What is Lateral Movement ?

Lateral movement refers to the technique used by threat actors to navigate through a compromised network or system, stealthily moving from one host to another. Unlike traditional attacks that target a single entry point, lateral movement allows attackers to spread their influence, expand their control, and access valuable assets within the network. It is a crucial phase of an APT attack, enabling attackers to maintain persistence and achieve their objectives.

Why is lateral movement used by attackers?

Attackers utilize the lateral movement technique for several reasons, including establishing persistence, accessing high-value targets, escalating privileges, exfiltrating data, and evading security controls.

  1. Persistence and Avoiding Detection: Lateral movement offers attackers a means to establish persistence within a compromised network. By moving laterally across systems, attackers can evade detection mechanisms that may be focused on monitoring a specific entry point. This technique allows them to remain undetected for longer periods, maximizing their ability to carry out their malicious activities without triggering alarms or arousing suspicion.
  2. Access to High-Value Targets: Once an initial entry point is compromised, lateral movement allows attackers to explore the network and identify high-value targets. These targets can include sensitive data repositories, critical infrastructure components, or privileged accounts that hold significant power within the organization. By moving laterally, attackers can incrementally gain access to these valuable assets, increasing their control and potential for further compromise.
  3. Privilege Escalation and Exploitation: Lateral movement often involves the exploitation of vulnerabilities or weaknesses within systems. As attackers navigate through the network, they actively search for opportunities to escalate their privileges. By leveraging compromised accounts, stolen credentials, or exploiting misconfigurations, attackers can elevate their level of access, enabling them to reach more critical systems, databases, or administrative controls. Privilege escalation through lateral movement enhances their ability to manipulate and exploit the network.
  4. Data Exfiltration and Intellectual Property Theft: One of the primary motivations for attackers is the exfiltration of valuable data or intellectual property. Lateral movement provides them with the means to locate and extract this sensitive information. By strategically moving within the network, attackers can identify and target repositories containing proprietary information, customer data, trade secrets, or financial records. The ability to move laterally enables them to gradually gain access to these repositories and exfiltrate data without raising alarms.
  5. Evading Security Controls and Evasion of Defenses: The lateral movement technique enables attackers to bypass security controls that are often focused on perimeter defense. Once inside a network, they can exploit the inherent trust between interconnected systems to maneuver undetected. By moving laterally, attackers can potentially evade network monitoring, intrusion detection systems, and other security measures that are typically focused on external threats. This evasion increases their chances of remaining undetected and extends the timeframe for carrying out their malicious activities.

How Lateral Movement Works

Lateral movement involves a series of stages that attackers go through to infiltrate and expand their control within a network. These stages typically include:

  1. Initial Compromise: Lateral movement begins with the initial compromise, where attackers gain unauthorized access to a network or system. This can occur through various means, such as exploiting vulnerabilities, phishing attacks, or leveraging social engineering techniques.
  2. Reconnaissance: Once inside the network, attackers conduct reconnaissance to gather critical information about the network’s topology, systems, and potential targets. This phase involves scanning and mapping the network, identifying vulnerable systems, and locating high-value assets.
  3. Credential Dumping: It involves the extraction or theft of credentials from compromised systems to gain unauthorized access to other systems within a network. Once the attackers have obtained valid credentials, they can reuse them to authenticate and move laterally within the network. By leveraging these stolen credentials, attackers can bypass authentication mechanisms, gain access to additional systems, and escalate their control over the network.
  4. Privilege Escalation: Attackers aim to escalate their privileges within the compromised network. This involves acquiring higher-level access rights, often by exploiting vulnerabilities, misconfigurations, or stealing credentials. Privilege escalation enables attackers to gain control over more systems and resources.
  5. Lateral Movement: The core phase of the attack, lateral movement, comes into play once attackers have elevated their privileges. Here, they navigate through the network, moving laterally from one system to another. Attackers leverage compromised accounts, stolen credentials, or exploitable vulnerabilities to access additional hosts and expand their control.
  6. Persistence and Exploitation: Attackers aim to maintain persistence within the network, ensuring their ongoing access even if initial entry points are discovered and mitigated. They establish backdoors, install persistent malware, or manipulate system configurations to maintain control. This enables them to exploit resources, exfiltrate data, or launch further attacks.

How does lateral movement compare to other cyber attack techniques? 

Attack TechniqueKey CharacteristicsRelationship to Lateral Movement
Phishing AttacksSocial engineering techniques to extract sensitive informationLateral movement may involve the use of stolen credentials
MalwareMalicious software for data theft, disruption, or unauthorized accessLateral movement may utilize malware for propagation or persistence
DoS/DDoS AttacksOverwhelm target systems with excessive trafficNo direct alignment with lateral movement
Man-in-the-Middle AttacksIntercept and manipulate communication for interception or alterationLateral movement may include interception as part of the technique
SQL InjectionExploit web application vulnerabilities for unauthorized accessLateral movement may leverage compromised credentials or databases
Cross-Site Scripting (XSS)Inject malicious scripts into trusted websites for arbitrary code execution or information theftNo direct alignment with lateral movement
Social EngineeringManipulate individuals for divulging sensitive information or performing actionsLateral movement may involve social engineering in the initial compromise
Password AttacksTechniques like brute-force or dictionary attacks for password crackingLateral movement may leverage compromised or stolen credentials
Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs)Sophisticated, targeted attacks for persistent access and specific objectivesLateral movement is a critical phase within APTs
Zero-day ExploitsTarget unknown vulnerabilities before patches are availableLateral movement may incorporate zero-day exploits as part of its technique

Techniques and Methods Used in Lateral Movement

As the sophistication of cyber threats continues to evolve, understanding the techniques and methods used in lateral movement becomes paramount for effective defense strategies.

By comprehending these techniques, organizations can implement proactive security measures, such as robust access controls, vulnerability management, and user awareness training, to mitigate the risks associated with lateral movement and protect their critical assets from cyber intruders.

Here are the most common techniques involved in lateral movement attacks:

I. Pass-the-Hash (PtH) Attacks:

Pass-the-Hash attacks exploit the way Windows stores user credentials in the form of hashed values. Attackers extract password hashes from compromised systems and use them to authenticate and gain access to other systems within the network. By bypassing the need for plaintext passwords, PtH attacks allow attackers to move laterally without the need for continuous credential theft.

II. Pass-the-Ticket (PtT) Attacks:

Pass-the-Ticket attacks leverage Kerberos authentication tickets to move laterally within a network. Attackers acquire and abuse valid tickets obtained from compromised systems or stolen from legitimate users. With these tickets, they can authenticate and access additional systems, bypassing traditional authentication mechanisms.

III. Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) Hijacking:

RDP hijacking involves manipulating or exploiting the Remote Desktop Protocol, which allows users to connect to remote systems. Attackers target systems with enabled RDP, exploit vulnerabilities, or use stolen credentials to gain unauthorized access. Once inside, they can navigate laterally by connecting to other systems or utilizing the compromised host as a launching point for further attacks.

IV. Credential Theft and Reuse:

Credential theft and reuse play a significant role in lateral movement. Attackers employ various methods, such as keylogging, phishing, or brute-forcing, to steal valid credentials. Once obtained, these credentials are reused to authenticate and move laterally across the network, potentially escalating privileges and accessing high-value targets.

V. Exploitation of Vulnerabilities:

Exploiting vulnerabilities is a common technique used in lateral movement. Attackers target unpatched systems or misconfigurations to gain unauthorized access. Exploiting vulnerabilities allows them to move laterally by compromising additional hosts, leveraging weaknesses in software or network configurations.

VI. Malware Propagation:

Malware propagation is another prevalent method employed in lateral movement. Attackers deploy malicious software, such as worms or botnets, within the compromised network. These malware instances propagate from one system to another, aiding the attackers in navigating and expanding control within the network.

What are some real-world examples showcasing the impact of lateral movement attacks?

Target Data Breach (2013):

In one of the most prominent cyber attacks, hackers gained access to Target Corporation’s network through a third-party vendor. They then used lateral movement techniques to navigate through the network, escalate privileges, and eventually compromise the point-of-sale (POS) systems. The attackers exfiltrated credit card information of approximately 40 million customers, leading to significant financial losses and reputational damage for Target.

Sony Pictures Entertainment Hack (2014):

In this high-profile attack, hackers believed to be linked to North Korea infiltrated Sony Pictures’ network. Lateral movement techniques allowed them to move through the network, gaining access to sensitive data, including unreleased movies, executive emails, and employee personal information. The attack disrupted business operations and resulted in the release of confidential data, causing substantial financial and reputational harm.

NotPetya Ransomware Attack (2017):

The NotPetya ransomware attack started with the compromise of an accounting software company’s update mechanism in Ukraine. Once inside, the attackers utilized lateral movement techniques to rapidly spread the malware within the organization’s network. The malware propagated laterally, encrypting systems and disrupting operations of numerous organizations worldwide. NotPetya caused billions of dollars in damages and highlighted the devastating potential of lateral movement in spreading ransomware.

SolarWinds Supply Chain Attack (2020):

The SolarWinds attack involved the compromise of the software supply chain, specifically the Orion IT management platform distributed by SolarWinds. Through a sophisticated supply chain attack, threat actors inserted a malicious update that went undetected for several months. Lateral movement techniques were employed to move laterally within the networks of organizations that used the compromised software. This highly sophisticated attack affected numerous government agencies and private organizations, leading to data breaches, espionage, and long-lasting repercussions.

These real-world examples illustrate the impact of lateral movement attacks on organizations across different sectors. They demonstrate how attackers utilize lateral movement to navigate networks, escalate privileges, access valuable data, and cause significant financial and reputational damage.

How to detect & prevent lateral movement attacks?

Detecting and preventing lateral movement attacks is crucial for organizations to protect their networks and valuable assets. Here are some effective strategies to detect and prevent lateral movement:

  • Strong Access Controls and Authentication Mechanisms: Implement multi-factor authentication (MFA) and strong access controls to mitigate the risk of compromised credentials. Enforce strong password policies, regularly rotate passwords, and consider implementing technologies like Privileged Access Management (PAM) to secure privileged accounts and prevent unauthorized lateral movement.
  • Network Monitoring and Anomaly Detection: Implement robust network monitoring solutions that can detect unusual or suspicious behavior within the network. Utilize Intrusion Detection Systems (IDS), Intrusion Prevention Systems (IPS), Security Information and Event Management (SIEM) tools, and behavior analytics to identify anomalies, such as abnormal traffic patterns, unauthorized access attempts, or unusual user behavior.
  • User and Entity Behavior Analytics (UEBA): Leverage UEBA solutions to monitor user activities and identify deviations from normal behavior. UEBA can detect suspicious lateral movement patterns, such as unusual account usage, privilege escalation attempts, or abnormal access to resources, helping to proactively identify potential attacks.
  • Segmentation and Network Isolation: Implement network segmentation to divide the network into isolated zones based on security requirements and access privileges. This helps contain lateral movement within specific network segments, limiting the potential impact of an attack and making it harder for attackers to navigate and expand their control.
  • Least Privilege Principle: Follow the principle of least privilege, ensuring that users and systems have only the necessary access rights and privileges required to perform their tasks. Restricting privileges reduces the potential for lateral movement and limits the scope of an attacker’s movement within the network.
  • Regular Patching and Vulnerability Management: Maintain a robust patch management process to promptly apply security patches and updates to systems, software, and network devices. Regularly scan and assess the network for vulnerabilities, prioritize remediation efforts, and implement security controls to mitigate known vulnerabilities that could be exploited for lateral movement.
  • Security Awareness and Training: Educate employees and users about the risks of social engineering, phishing attacks, and the importance of secure practices. Raise awareness about the impact of lateral movement and encourage vigilance in identifying and reporting suspicious activities or attempts to gain unauthorized access.
  • Incident Response and Cybersecurity Incident Readiness: Develop a comprehensive incident response plan that includes procedures for detecting, responding to, and mitigating lateral movement attacks. Establish clear communication channels, define roles and responsibilities, conduct regular drills and exercises to test the effectiveness of incident response plans, and continuously improve them based on lessons learned.
  • Regular Security Audits and Penetration Testing: Perform regular security audits and penetration testing to identify vulnerabilities, weaknesses, and potential entry points for lateral movement. Conduct simulated attacks to assess the effectiveness of existing security controls and identify areas for improvement.
  • Threat Intelligence and Sharing: Leverage threat intelligence feeds, industry information sharing platforms, and collaborations with other organizations and cybersecurity communities. Stay updated on the latest attack techniques, indicators of compromise (IoCs), and emerging threats to enhance detection and prevention capabilities.

Unveiling the Attack Surface and Entry Points for Lateral Movement

Understanding the potential entry points for lateral movement attacks is crucial for organizations to fortify their defenses effectively. By identifying and mitigating these vulnerabilities, organizations can enhance their security posture and reduce the risk of successful lateral movement attacks.

Identifying Potential Entry Points for Lateral Movement

Weak or Compromised Credentials
Weak passwords, password reuse, or compromised credentials obtained through phishing attacks or data breaches pose a significant entry point for lateral movement. Attackers leverage these credentials to move laterally within the network, often escalating privileges along the way.

Unpatched Vulnerabilities
Unpatched software or systems harbor vulnerabilities that can be exploited by attackers to gain initial access and execute lateral movement. Failure to apply security patches and updates leaves systems susceptible to known vulnerabilities that threat actors can exploit to infiltrate the network.

Misconfigured Security Settings
Inadequate security configurations, such as weak access controls, misconfigured firewalls, or improperly configured user permissions, create avenues for lateral movement. Attackers exploit these misconfigurations to move laterally, escalate privileges, and access sensitive resources.

Social Engineering Techniques
Social engineering techniques, including phishing, baiting, or pretexting, manipulate individuals into divulging sensitive information or performing actions that aid lateral movement. By tricking users into disclosing credentials or executing malicious attachments, attackers gain a foothold and navigate through the network.

Insider Threats
Insiders with authorized access to the network can also facilitate lateral movement attacks. Malicious insiders or individuals whose credentials have been compromised can exploit their legitimate access to move laterally, bypassing traditional perimeter security measures.

Common Attack Vectors Targeted for Lateral Movement:

Local Area Networks (LAN)
Local area networks provide a fertile ground for lateral movement due to the interconnected nature of devices and systems. Once inside the LAN, attackers can exploit vulnerabilities or leverage compromised credentials to navigate through the network and access additional systems.

Wireless Networks
Weakly secured or misconfigured wireless networks offer an entry point for lateral movement attacks. Attackers target wireless networks to gain access to the network and launch lateral movement activities, especially when devices connect to both wired and wireless networks.

Cloud Environments
Cloud environments, with their distributed nature and interconnected services, can be vulnerable to lateral movement. Misconfigurations, weak access controls, or compromised cloud credentials can enable attackers to move laterally between cloud resources and on-premise systems.

Internet of Things (IoT) Devices
Insecurely configured or unpatched IoT devices present potential entry points for lateral movement. Vulnerable IoT devices, often lacking robust security controls, can serve as a springboard for attackers to infiltrate the network and conduct lateral movement activities.

On-Premise Systems
Legacy or on-premise systems that have not undergone regular security updates or lack adequate security controls can be targeted for lateral movement. Attackers exploit vulnerabilities in these systems to gain initial access and pivot within the network.

The Zero Trust security model and its impact on lateral movement

The Zero Trust security model is revolutionizing how organizations defend against lateral movement attacks. By eliminating the assumption of trust within networks, Zero Trust reduces the risk of unauthorized lateral movement by focusing on a few, key areas:

Identity Verification
Zero Trust emphasizes rigorous identity verification and device authentication for every access attempt, regardless of location. Only authenticated and authorized users are granted access, reducing the potential for unauthorized lateral movement.

Micro-segmentation divides networks into smaller segments with granular access controls. By enforcing strict identity segmentation, lateral movement is restricted, limiting the impact of potential breaches.

Continuous Monitoring
Zero Trust promotes continuous monitoring and real-time analysis of network activities. Anomalous behaviors indicative of lateral movement are promptly detected, enabling swift response and containment.

Least Privilege Access
Zero Trust adheres to the principle of least privilege, granting users the minimum access required. Unauthorized access attempts are swiftly identified and prevented, reducing the risk of lateral movement.

Dynamic Trust Assessment
Zero Trust dynamically assesses trust levels during network interactions. Continuous evaluation of user behavior and device health ensures ongoing verification, minimizing the risk of lateral movement.