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There is a Growing Threat of Privilege Escalation Attacks – What You Need to Know

In today’s digitally connected world, organizations increasingly depend on large-scale and intricate cloud systems and remote workforces to conduct their daily operations. This dependence, however, also increases their susceptibility to various cyberattacks, one of which is privilege escalation attacks. 

It is vital to understand privilege escalation attacks, the mechanisms through which they happen, and the strategies that can be employed to harden an organization’s cybersecurity defenses. This helps organizations protect their data and resources and shields them from costly financial losses. 

Understanding Privilege Escalation

Privilege escalation involves a situation where a user is granted elevated access – or privileges – manages to expand the level and extent of their access permissions. For legitimate users, privilege escalation grants broader access temporarily, enabling them to fulfill their work responsibilities before the privileges are withdrawn.

However, privilege escalation attacks are common techniques used by malicious outsiders to obtain unauthorized entry into a system by exploiting a vulnerability, over-privileged users, or configuration negligence to gain access to data or applications that are typically safeguarded. 

The attackers might also leverage a stolen identity to infiltrate the network and then utilize that identity to compromise another elevated privileged identity, which already possesses the right to access confidential information.

Common Tactics with Privilege Escalation

Privilege escalation poses a considerable threat to the business’s security, and knowing the typical strategies used by attackers is crucial for organizations to improve their defenses. Below are some of the methods commonly employed by attackers:

Exploiting System Vulnerabilities

This is one of the most common tactics used in privilege escalation attacks. Attackers often exploit known vulnerabilities in an operating system or software application, allowing them to gain elevated privileges. These vulnerabilities could be due to design flaws, bugs, or configuration oversights. Regular system updates and patches are crucial in mitigating this risk.

Password Cracking

Password cracking involves an attacker trying to guess or decipher a user’s password to gain access to their account. Once inside, the attacker can often then escalate their privileges within the system. Implementing strong password policies and two-factor authentication can help protect against this tactic. Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) can also be a target for privilege escalation attacks if weak passwords are used.

Malicious Insiders

Many organizations fail to consider the risk of malicious insiders attacking their networks and escalating their privileges. Disgruntled former employees, or current employees with motives of financial gain, could try to use stolen credentials or exploit existing privileges within the system to access confidential data.

Social Engineering

Social engineering is a tactic in which attackers manipulate individuals into revealing confidential information, such as passwords or other sensitive details. By doing so, they can gain unauthorized access and escalate their privileges. This tactic often takes the form of phishing attempts, where attackers disguise themselves as trustworthy sources to deceive unsuspecting victims into revealing their login credentials.

Malware Installation

Attackers may use malware to gain unauthorized access to a system and escalate their privileges. This could involve trojans, worms, or other malicious software that provide the attacker with elevated privileges once installed on a system.


Keylogging involves an attacker using software or hardware to record a user’s keystrokes. This can allow them to capture passwords or other sensitive information that can be used for privilege escalation.

Horizontal and Vertical Escalation

Understanding the concepts of horizontal and vertical escalation is key to comprehending the scope and potential damage of privilege escalation attacks. These two escalations refer to different methods by which an attacker can gain unauthorized access and control over a system.

Horizontal Escalation

Horizontal escalation, also known as lateral movement, occurs when an attacker gains the privileges of another user at the same privilege level. The attacker is not elevating their access rights but broadening them horizontally across the system.

For example, if an attacker with standard user privileges manages to access the account of another standard user, they have achieved horizontal escalation. Although the attacker does not gain higher-level access, they can misuse the accessed account to perform actions or view data as the compromised user. This could lead to unauthorized access to sensitive information, impersonation, and other malicious activities.

Vertical Escalation

Vertical escalation, alternatively referred to as privilege elevation, involves a scenario where an attacker manages to obtain a higher level of access rights than they originally possessed. Here, an intruder with limited permissions manages to upgrade their access level to one of a user with more advanced permissions, such as an administrator.

This form of escalation is especially dangerous as it enables the intruder to execute advanced tasks that can seriously jeopardize the system. They could alter system settings, deploy harmful software, establish new admin accounts, or access and tamper with confidential data.

How to Prevent Privilege Escalation Attacks

Below are some proactive measures organizations can take to safeguard their systems against these types of threats:

Use Vulnerability Scanning Tools

Vulnerability scanning tools are critical in detecting potential security weaknesses that could be exploited for privilege escalation. These tools scan systems for known vulnerabilities and provide recommendations for remediation. Regular scans should be performed, and the findings acted upon promptly to reduce the risk of an attacker exploiting these weak points.

Manage Privileged Accounts

Accounts with special privileges, like those associated with administrators or other senior roles, must be meticulously overseen to avert unauthorized entry. 

This involves routinely examining and auditing these accounts, enforcing robust password policies, and adopting multi-factor authentication (MFA). Utilizing a Privileged Access Management (PAM) solution is also advisable to manage, audit, and secure the activities of users with privileged access.

Establish and Enforce Security Policies and Awareness Programs

Organizations should have clear and comprehensive security policies in place, which outline the expected behaviors of users and the consequences of non-compliance. These policies should be regularly reviewed and updated to reflect evolving threats and best practices.

In addition to this, security awareness programs are crucial in educating employees about the potential risks of privilege escalation attacks and how to avoid them. Such programs should emphasize the importance of password diligence, recognizing phishing attempts, and reporting suspicious activity.

Implement Privileged Access Management with MFA

Free privileged Access Management solution (PAM) offer organizations an additional layer of security in controlling and monitoring privileged user activities. 

By implementing a PAM solution with multi-factor authentication (MFA), organizations can reduce the risk of privilege escalation attacks by verifying users’ identities through multiple authentication methods before granting access to sensitive systems or data. 

Secure Databases

Databases often contain sensitive information that would be a prime target in a privilege escalation attack. Therefore, securing databases is crucial. Active Directory is a popular centralized authentication service that can be used to secure databases. 

Organizations should also implement strong access control policies and regularly review user permissions to ensure that only authorized users have the necessary privileges.

Safeguard Your Network Against Privilege Escalation

As organizations increasingly depend on digital platforms and remote workforces, the threat of privilege escalation attacks has grown significantly. By understanding the risks and taking proactive steps to secure their networks, organizations can safeguard their systems and data against malicious actors.

Author bio:

Joseph Carson is a cybersecurity professional with more than 25 years’ experience in enterprise security and infrastructure. Currently, Carson is the Chief Security Scientist & Advisory CISO at Delinea. He is an active member of the cybersecurity community and a Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP). Carson is also a cybersecurity adviser to several governments, critical infrastructure organizations, and financial and transportation industries, and speaks at conferences globally.