Why privilege escalation attacks are one of the biggest security threats of our time

Privilege escalation attacks are among the most prevalent cyber threats in the digital world. Attackers leverage various techniques and methods to gain unauthorized access to the system, escalate their privileges, and carry out malicious activities. These attacks have been on the rise, wreaking havoc on individuals and organizations worldwide. In this article, we will discuss what privilege escalation attacks are, how they work, and the ways to prevent them.

What is Privilege Escalation Attack?

In simple terms, privilege escalation is a method of exploiting a vulnerability in a system or a software program to gain higher access privileges. These privileges can be related to application access, file systems, network or system-level access. Once an attacker escalates their privileges, they can view sensitive information, tamper with critical data, and control the system.

Different levels of Privilege escalation attacks:

• Vertical privilege escalation: In this type of attack, an attacker tries to gain a higher level of privilege than what is initially granted to them. For example, a user may have access to a network, but the attacker gains admin level access.

• Horizontal privilege escalation: In this type of attack, the attacker tries to gain access to the same privilege level, but for a different user account.

• Lateral movement – This is another form of privilege escalation attack, which is a popular method employed by attackers. In this type of attack, once the attacker gains access to a system, they move laterally within the network, trying to gain access to other systems within the network.

How does Privilege Escalation Attack work?

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Privilege escalation attacks exploit software vulnerabilities and flaws in systems to gain higher access levels. Attackers can use various techniques to carry out these attacks. Some of these techniques include:

• Exploiting software vulnerabilities: Attackers can exploit vulnerable software to execute malicious code. They can deploy shellcode/jumps to execute malicious code in the system memory.

• Password attacks: Attackers use various password cracking techniques to gain access, including brute force and dictionary attacks.

• Social Engineering: Attackers may use social engineering techniques like phishing or dumpster diving to get hold of user accounts and access sensitive information.

• Misconfigured permission: Attackers can exploit misconfigured permission settings and elevate their privileges to access vital data.

Real-Life Examples of Privilege Escalation Attacks

Privilege escalation attacks are not something to be taken lightly, as they can have devastating consequences. Here are some examples of privilege escalation attacks that made the news:

• Target Data Breach: In 2013, Target was hit by a massive data breach, which resulted in the exposure of 40 million credit and debit card details. The attackers gained access to Target's payment system through a third-party vendor and used a privilege escalation attack to elevate their access privileges.

• Microsoft Exchange Server Hack: In March 2021, Microsoft confirmed that attackers had exploited a vulnerability in the Exchange Server system that allowed them to escalate their privilege and access thousands of email accounts.

Prevention Techniques

Privilege escalation attacks are dangerous, so it's vital to take adequate preventive measures. Below are some prevention techniques:

• Patching and Updating software to the latest version- Outdated software can have vulnerabilities, which can lead to these attacks. Regular upgradation will decrease the chances of these vulnerabilities.

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• Strong Passwords Policy: Use strong password policies and two-factor authentication to minimize the risk of password attacks. A strong password has a combination of characters, including uppercase and lowercase alphabets, symbols, and numbers.

• Monitor and Audit: Reviewing file and system access logs regularly can detect unusual activity. Additionally, monitoring network traffic and user accounts are essential to identify a possible attack.

• Implement Role-Based Access Control (RBAC): Implementing RBAC will require every user to authenticate themselves before executing specific tasks, limiting the possibility of threats.

Conclusion

In conclusion, privilege escalation attacks, even though critical, can be avoided by taking the necessary preventive measures. Updating software, implementing RBAC, strong password policies, and hardening systems, monitoring and auditing are the best practices to prevent such attacks. Always treat cybersecurity as a serious matter when it comes to safeguarding sensitive data. The cost of not taking cybersecurity seriously can be detrimental to individuals and organizations alike.

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