Lateral Movement

What Is Lateral Movement?

Lateral movement refers to the techniques employed by threat actors to spread across a network and access more systems, servers, and resources. Threat actors maintain persistence upon initial infiltration and avoid detection by moving deeper into the compromised network. By expanding an attack surface, lateral movement propels malicious activities and enables further access to sensitive data and valuable assets. 

4 Stages of Lateral Movement

Once access to a network has been gained—typically through phishing attempts or malware infections—threat actors employ various techniques to broaden their infiltration and continue attacking systems. 

1. Reconnaissance

During reconnaissance, threat actors monitor, investigate, and explore the target network, noting its users and associated devices. They also assess possible payloads and the network’s operating system, gaining any information that can assist with infiltration. 

2. Credential Dumping

Threat actors require legitimate login credentials to enter a network; credential dumping refers to the techniques used to acquire them illegally. During this stage, users are often tricked into revealing their credentials via social engineering tactics, which sets threat actors up for their next infiltration stage.

3. Privilege Escalation

Privilege escalation involves gaining higher levels of access or permissions within a compromised network. The first entry point doesn’t always provide threat actors with the data they set out for—but exploiting software vulnerabilities, weak configurations, and brute-forcing credentials enable threat actors to escalate their privileges to access sensitive information further.

4. Gaining Access

Gaining access involves conducting internal reconnaissance and overpowering security controls to obtain and extract the desired data. In this stage, threat actors have successfully infiltrated a network and can move laterally throughout systems to perform their malicious activities.

Cyberattacks that Leverage Lateral Movement

RansomwareRansomware is malware that encrypts files on infiltrated devices, restricting user access to a system or its resources until a ransom is paid. As ransomware programs can move laterally, threat actors lock down entire networks and demand payment from organizations or users.

Botnet InfectionA botnet is a network of malware-infected devices commanded and controlled by a single operator. Botnet infections hijack entire networks and move across systems to carry out various attacks and malware invasions.

Man-in-the-Middle (MitM) Attacks : MitM attacks manipulate network traffic between users and applications, enabling threat actors to eavesdrop on and capture sensitive information. These attacks can be used to move laterally within a network by intercepting communication and spreading throughout a system.

Polymorphic MalwareThis evolving malware can change its code structure and characteristics to evade detection within a system. Its mutating abilities allow it to generate variations of itself to move laterally without being identified, propagating across a network.

How to Detect and Defend Against Lateral Movement

Once threat actors infiltrate systems, their traffic originates from a legitimate source, enabling them to evade traditional security detection capabilities. Detecting and eliminating this malicious traffic is crucial, and the following cybersecurity practices are essential to defending against lateral movement. 
An EPP helps defend against lateral movement by preventing threat actors from breaching a network’s entry point, restricting the spread of malware attacks. An EPP limits a threat actor’s ability to compromise systems by monitoring endpoints and enforcing security measures.
Deploying an IDPS is vital to ensure that network traffic is continuously monitored and any indications of lateral movement are identified. This threat detection solution can block malicious traffic, alert systems when a threat is found, and mitigate potential attacks.

Regularly Updated Systems

Vulnerabilities in outdated software can be exploited for lateral movement. Keeping all applications and operating systems up to date with the latest security patches ensures that threat actors cannot take advantage of these vulnerabilities.
PoLP mitigates lateral movement by limiting user privileges to the minimum required for their role. Adopting PoLP prevents unauthorized privilege escalation, reducing the impact if a system is breached.
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