so sophisticated and well-planned that it took Marriott several months to discover and respond to the attack.

Protecting Yourself from Privilege Escalation Attacks

Privilege escalation attacks can cause significant damage to businesses and individuals, but there are steps you can take to prevent falling victim to such attacks.

1. Keep Your Software Up to Date

Most privilege escalation attacks exploit vulnerabilities in unpatched software. Therefore, it's crucial to keep all software on your devices and network up to date with the latest security patches.

2. Use Strong Passwords and Enable Two-factor Authentication

Weak passwords are easily guessed by attackers using brute force methods. By using strong passwords and enabling two-factor authentication, you can add an extra layer of protection to your accounts.

3. Monitor Network Activity

Regularly monitoring your network activity can help detect anomalies and suspicious behavior, which can be the earliest signs of a privilege escalation attack.

4. Provide Limited Access

Users should only have access to the data and resources that they need to carry out their duties. Providing limited access prevents attackers from gaining access to sensitive data or escalating their privileges.

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Privilege escalation attacks are a significant threat to businesses and individuals. Attackers use various methods to infiltrate networks and systems to gain access to sensitive data and resources. By keeping your software up to date, using strong passwords, enabling two-factor authentication, and monitoring network activity, you can help protect yourself and your organization from privilege escalation attacks. Remember, staying vigilant and being aware of the latest techniques and tactics that attackers use is the best way to prevent such attacks.

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