Privilege escalation attack

Permissions define a user or device's access to a network. Hackers who take advantage of these privileges can cause massive damage. However, there are ways to secure systems and networks.

Attackers use misconfigurations, weak passwords, bugs, and other vulnerabilities to gain access to protected assets.

Systems and software refers to solutions that restrict user and device access to configuration settings, features, and data. Thus, access rights are an extremely important security feature. They define the extent to which a user can interact with a system or application and its associated resources.

These can range from simple privileges, which allow only basic actions, such as access to Office applications, to broader administrator or root privileges, which potentially give you complete control over the system. So it's not surprising that privileges are a popular target for attackers. The goal of a privilege escalation attack is to gain additional privileges for systems and applications on a network, system, or online service.

How do privilege escalation attacks work?

A typical exploit might start with the hacker first gaining access to a low-privilege account. After logging into the system, the hacker examines the system for other vulnerabilities that he can exploit in the future. It then uses permissions to impersonate a real user in order to access targeted resources and perform various actions discreetly.

In terms of privilege escalation attack, hackers use, for example, login credentials, system vulnerabilities and other exploits, social engineering, malware, or incorrect system settings.

Using any of these methods, the attackers obtain an entry point to the system. Depending on their goals, they can further expand their privileges to take control of the root or administrator account.

Types of privilege escalation attacks

There are two types of privilege escalation attacks:

Horizontal escalation of rights

The hacker manages to gain access to an account reserved for another user who does not have high privileges himself. A vulnerability occurs when a hacker, for example in a web application, can gain access to another user's account through malicious activity.

Vertical escalation of rights

The attacker manages to intercept access rights in order to be able to use resources that are actually reserved for users with higher privileges from completely different user groups.

Common Privilege Escalation Attacks

Some common examples of privilege escalation attacks are briefly described below:

Windows Sticky Keys

This is one of the most common examples of privilege escalation attacks on the Windows operating system. This attack requires physical access to the target system and the ability to boot from a recovery disk.

Windows internals

Commands are a source of privilege escalation attacks in Windows. This method assumes that the attacker has a backdoor from a previous attack such as Windows Sticky Keys. The attacker needs to have access to local administrator privileges and then login to the backdoor accounts to elevate system level privileges.

Android and Metasploit

Metasploit is a well-known tool that includes a library of known exploits. This library contains a privilege escalation attack on Android devices with root access. It creates an executable known as a superuser binary that allows attackers to run commands with administrator or root privileges.

Possible attack methods

The goal of a privilege escalation attack is usually to obtain the maximum possible privileges and find access points to critical systems. There are several techniques that attackers use to escalate privileges. Here is a summary of the most common methods:

User Account Control Bypass

User Account Control serves as a bridge between users and administrators. It restricts the application software to default privileges until the administrator allows privilege escalation.

Access token manipulation

In this case, the main task of the attacker is to trick the system into believing that the running processes belong to a user other than the authorized user who started the process.

Using valid accounts

Hackers can use credential access methods to obtain credentials from specific user accounts or spy on them through social engineering. Once attackers gain access to the organization's network, they can use these credentials to bypass access controls to IT systems and various resources.

Attack Prevention Best Practices

The following are some guidelines for preventing privilege escalation attacks:

Scan and protect systems, networks and applications. Using vulnerability scanning tools helps you detect unsafe and unpatched operating systems, applications, weak passwords, misconfigurations, and other vulnerabilities.

Pay attention to managing privileged accounts. The IT security team needs to inventory all existing accounts and their assignments.

Set strong password and MFA policies. Users must use strong and unique passwords. It is also important to use multi-factor authentication for an additional layer of security. At the same time, this is intended to overcome vulnerabilities caused by weak passwords.

Set aside time for safety training. The user is usually the weakest link in the security chain and puts the entire company at risk. It is important to conduct regular IT security awareness programs with training courses.

Protecting databases and sanitizing user input. Databases are an attractive target for hackers because web applications store all data, such as login credentials, configuration settings, and user data, in databases. With a successful attack, such as SQL injection, hackers can access all sensitive data and use it for further attacks.

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