loader image

Understanding Privilege Escalation: Types, Techniques, and Protection Tips

Privilege Escalation Defined

Computer systems and networks usually include various levels of clearance to accommodate each unique user type. These user accounts have sets of actions they can or cannot do, known as privileges. For example, a low-level account may not be able to access files that administrators can view and edit. Hackers and cyber threats pose security risks through privilege escalation, or when they gain more privileges and permissions than the administrators intended for the account through various techniques. Typically, this is done either by gaining account access or exploiting a bug or design flaw to gain access to locked-away files. When a cyber threat has elevated privileges, they could gain access to sensitive data or disrupt key areas of business.

Vertical vs. Horizontal Privilege Escalation

  • Vertical privilege escalation involves a threat actor gaining more privileges than the account’s current access capabilities. For example, if a threat actor was able to gain access to an employee account and then turn that into administrator access, then it is vertical. Vertical privilege escalation can be very dangerous, as sensitive data and files get locked behind privileges for a reason. If secure information gets compromised in this way, it can be difficult for your company to recover.
  • Horizontal privilege escalation is when an ordinary user gains access to privileges that other users have access to. For example, if a bank account user suddenly gained access to another bank account user’s files and information, that would be horizontal. Horizontal privilege escalation typically doesn’t involve breaching high-security administrator files, but it still can be dangerous. In the case of the bank account, user data and information are supposed to be protected from other users. If another user can access this data through horizontal privilege escalation, trust in your brand can diminish, hurting you in the long run.

Risk Factors in Privilege Escalation Attacks

Within privilege escalation attacks, there are individual techniques that threat actors can use to gain access to sealed away information. The technique used to gain access to your files will be determined by the structure of your cybersecurity and the presence of risk factors. For example, if your company has poor individual account security with infrequently changed passwords, then a threat actor may be able to access an account legitimately. Login information can be stolen via phishing or other methods, so if passwords aren’t changed frequently, your account could be vulnerable. Also, a threat actor may be able to use access token manipulation for privilege escalation, something that requires the attacker to already have administrative privileges.

However, if your cybersecurity does not regularly monitor for suspicious activity, then these attackers can completely exploit the way Windows manages admin privileges. Regularly maintaining your cybersecurity measures and frequently running security diagnostics is key in catching any potential attacker looking to use a privilege escalation attack to damage your company.  

How to Protect Your Business from Privilege Escalation Attacks

Privilege escalation attacks can do immense damage to your company and lower trust in your brand, making it extremely important that you protect your business from privilege escalation attacks. Thankfully, there are some ways that you can beef up your network security and help prevent cybersecurity breaches like these from occurring in the future. These methods include:

  • Regular Software Patches and Updates: If you want to ensure that your business is properly protected from privilege escalation attacks, then you need to regularly patch and update your systems and applications. Hackers and other APT groups are always innovating and coming up with new methods to breach cybersecurity infrastructures. However, frequently updating and patching your systems and software can ensure that your cybersecurity is up-to-date and has the latest and greatest tools available to combat any potential threats.
  • Cyber Threat Simulations: Another great way to protect your business from privilege escalation attacks is by running simulations and testing your cybersecurity yourself. Products like rThreat can simulate attacks against your cybersecurity, helping you verify the effectiveness of your defenses. These simulated attacks are designed to find any weaknesses in your cybersecurity, providing you with feedback on what you need to improve. Discovering weaknesses in your cybersecurity before an advanced cyber threat does can provide you with a great advantage, allowing you to fix them before they get exploited. As a result, you can be proactive in your cybersecurity, allowing you to prevent attacks before they even happen.
  • Limit User Groups to Minimum Privileges: One of the most effective ways to prevent privilege escalation attacks is by limiting the number of user groups in your system and mitigating the number of privileges they have. If user groups are limited and don’t have many privileges, then the damage done by a compromised account can be greatly mitigated. Even admin accounts should only have capabilities that pertain to what they’re managing and their role in the company, but nothing else. Doing this lowers the effectiveness of these attacks.

Do you want to learn more about cybersecurity? Please subscribe to our newsletter.