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What Is Privilege Escalation and How Can It Be Detected?

Craig Smilowitz | 9 min read| Published On - February 9, 2024

Privilege Escalation

Privilege escalation attacks, where unauthorized users gain elevated access to systems, are a major threat to all networks. Internal or external individuals with unauthorized privileges can exploit human behaviors, design flaws, or oversights to breach systems, employing tactics like lateral movement to penetrate deeper into the network in search of valuable assets. Such attacks range from minor unauthorized access to severe data breaches through ransomware attacks. Understanding the privilege escalation process is crucial for preventing and defending against various network attacks, including advanced persistent threats (ATPs).

What is Privilege Escalation?

Imagine a castle with layers of security, each granting increasing access to valuable treasures. Privilege escalation is like an intruder finding a secret passage to bypass lower guards and reach the highest vault. In the digital world, it’s the act of exploiting weaknesses to gain unauthorized access beyond your assigned permissions.

Think of user accounts like those guards, each with specific “privileges” to access system resources. Standard users have limited keys, while administrators hold master keys. Privilege escalation occurs when someone, often a hacker, manipulates vulnerabilities to climb this privilege ladder.

How do they do it? It’s like finding hidden doors. They might exploit software bugs, steal administrative credentials, or trick users into giving away their keys. Once inside, they can wreak havoc: steal sensitive data, install malware, or disrupt entire systems.

There are two main types of escalation:

  • Vertical: Imagine scaling the castle walls, moving from lower to higher privileges within a single system. Attackers exploit weaknesses in software, configurations, or even tricking users to gain admin access.
  • Horizontal: Think of sneaking between castles. Attackers compromise a low-level account and then use it to move laterally, accessing other accounts with similar or higher privileges.

Why is this a big deal? Privilege escalation is often a crucial step in major cyberattacks. By reaching the inner sanctum, attackers can steal everything from credit card numbers to government secrets.

So, how do we stay safe? The principle of “least privilege” is key. Users only get the access they need, reducing the potential for misuse. Regular security updates, strong passwords, and user awareness training help patch those hidden doors and keep the intruders at bay.

Remember, privilege escalation is a serious threat, but understanding it is the first step in defense. By staying vigilant and building strong security walls, we can keep our digital treasures safe from sneaky intruders.

Why is it Important to Preventing Privilege Escalation Attacks?

Preventing privilege escalation attacks is crucial as attackers with a single set of credentials can cause a lot of damage, potentially leading to substantial financial losses, data breaches, and reputational damage. The average cost of a data breach in the United States is estimated to be $9.44 million, according to Statista. Privilege escalation affects organizations of all sizes, including small businesses, educational institutions, and even national governments, highlighting the urgent need for robust cybersecurity measures.

How Privilege Escalation Works

Privilege escalation attacks often start with social engineering techniques like phishing. To gain initial entry or basic privileges, attackers seek out weaknesses in organizational defenses, such as missing patches or weak authentication. Once inside the network, threat actors conduct reconnaissance, seeking opportunities to elevate their privileges and gain control over sensitive data or critical systems. This process typically involves identifying and exploiting vulnerabilities in the system’s security mechanisms, such as weak passwords or misconfigurations. Attackers may also attempt to compromise privileged accounts by phishing or other social engineering methods. Once they have elevated their privileges, threat actors can move laterally within the network, accessing sensitive data, modifying or deleting files, or even installing malware.

Privilege Escalation Techniques

Cybercriminals are continuously developing sophisticated methods to breach accounts and compromise systems. As mentioned above, phishing attacks remain a prevalent tactic, which may involve deceiving users into disclosing sensitive information, downloading malicious software, or exposing network vulnerabilities. Other social engineering techniques employed by cyber attackers include cybersquatting or typosquatting, where they hijack or simulate URLs to trick users. Additionally, attackers may scan social media profiles for exposed passwords and security questions.

Attackers have the option of executing privilege escalation techniques either locally or remotely:

  • Local privilege escalation begins onsite, often by someone inside the organization. For example, if an attacker has access to a physical machine, they may be able to use a variety of techniques to escalate their privileges, such as exploiting a vulnerability in the operating system or installing a malicious program.
  • Remote privilege escalation can begin from almost anywhere. For example, if an attacker is able to gain access to a web server, they may be able to use a vulnerability in the web application to escalate their privileges to the level of the web server process.

Attacks are grouped into two primary types: horizontal and vertical.

  • Horizontal Privilege Escalation (Account Takeover): Horizontal privilege escalation refers to an attacker gaining privileged access to a standard user account with lower-level privileges. This can involve stealing an employee’s username and password, gaining access to email, files, and web applications. This action is often referred to as “account takeover.”
  • Vertical Privilege Escalation (Privilege Elevation): Vertical privilege escalation occurs when an attacker uses a foothold to try to escalate vertically, gaining access to accounts with higher privileges. This can involve exploiting flaws in software, firmware, or the kernel or obtaining privileged credentials for other applications or the operating system itself.


Attackers frequently use various types of malicious software to elevate their privileges. Examples include;

  • Worms: These programs spread through a network, infecting computers and replicating independently.
  • Rootkits: This software provides attackers with control over networks and applications, remaining hidden for extended periods.
  • Trojans: Disguised as legitimate programs, they use social engineering to trick users into downloading them.
  • Fileless Malware: This malware does not require installation on the target system, making detection more difficult.
  • Spyware: Software that collects user information without consent, often for targeted advertising
  • Keyloggers: This software monitors user activity, often through phishing attacks, to capture login and sensitive information.
  • Scareware: This involves pop-ups and messages deceiving users about computer infections, promoting fake antivirus programs.
  • Ransomware: Attackers encrypt victim data and demand payment for the decryption key, often spread through social engineering or security weaknesses.

Other techniques used in attacks:

  • Brute force attacks: A method of hacking that involves systematically and automatically guessing passwords until one is successful.
  • Password spraying: An automated attack that attempts to gain access to multiple accounts by using a common password across all of them.
  • Credential dumping: A technique used to steal multiple credentials, such as usernames and passwords, from a system or a targeted individual.
  • Shoulder surfing: A method of stealing credentials by observing someone entering them into a system or a device.
  • Dictionary attacks: A hacking technique that involves using a list of common words or phrases to try to guess a password.
  • Credential stuffing: A method of hacking that involves using credentials stolen from one system to access another system.
  • Pass the hash or rainbow table attacks: Techniques used to crack passwords by accessing a hashed version of the password instead of the actual password itself.
  • Password changes and resets: A method of hacking that exploits the process of setting new passwords by tricking the user into setting a weak or easily guessable password.

NOTE: Both Windows and Linux operating systems are susceptible to attacks that enable privilege escalation. For Windows systems, attackers may employ techniques such as token manipulation, user account control bypassing, and DLL hijacking to elevate their privileges. Conversely, in Linux systems, attackers can leverage methods such as enumeration, kernel exploits, and Sudo access to gain root privileges, granting them extensive control over the system.

How to Detect a Privilege Escalation Attack

It is also crucial to have robust detection measures in place for situations where prevention fails. These measures should continuously monitor network activity for suspicious patterns or anomalies that may indicate a breach. Detection systems should be capable of promptly alerting administrators to potential threats, allowing for swift action to mitigate the impact of an attack.

The detection of privilege escalation hinges on pattern recognition, the identification of outliers, and the flagging of abnormal events. However, this can be an arduous task due to the unpredictable nature of these attacks. Once a threat actor successfully infiltrates the network, they can maintain ongoing access, and the system perceives them as legitimate users with gained credentials. The challenge lies in the extended time it takes to detect an attack, as privilege escalation attacks can span weeks or months, making it challenging to estimate an average detection time. This period, known as “dwell time,” allows intruders to gather information, acquire credentials, and further escalate their privileges. To evade detection, attackers may attempt to cover their tracks by deleting logs, masking IP addresses, and employing other tactics. Despite their efforts, cybercriminals sometimes make mistakes that can render them traceable or cause them to fall into traps. However, successful arrest and prosecution of these individuals remain rare. Organizations must therefore remain vigilant and prepared to respond swiftly to detect and neutralize threats effectively.

The ever-changing landscape of cyber threats demands constant attention and vigilance to safeguard data and systems. Every business connected to a network, regardless of size or industry, is susceptible to cyberattacks. Therefore, a comprehensive detection, prevention and recovery strategy is essential. This strategy should involve every user within the system, emphasizing security awareness and best practices.

How Lepide Helps Prevent Privilege Escalation

The Lepide Data Security Platform is designed to detect and prevent privilege escalation attacks by employing a multifaceted approach. It collects and correlates data from various sources, both on-premise and cloud-based, allowing for comprehensive insights into user activities. The platform governs access to sensitive data by identifying excessive permissions and applying appropriate access controls, ensuring that users only have the necessary privileges to perform their duties. Its data discovery and classification capabilities help locate sensitive data in unstructured data stores, enabling organizations to comply with various regulations and standards. The platform also includes privileged access management features that determine the number of privileged users and monitor their activities. The platform has an intuitive dashboard that allows for overseeing logon/logoff activities and managing password resets. Advanced machine learning techniques allow for real-time detection of anomalous behavior, enabling organizations to respond quickly to potential threats. After a security incident, the platform provides a comprehensive timeline of events and highlights attacker actions, assisting in forensic analysis and incident response. The Lepide Data Security Platform can effectively safeguard your organization from privilege escalation attacks and ensures the integrity of their sensitive data.

If you’d like to see how the Lepide Data Security Platform can help prevent and detect privilege escalation attacks, schedule a demo with one of our engineers or start your free trial today.

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