The digital landscape is constantly evolving, and cyber attackers are becoming more sophisticated in their methods of attack. One of the most dangerous tactics that attackers use is lateral movement, where they move laterally across an organization's network, escalating privileges and stealing sensitive data. In many cases, attackers achieve lateral movement by compromising user identities, which enables them to move around undetected. In this blog post, we will explore how attackers use compromised identities to achieve lateral movement and the steps organizations can take to prevent such attacks.

  1. Stealing Credentials: The most common method attackers use to obtain compromised identities is by stealing credentials, such as usernames and passwords. Attackers can use several techniques to obtain credentials, including phishing emails, malware, and social engineering. Once attackers have obtained these credentials, they can use them to access systems and data across the network, moving laterally from one system to another. This method is particularly effective if organizations do not have adequate access controls or effective multi-factor authentication in place.

  2. Exploiting Vulnerabilities: Attackers can also use vulnerabilities in systems or applications to gain access to sensitive data and escalate privileges. For example, if an organization has an unpatched vulnerability in its web server, attackers can use this vulnerability to gain access to the server and then move laterally across the network. This method is particularly dangerous as attackers can use a single vulnerability to gain access to multiple systems and data stores.

  3. Impersonating Legitimate Users: Another way that attackers use compromised identities is by impersonating legitimate users. This technique is often used when attackers have stolen user credentials and want to avoid detection by security systems. Attackers can use compromised identities to log into systems, change settings, and even send emails that appear to be from legitimate users. This technique is particularly dangerous as it allows attackers to bypass security controls that may be in place, such as traditional/legacy two-factor/multi-factor authentication.

  4. Using Privilege Escalation: Once attackers have gained access to a system, they can use privilege escalation techniques to gain even more access to sensitive data and systems. For example, if an attacker gains access to a user's account with limited access privileges, they can use privilege escalation techniques to gain administrative privileges, giving them access to all the systems and data that the administrator can access. This technique is particularly effective as it allows attackers to move laterally across an organization's network with ease.

Preventing Lateral Movement: Organizations can take several steps to prevent lateral movement attacks. These include:

  1. Implementing Access Controls: Access controls are essential in preventing lateral movement attacks. Organizations should implement multi-factor authentication, password policies, and user access controls to ensure that only authorized users can access sensitive data and systems. Ideally, organizations would adopt methods that bind identities to their device and continuously attest that the identity is who it says it is and that the device itself has not become compromised in some way, this preventing MFA work arounds.

  2. Regularly Updating Systems: Organizations should regularly update their systems and applications to ensure that vulnerabilities are patched. This will prevent attackers from using known vulnerabilities to gain access to systems and data.

  3. Monitoring Network Activity: Organizations should monitor their network activity for unusual behavior, such as a user logging in from an unfamiliar location or attempting to access data that they would not normally access. This will help detect lateral movement attacks early, allowing organizations to take swift action.

  4. Conducting Security Awareness Training: Organizations should conduct regular security awareness training for employees to educate them on the dangers of phishing, social engineering, and other attack techniques. This will help employees recognize and report suspicious activity, preventing lateral movement attacks.

Lateral movement attacks can be devastating for organizations, as they allow attackers to move freely across a network, stealing sensitive data and escalating privileges. Attackers often use compromised identities to achieve lateral movement, making it essential for organizations to implement access controls, regularly update systems,