The Growing Threat of Privilege Escalation Attack: Things You Should Know

The reality is no network is immune to the reach of privilege escalation attacks. These cyber threats can quietly infiltrate your systems, potentially causing significant damage to your data integrity and overall business continuity.

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In the face of the rapidly evolving digital landscape, organizations are increasingly leaning on intricate cloud infrastructures and remote teams to power their operations. While this shift uncovers new business possibilities, it unfortunately also opens the door to heightened cybersecurity risks. Among these looming threats, privilege escalation attacks have been making an alarming ascent, posing a serious risk to networks across all sectors.

The reality is no network is immune to the reach of privilege escalation attacks. These cyber threats can quietly infiltrate your systems, potentially causing significant damage to your data integrity and overall business continuity.

This is why having a comprehensive understanding of privilege escalation attacks, how they happen, and, most importantly, how you can fortify your business security defenses against them becomes absolutely crucial.

What Exactly is Privilege Escalation?

Privilege escalation refers to a situation where a user or process gains more access rights or permissions than normally granted, often exploiting a flaw in a system or application. This escalation of privileges can enable the user or process to perform unauthorized actions within a computer system, potentially leading to serious security breaches.

Understanding the Mechanics of a Privilege Escalation Assault

When it comes to cybersecurity, understanding the mechanics of potential threats is crucial. Privilege escalation assaults are no exception, and gaining a clear grasp of their workings can prevent them.

Types of Privilege Escalation Attacks

Privilege escalation attacks typically fall into two main categories: vertical and horizontal escalation.

Vertical Escalation

This type of attack, also known as privilege elevation, involves gaining higher-level privileges than those initially assigned. An attacker operating under a standard user account could exploit a system vulnerability to obtain administrative or superuser rights. 

Once these escalated privileges are compromised, the attacker can carry out actions normally reserved for elevated access, such as modifying system configurations, disabling security controls, or accessing sensitive data.

Horizontal Escalation

In contrast to vertical escalation, horizontal escalation does not involve gaining higher-level privileges. Instead, an attacker with standard user rights seeks to access another user's account with similar-level privileges. 

While they may not gain more system-wide powers, they might be able to access confidential files or resources that were meant to be exclusive to the other user.

Common Techniques Used in Privilege Escalation

Privilege escalation attacks can be executed using various techniques, exploiting system vulnerabilities or human errors. Understanding these common methods can help in developing more effective security measures. Here are some frequently used tactics:


Misconfigured systems or applications present a golden opportunity for attackers to escalate their privileges. These misconfigurations could be anything from unnecessary permissions granted to certain user groups and improperly set file permissions to default settings left untouched after installation. 

Attackers can leverage these oversights to gain unauthorized access or elevate their privileges within the system.

Exploiting Known Vulnerabilities

Attackers often employ another widely-used method, which involves exploiting known vulnerabilities in systems or applications. These vulnerabilities frequently arise from outdated or unpatched operating systems and software applications. 

By exploiting these weaknesses, attackers can elevate their privileges and gain unauthorized access to valuable data or critical system functions.

Password Attacks

Password-based attacks remain prevalent in privilege escalation, encompassing various techniques. These include brute force attacks, where the attacker exhaustively tries all possible password combinations, and dictionary attacks, which involve testing common passwords. 

Another widely-used method is password sniffing, where attackers intercept transmitted network passwords. Once the password is obtained, the attacker can exploit it to log in as the user, potentially gaining elevated privileges.

Token Manipulation

Token manipulation is a more sophisticated technique used in privilege escalation attacks. In this method, attackers abuse authentication tokens - digital "keys" that verify users' identity and access rights. By manipulating these tokens, attackers can impersonate other users, elevate their own privileges, or even bypass authentication mechanisms altogether.

Strategies to Prevent Privilege Escalation Attacks

Preventing privilege escalation attacks requires a comprehensive and proactive approach. Here are some key strategies that can significantly reduce the risk of these security breaches:

Principle of Least Privilege (PoLP)

The Principle of Least Privilege is a fundamental concept in cybersecurity. It involves granting only the minimal necessary access rights or permissions to users, processes, and applications. This reduces the potential damage that could be caused if an attacker gains control over a user account or process.

Regularly reviewing and adjusting these permissions to ensure they align with job responsibilities is crucial to maintaining this strategy. Doing so minimizes the possibility of unnecessary privileges being exploited in an attack.

Regular Patching and Updates

Updating operating systems, software, and applications is another vital preventative measure. Many privilege escalation attacks exploit known vulnerabilities in these systems, which are often fixed in the latest updates or patches.

By utilizing automated patch management tools, you can streamline this crucial process, effectively keeping your systems up-to-date and minimizing the window of opportunity for potential attackers to exploit vulnerabilities. This approach enhances your systems' overall security and ensures continuous protection against emerging threats.

Monitoring and Logging

Implementing and maintaining detailed logging of system and user activities can help detect and prevent privilege escalation attacks. These logs can provide valuable insights into any abnormal or suspicious activities, potentially allowing you to catch an attack in progress.

Implementing Intrusion Detection Systems (IDS) and Intrusion Prevention Systems (IPS) enables continuous monitoring of suspicious network activities. 

These robust tools have the capability to detect potential threats and promptly initiate pre-defined actions to mitigate them. By leveraging IDS and IPS, you can greatly enhance the security of your system, ensuring its integrity and safeguarding against potential risks.

User Education and Training

Educating and training users is crucial to prevent privilege escalation attacks. Users should receive training to identify and report suspicious activities or anomalies. Additionally, they should be educated about the risks associated with phishing, social engineering, and other tactics that can result in privilege escalation.

Combining these strategies can create a robust defense against privilege escalation attacks. The next section will explore how to respond effectively if such an attack does occur.

Keep Your Business Protected Against Privilege Escalation Attacks

Privilege escalation poses an increasing threat to business security. However, you can proactively safeguard against it by implementing robust cybersecurity measures and proactive monitoring. By fortifying your defenses, you can effectively stay one step ahead of malicious attackers.