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Privilege Escalation – Cyber Attacks Linked To Insider Threats

Privilege escalation - Attacks linked to insider threats

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Privilege escalation vulnerabilities are one of the most serious risks faced by organizations, as they allow unauthorized access that can facilitate a wide range of damaging insider attacks. According to the findings analyzed in this report, privilege escalation exploits are involved in over half of insider threat incidents logged. With higher privileges, rogue insiders can cause substantial harm by installing malware, deleting audit logs, and utilizing diagnostic tools without restrictions.

Two categories of privilege escalation can enable insider threats:

Direct malicious attacks:

In this category, the insider directly and deliberately exploits a vulnerability or weakness in the system/network to escalate their privileges/access level. This is done with malicious intent to enable further harmful actions.
The goals of such an attacker could include data theft (stealing sensitive customer records or intellectual property) or network sabotage (disrupting systems or services).

Unintentional risk introduction:

In the second category, employees are not deliberately carrying out malicious actions. However, their actions still circumvent security protocols and policies.
Specifically, this involves employees downloading hacking tools or programs onto company systems without receiving proper authorization or training on their safe and intended use first.
While there is no direct malicious intent, these tools could enable unintended privilege escalation if misused or mishandled. They introduce unintended security risks to the network.

So in both cases, privilege escalation is leveraged, but the first involves a conscious insider attack whereas the second arises from inadvertent actions without ill intent that still undermine security controls.

Motivations for insider threats commonly stem from financial incentives, personal vendettas against the company, or disputes with management. By starting with legitimate but limited access and then escalating privileges, insiders can more effectively act against their employer. Some of the most frequently leveraged vulnerabilities include CVE-2020-1472, a Windows privilege escalation flaw, and CVE-2021-4034, an Apache log4j logging utility vulnerability that has been widely exploited for initial access.

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To protect against these risks, organizations must implement the principle of least privilege and carefully restrict what systems and data different user groups can access. Regular audits of permissions and timely patching of vulnerabilities are also critical. Staff should receive training on secure practices like avoiding the downloading of unauthorized tools. Strong identity and access management using multi-factor authentication can help detect anomalous privileged activity. Careful monitoring of systems for signs of compromise and maintaining offline backups enables swift incident response. With a robust security culture and controls, businesses can minimize threats emerging from within.

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