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Privilege escalation, like any cyberattack, takes advantage of flaws in network services and applications, especially those with weak access control systems. In an extensive attack, privilege escalation is a critical stage. Organizations must ensure that the security measures they implement are strong and regularly updated in order to prevent these types of cyberattacks.

Attacks involving privilege escalation happen when a threat actor manages to obtain access to a user account, gets around the authorization process, and successfully accesses sensitive information. The intruder can use their newly obtained privileges to run administrative commands, steal confidential information, and seriously harm server applications and operating systems. In addition, the organization’s reputation could be negatively affected. These reasons should be enough to persuade organizations everywhere to seriously consider the risks associated with this type of attack.

Since my colleague has already discussed privilege escalation in a previous article, this piece will focus on detecting and preventing privilege escalation attacks.

How to Detect Privilege Escalation?

In most cases, pattern recognition, looking for outliers, and observing unusual activities are involved when we talk about privilege elevation detection. Unfortunately, due to its unpredictable nature, privilege escalation can be very difficult to identify. If a malicious actor enters the network successfully at any point, they can maintain ongoing access. After obtaining credentials of any kind, the system recognizes them as authorized users.

Because privilege escalation incidents can take several weeks or even months, estimating the average time taken to spot an attack is challenging. With a long dwell time, attackers can collect data, obtain credentials, and keep escalating privileges. Intruders typically cover their tracks (delete logs, mask IP addresses) before they are ready to complete their mission.

Privilege Escalation Prevention

As cyber threats become more sophisticated, enterprises need to make sure they implement adequate security measures to stay one step ahead of the malicious actors. The following are some of the best practices for preventing privilege escalation attacks.

Set a strong password policy

How many times did you come across passwords that were so simple that anyone could guess? In your organization, you have to implement a well-defined password policy that everybody should follow. Strong passwords should be long enough, have a mix of letters, numbers, and symbols that makes it hard to guess, and it’s not the employee’s birthday or the name of their pet.

Not to mention that default credentials on routers, printers, or IoT devices should not even exist. Even if your applications and operating systems are well secured, a single overlooked router with default credentials could provide cybercriminals with the access they seek.

Use Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA)

Broken authentication is one of the most common vulnerabilities that lead to user account compromise, ranking second on the list of OWASP Top 10 after injection attacks. Typically, threat actors break authentication by obtaining access to web session data or acquiring login information through the brute force hacking method or social engineering attacks. This emphasizes the importance of setting up complex and hard-to-guess passwords and protecting all accounts with Multi-Factor Authentication.

Although it may seem intuitive to allocate different levels of protection in accordance with user levels of rights, the secret to avoiding privilege escalation actually lies in the security of user accounts with lower privileges. The inability to access lower-level accounts prevents privilege escalation from starting in the first place.

Provide cybersecurity training for your employees

It’s essential to keep in mind that your employees can always be the weakest link in your organization in terms of social engineering techniques. Hackers might target and trick them with phishing or spear-phishing attacks in order to click on a malicious link to provide their credentials and many more. Employees’ cybersecurity awareness should be a top priority for all organizations.

Use a high-quality traffic filtering tool

Domain name-level (DNS) threats are more frequent than ever. A high-quality traffic filtering tool is required to keep these away. And since today’s cyber world lives in the cloud, you will need a solution that can face cloud challenges like our Heimdal® Threat Prevention. Combining machine learning, AI-based prevention, and cybercrime intelligence, it has the power to detect and stop both emergent and hidden cyber threats with 96% accuracy.

Use an automated patch management solution

As we mentioned before, a privilege escalation attack usually happens because hackers abuse a vulnerability in the OS or a software flaw. So, how to stay safe if your software is outdated? Here, I want to underline the importance of an updated system. You can prevent privilege escalation if you keep your software always patched with the latest released security updates. The best way to thwart any type of cyberattack is to reduce the likelihood that an attacker will discover a vulnerability that can be exploited.

This will surely be a tiresome process if manually managed and even impossible to do it properly. And here comes into play an automated Patch Management solution like ours Heimdal® Patch and Asset Management, that will help you automate your vulnerability management. Our product covers patches like Microsoft, third-party and proprietary ones. What’s even cooler with this solution is the end-user-vendor-waiting time, this meaning that in less than 4 hours every patch, hotfix, rollup, or update is uploaded in your Heimdal cloud already adware-cleaned, tested, and repackaged, and ready to be deployed.

Perform regular vulnerability scans

It is significantly more difficult for an intruder to enter the network when all the IT infrastructure’s elements are regularly scanned for vulnerabilities. Vulnerability scans detect misconfigurations, unauthorized modifications, unpatched or insecure operating systems, and apps, and other weaknesses before potential malicious actors do.

Use an automated Privileged Access Management solution

A good counterattack method of privilege escalation starts always with a good privileged access management strategy. This could only be truly efficient through an automated tool that will help you monitor and protect privileged accounts from either insider or external threats. An automated PAM tool like Heimdal® Privileged Access Management will let you escalate and deescalate rights from anywhere in the world from your Heimdal® Dashboard and even from your phone. It also features detailed reports of an incident that will help you both with audit requirements and also with investigating what happened on a machine.

It is recommended to use it with Heimdal® Application Control which allows you to block or allow application execution in various ways: by file path, certificate, vendor name, publisher, MD5, and more. Supporting a granular approach, Application Control combined with the PAM solution lets you customize admins sessions, this combo making for a shield against cyberattacks that target sensitive memory areas, a shield that won’t let hackers move laterally across the network, and also business assets will be well safeguarded.

Here’s a tip you might not want to miss: when used with Heimdal® Next-Gen Antivirus, the PAM tool will allow the automated de-escalation of rights if a threat is detected on the machine.

Enforce the principle of least privilege

A PAM strategy should of course be always based on the principle of least privilege, meaning that users and applications or services should have restricted access, or better said, the minimum required access to organizational resources to complete a task. This will also be efficient to not let the malware spread laterally across the network and infect other systems too.

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Wrapping Up

Given that privilege escalation attacks are among the most dangerous out there, having a solid incident response plan is essential. In the event of a privilege escalation attack, the affected account needs to be isolated right away, the passwords changed, and then disabled. The security team will then need to carry out a thorough investigation to determine the scope of the intrusion and identify the resources that were impacted.

A privilege escalation attack is a common threat to user data. This type of attack can cause data breaches, system crashes, and other damage. Make sure you stay safe and use the proper tools to safeguard your business’ critical assets.

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Antonia Din

PR & Video Content Manager

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As a Senior Content Writer and Video Content Creator specializing in cybersecurity, I leverage digital media to unravel and clarify complex cybersecurity concepts and emerging trends. With my extensive knowledge in the field, I create content that engages a diverse audience, from cybersecurity novices to experienced experts. My approach is to create a nexus of understanding, taking technical security topics and transforming them into accessible, relatable knowledge for anyone interested in strengthening their security posture.