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Privilege Escalation Attacks – An In-Depth Understanding

Privilege Escalation Attacks

Privilege Escalation- What is it?

Privilege escalation takes place whenever a cyber-attacker deploys a bug, design flaw or any form of a configuration error in an application or operating system for gaining elevated and direct access to the resources that are usually not available to a user.

The attackers use the earned privileges for stealing confidential data and deploying malware with the intent of damaging the OS, server applications and ultimately, the reputation of an organization.

This type of attack on organization data can be carried out for gaining escalate privileges.

Types of Privilege Escalation

Following are the two types of privilege escalation attacks-

1) Horizontal Privilege Escalation

In this form of attack, the hacker remains on the same user privilege level; however, they can access data and functionalities of other accounts that are not available with the existing account.

Talking about web applications, an instance of horizontal privilege escalation could mean gaining access to other user’s profiles available digitally.

2) Vertical Privilege Escalation

A vertical privilege escalation is considered to be dangerous than horizontal privilege escalation. In this attack, the attacker begins from a lower privilege account by obtaining the rights of a higher and powerful user, as a system administrator.

The attacker can disrupt the systems and applications of others by getting away with login credentials and other vital data.

Also Read: 5 Ways to Mitigate Serverless Security Threats

Working of Privilege Escalation

Attackers initiate this attack by exploiting this vulnerability inside a target system or an application, allowing them to override the limitations that a current user account has.

They can even access the functionality along with data of other users. They might even obtain privileges of a system admin or any other powerful user in the business organization.

Common Privilege Escalation Methods

It is clear that in a privilege escalation attack, the attacker aims to gain access to higher-level privileges and enter the critical IT systems without getting caught. 

Attackers deploy several techniques for achieving privilege escalation. Some of the commonly used methods include the following-

1) Access Token Manipulation

In this type of privilege escalation method, it exploits the method similar to Windows for managing the Admin privileges. In standard practice, Windows uses access tokens for determining the owners of all processes that are running.

Under this method, the primary intent of the hacker is to trick the system and make it ‘believe’ that the processes that are currently running are owned by someone else and these users are different from the ones who started it.

Whenever this happens, the process also takes over the security context that is linked with the new token.

Also Read: OWASP Top 10 Vulnerabilities in Web Security for 2020

2) Bypassing the User Account Control

Windows is well-known for having a well-defined structured mechanism that can control the privileges of all users present in the network. The User Account Control (UAC) is a feature that bridges the gap between ordinary users and users having admin-level privileges.

With UAC in place, it restricts the application software to the permissions of a standard user until the admin enhances the privileges. With this method, applications selected by the admin-level user will have privileges, thereby, preventing the malware from compromising the OS.

This technique has certain shortcomings, as well. In case the UAC protection levels of a system are defined to the highest level. Some Windows programs can elevate the privileges or even execute the Component Objects Model (COM) objects without intimidating the user.

3) Using Valid Accounts

Cybercriminals can use any of the credential access techniques like- credential dumping or any other for obtaining the user’s account credentials.

As the attackers gain access to an organization’s IT network, they utilize the compromised and weak credentials for bypassing access controls deployed on various systems. Cybercriminals might even win illegal access to the remotely located systems and services through means of a VPN, remote desktop accesses.

The biggest concern in this privilege escalation technique is the overlapping of credentials and permissions in the networks since the attackers can swiftly switch accounts to get to a higher access level.

Also Read: What are Cross-Site Scripting (XSS) Attacks and How to Secure Websites

Why is Preventing Privilege Escalation Important?

Privilege escalation might not be the end goal of an attacker. It is often seen as the cover for a more specific cyberattack that allows other cyber-attackers to deploy a malicious payload and alter the security settings of the targeted systems.

Privilege escalation attacks represent a major online vulnerability that includes a malicious attacker to gain illegal access to a privileged user account and get away with crucial confidential and sensitive information.

Preventing Privilege Escalation Using a Vulnerability Scanning Tool

The businesses must use a vulnerability security scanner that can check their systems and web applications against all the possible threats and vulnerabilities.

Most of the scanning tools available today are developed to match-up with the changing dynamics of the security domain. All these proactively determine any such vulnerabilities and inform the users so that they can take the due course of action.

Concluding Remarks

There are no full-proof methods that can secure a business secure against emerging cybersecurity threats. However, companies must deploy some of the basic yet effective techniques to minimize the threat exposure and determine such risks in an early stage.

To combat privilege escalation attacks, businesses must identify the weak entry spots in their IT system and be aware of all changes taking place on the networks and system accounts.

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