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Lateral Movement: What Every Business Should Know

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Lateral movement is a term that has become increasingly prominent within cybersecurity circles, but is largely unknown to a general business audience. However, as we’ll show in this article, business leaders and IT professionals must understand this term and its implications for their organization.

What exactly is lateral movement? Simply put, lateral movement refers to the methods cybercriminals use to navigate through a network, moving from one system to another in search of valuable data or assets. They do this after gaining initial access, often through phishing or other deception-based tactics, with the ultimate goal of escalating their privileges and maintaining a persistent presence within the compromised environment.

The danger of lateral movement lies in its stealthy nature. Cybercriminals can silently infiltrate a network, moving laterally undetected, and gradually gain more influence and control. They can then exploit their newfound control to cause extensive damage, whether it be stealing sensitive information, disrupting business operations, or deploying ransomware.

The most significant aspect of lateral movement is that it exposes the weakest link in your security chain. For example, if even one employee workstation has a weak password, and an attacker manages to compromise it, they can use lateral movement to reach your CRM or ERP system and compromise that as well. So a small, seemingly inconsequential attack can turn into a catastrophe.

Lateral movement is a key component in advanced persistent threats (APTs) and is often used in large-scale data breaches. This is why understanding lateral movement is crucial for businesses looking to protect their digital assets and maintain their reputations in an increasingly cyber-aware world.

Why Are Businesses Vulnerable to Lateral Movement?

Increasingly Complex and Interconnected IT Environment

We are living in an era of digital transformation. Businesses across all sectors are increasingly relying on complex and interconnected IT infrastructures to support their operations and drive growth. This interconnectivity, while beneficial for collaboration and efficiency, also presents an expanded surface area for potential cyber-attacks.

The complexity of these networks can make it challenging to monitor and manage security effectively. In many cases, once an attacker gains access to one component of the network, they can easily traverse through the interconnected systems undetected. This is the essence of lateral movement, making it a significant threat to modern businesses.

The Challenge of Internal Network Monitoring

Monitoring internal network activity is a daunting task for many businesses. The sheer volume of data generated within a typical corporate network can be overwhelming, making it difficult to identify potentially malicious activity amidst the noise of legitimate traffic.

Moreover, many traditional security solutions are focused on preventing external threats and may overlook suspicious activity occurring within the network. This lack of internal visibility can allow cybercriminals to move laterally without detection, escalating their privileges and compromising critical systems.

Insufficient Segmentation and Access Controls

Segmentation means dividing a network into separate, isolated sub-networks. In an ideally segmented network, systems and resources are separated into distinct zones, with strict access controls regulating traffic between these zones.

However, in many businesses, internal segmentation is often overlooked or poorly implemented. This can allow an attacker who has infiltrated one area of the network to easily move to others. Furthermore, inadequate access controls can enable cybercriminals to escalate their privileges and access sensitive resources, exacerbating the potential damage caused by a breach.

How Lateral Movement Works: Common Threat Vectors

Credential Theft

The first threat vector we’ll examine is credential theft. Credential theft is a dangerous and popular method used to facilitate lateral movement within a network. Once inside, attackers may target administrative accounts or users with elevated privileges to gain access to sensitive information and control over critical systems.

The process often begins with a successful phishing attack, where an unsuspecting user is tricked into revealing their login details. Once the attacker has these credentials, they can authenticate themselves within the network and begin to move laterally. They may also seek to escalate their privileges, often by exploiting system vulnerabilities, to access even more sensitive information.

Credential theft isn’t just limited to passwords. Attackers may also steal digital certificates, SSH keys, and other forms of authentication tokens. These can then be used to impersonate legitimate users or services within the network, further facilitating lateral movement. Because these attacks often mimic legitimate user behavior, they can be difficult to detect without the right monitoring and security tools in place.

Remote Execution Tools

Another common means of facilitating lateral movement is through the use of remote execution tools. These tools allow attackers to execute commands or deploy malware on remote systems within the network.

One popular method is through the use of PowerShell, a powerful scripting language and shell framework used by Windows administrators for task automation and configuration management. PowerShell scripts can be used to execute commands on remote systems, gather information, and even deploy malware. Because PowerShell is a legitimate tool used by administrators, its use by attackers can often go unnoticed.

The danger with remote execution tools is that they allow attackers to reach systems that would otherwise be inaccessible. They can also be used to automate the lateral movement process, allowing attackers to quickly and efficiently move through a network.

Application and Service Exploitation

The third threat vector we’ll look at is application and service exploitation. This involves the abuse of legitimate applications and services to facilitate lateral movement.

For instance, an attacker might exploit a vulnerability in a web application to gain initial access to a network. From there, they might seek out other vulnerable applications or services to exploit, allowing them to move laterally within the network.

This type of attack is particularly dangerous because it can often bypass traditional security measures. Firewalls and intrusion detection systems may not pick up on this type of activity because it appears to be legitimate traffic.

In addition to exploiting vulnerabilities, attackers may also abuse legitimate features of applications and services to facilitate lateral movement. For example, they might use the remote desktop protocol (RDP) to move from one system to another, or they might use the file transfer capabilities of an FTP server to move malware or stolen data within the network.

Session Hijacking

Session hijacking is another common method used to facilitate lateral movement. This involves the interception and abuse of network sessions to gain unauthorized access to systems and data.

A typical scenario might involve an attacker who has gained access to a network sniffing the network traffic to identify active sessions. Once they’ve identified a session, they can then attempt to hijack it, either by injecting malicious data into the session or by taking over the session entirely.

Session hijacking can be particularly difficult to detect because it often involves the abuse of legitimate sessions. Unless the hijacked session exhibits unusual behavior, it may go unnoticed by network security tools.

Insider Threats

The final threat vector we’ll discuss is insider threats. This involves the abuse of authorized access by someone within the organization to facilitate lateral movement.

Insider threats can take many forms. It might involve a disgruntled employee seeking to cause harm, or it might involve an employee who has been tricked or coerced into aiding an attacker.

One of the reasons insider threats are so dangerous is because they often involve users with legitimate access to systems and data. This can make it more difficult to detect and prevent insider threats, especially if the user is careful to avoid raising any red flags.

Lateral Movement: Prevention and Mitigation Strategies

Here are a few steps businesses can take to prevent the threat of lateral movement, and avoid minor attacks from escalating into major breaches.

1. Implementing Strong Access Controls and User Privileges

One of the most effective ways to prevent lateral movement is by implementing strong access controls and user privileges. This involves carefully managing who has access to what information and systems within your network, as well as what they are allowed to do with that access. This not only reduces the likelihood of an attacker gaining access in the first place, but also limits the damage they can do if they do manage to breach your defenses.

This strategy requires you to have a good understanding of your network and the roles of the people who use it. You should know who needs access to what, and why. With this information, you can then set up controls that give each user the access they need to do their job, and nothing more. This principle is known as ‘least privilege,’ and it’s a fundamental part of good cybersecurity.

2. Implementing Network Segmentation

Another effective strategy for preventing lateral movement is internal network segmentation. This involves dividing your network into separate segments, each of which is strongly isolated from the others. This means that even if a hacker manages to infiltrate one segment of your network, they won’t automatically have access to the others.

Network segmentation can be achieved in various ways, such as through the use of firewalls, Virtual Local Area Networks (VLANs), or other network devices. The key is to ensure that each segment is effectively isolated from the others, preventing any unauthorized movement between them.

3. Regular Patching and Updates

Keeping your systems and software up to date is another crucial strategy for preventing lateral movement. This is because many cyberattacks exploit known vulnerabilities in outdated software. By regularly patching and updating your systems, you can ensure that these vulnerabilities are fixed, making it much harder for an attacker to gain access.

This strategy requires a proactive approach to system maintenance. You need to stay informed about any new patches or updates that are released for your software and implement them as soon as possible. This can be a time-consuming task, but it’s well worth the effort when you consider the potential cost of a successful cyberattack.

4. Multi-Factor Authentication

Multi-factor authentication (MFA) is another effective tool in the fight against lateral movement. MFA requires users to provide two or more pieces of evidence to confirm their identity before they can access a system. This could be something they know (like a password), something they have (like a physical token), or something they are (like a fingerprint).

By requiring multiple pieces of evidence, MFA makes it much harder for a hacker to gain access to your systems. Even if they manage to steal or guess one piece of evidence (like a password), they will still be unable to gain access without the others. This significantly reduces the risk of lateral movement within your network.

5. Behavioral Analytics and Anomaly Detection

Finally, behavioral analytics and anomaly detection can also play a key role in preventing lateral movement. These techniques involve monitoring the activity on your network and looking for anything unusual. This could be anything from an unexpected login attempt to a sudden spike in network traffic.

By detecting these anomalies, you can potentially spot a cyberattack in its early stages, before any significant damage has been done. This gives you the chance to respond quickly and effectively, minimizing the impact of the attack and preventing further lateral movement within your network.

Conclusion

In conclusion, while lateral movement is a significant threat to cybersecurity, there are many strategies that can be used to prevent and mitigate it. By implementing strong access controls, segmenting your network, keeping your systems updated, using multi-factor authentication, and monitoring for anomalies, you can significantly reduce the risk of lateral movement within your network. However, it’s important to remember that no single strategy is foolproof. The most effective approach is to use a combination of strategies, creating a robust, multi-layered defense against cyber threats.

Featured Image Credit: Provided by the Author; Thank you!

Gilad Maayan

Technology writer

I’m a technology writer with 20 years of experience working with leading technology brands including SAP, Imperva, CheckPoint, and NetApp. I am a three-time winner of the International Technical Communication Award. Today I lead Agile SEO, the leading marketing and content agency in the technology industry.

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