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.
Attackers utilize the lateral movement technique for several reasons, including establishing persistence, accessing high-value targets, escalating privileges, exfiltrating data, and evading security controls.
Lateral movement involves a series of stages that attackers go through to infiltrate and expand their control within a network. These stages typically include:
|Relationship to Lateral Movement
|Social engineering techniques to extract sensitive information
|Lateral movement may involve the use of stolen credentials
|Malicious software for data theft, disruption, or unauthorized access
|Lateral movement may utilize malware for propagation or persistence
|Overwhelm target systems with excessive traffic
|No direct alignment with lateral movement
|Intercept and manipulate communication for interception or alteration
|Lateral movement may include interception as part of the technique
|Exploit web application vulnerabilities for unauthorized access
|Lateral movement may leverage compromised credentials or databases
|Cross-Site Scripting (XSS)
|Inject malicious scripts into trusted websites for arbitrary code execution or information theft
|No direct alignment with lateral movement
|Manipulate individuals for divulging sensitive information or performing actions
|Lateral movement may involve social engineering in the initial compromise
|Techniques like brute-force or dictionary attacks for password cracking
|Lateral movement may leverage compromised or stolen credentials
|Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs)
|Sophisticated, targeted attacks for persistent access and specific objectives
|Lateral movement is a critical phase within APTs
|Target unknown vulnerabilities before patches are available
|Lateral movement may incorporate zero-day exploits as part of its technique
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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, 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.
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 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:
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.
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.