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What is Privilege Escalation? Types, Techniques, and Prevention

There is a well-known hierarchy between accounts in any given network. Accounts are always categorized as low-access level accounts, mid-access accounts, and privileged accounts that have access to the most critical data and sections of the network. Respecting this hierarchy and protecting privileged accounts will keep you safe from rapid cybersecurity attacks and data losses. What you have to learn first is that there are different types of privilege escalation, as well as a couple of ways you can prevent it from happening.

What is Privilege Escalation?

To begin with, privilege escalation refers to a scenario where a hacker gains unauthorized access to a network and hijacks the privileged account to quickly work their way to the most critical data. When breaching a network, hackers usually attempt to compromise the privileged account as quickly as possible to expand their access and movement within the system. 

Once they reach the privileged account, the attack continues to develop even more rapidly, thus lowering your chances of responding in time. In most cases, once it comes down to privilege escalation, there’s not much you can do to prevent data loss and damage within the network. Therefore, you can understand why preventing privilege escalation is such an important thing to do. 

In most cases, hackers can easily gain control of a low-level account within a network. They use this account to work their way up and exploit the network’s weaknesses and misconfigurations until they hit the jackpot - the privileged account that provides them access to the core of the system from where they can exfiltrate all the important data.

Types of Privilege Escalation

There are two different types of privilege escalation that you should keep in mind:

  • Vertical privilege escalation - This is the “easier” type of escalation where hackers use email phishing techniques to get direct access to the desired account. In order for this to work, the target has to fall for the phishing email, click on the link and submit their credentials on the fake site that directly sends the data to the hacker. 

  • Horizontal privilege escalation - This is the more complex option where hackers go a step further to elevate the permissions with the account they obtain through the phishing email. Once they gain access to the initial account, they start aiming for admin privileges by using a variety of techniques to exploit security vulnerabilities. These techniques include Kernel exploits, user enumeration, exploiting SUID executables, access token manipulation, and many others. 

How to Prevent Privilege Escalation

Privilege escalation exploits both human psychology and security vulnerabilities, which makes it exceptionally difficult to defend against. In order to secure your privileged accounts, your organization’s improving the privileged account management habits. Always keep an up-to-date list of all privileged accounts in your network at a secure location and make sure all low-level accounts are properly optimized. No account should have more access to data than it is necessary. 

By minimizing the number of privileged accounts and limiting access based on the account hierarchy, you will significantly reduce the chances of a cyber-attack evolving at rapid speed. Moreover, make sure to maintain strong password policies and protect each account, regardless of its access level. Use two-factor authentication wherever possible to add an extra layer of security and slow the hackers down in case of a cyber-attack. 

Since account breaches often happen due to human error, it is best to put together some type of cybersecurity awareness training for your employees. That way you can make sure everyone is on the same page when it comes to password management and the overall implementation of security measures that aim to prevent privilege escalation.


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