The Threat of Lateral Movement and 5 Ways to Prevent It


What Is Lateral Movement?

Lateral movement is a term used in cybersecurity to describe the techniques that cyber attackers use to progressively move through a network in search of valuable data and assets. This movement is 'lateral' because rather than moving vertically up or down a hierarchical structure, the attacker moves sideways across the network. Essentially, after gaining initial access to a network, usually via a weak or compromised endpoint, the cybercriminal then navigates through the network, hopping from one system to another in search of the target data.

The threat of lateral movement is significant because it often goes unnoticed until it's too late. The techniques used are designed to blend in with regular network traffic, making it challenging for security systems to detect any anomalies. Furthermore, lateral movement allows attackers to gain access to various systems, increasing the potential damage they can cause.

The Significance of Lateral Movement in Cyber Attacks

Access to Sensitive Data and Assets

The primary objective of most cyber attacks is to gain access to sensitive data. By using lateral movement, a hacker can infiltrate a network and gradually find their way to the valuable data. They can access customer databases, financial records, intellectual property, and other sensitive assets. This unauthorized access can lead to data breaches, causing significant financial and reputational damage to the organization.

Moreover, the ability to access multiple systems within the network gives the attacker an opportunity to gather more information and gain deeper insights into the organization's operations. This can be used to plan and execute more sophisticated attacks in the future.

Evasion and Persistence

One of the main advantages of lateral movement for cyber attackers is the ability to stay undetected for a longer period. By moving laterally, they can avoid triggering alarms typically associated with unauthorized access. This stealthy approach allows them to maintain a persistent presence within the network, gathering information and compromising systems without raising suspicion.

Furthermore, by hopping from one system to another, attackers can evade point-in-time security measures. They can bypass firewalls and other security controls by moving through 'trusted' systems within the network. This not only allows them to remain hidden but also makes it difficult to remove them from the network.

Increased Attack Surface

Lateral movement increases the attack surface within a network. Every new system or device that the attacker moves to represents another potential point of compromise. This increases the opportunities for the attacker to exploit vulnerabilities and compromise additional systems.

Furthermore, the interconnected nature of modern networks means that a single compromised system can potentially lead to the compromise of many others. This domino effect can dramatically increase the scale and impact of a cyber attack.

Facilitation of Advanced Attacks

The lateral movement is often a key component in advanced persistent threats (APTs). These are sophisticated, multi-stage attacks that aim to gain long-term access to a network. By moving laterally, attackers can navigate the network, establish multiple points of presence, and set up backdoors for future access.

Moreover, lateral movement can facilitate the spread of malware within a network. Once a single system is infected, the malware can move laterally to infect additional systems. This can lead to widespread disruption and damage.

How Lateral Movement Works in a Network

Now that we understand the significance of lateral movement in cyber attacks, let's look at how it operates within a network. After gaining initial access to a network, usually through a weak or compromised endpoint, the attacker begins to probe the network. They look for additional systems to compromise, using techniques like network scanning and credential harvesting.

Once they identify a target system, they use various techniques to gain access. This could involve exploiting a vulnerability in the system, using stolen credentials, or leveraging other forms of attack. Once they have gained access, they repeat the process, moving from system to system in search of valuable data.

5 Ways to Prevent Lateral Movement

Network Segmentation and Microsegmentation

Network segmentation involves dividing a network into smaller, isolated subnetworks or segments. This approach restricts lateral movement by limiting the ability of an intruder to move beyond the compromised segment, thereby isolating potential damage.

Microsegmentation takes this concept a step further, breaking down the network into even smaller segments. It can be applied at the level of individual workloads or applications, making it even more difficult for intruders to navigate the network.

Implementing network segmentation and microsegmentation requires careful planning and execution. It involves understanding the network architecture, identifying critical assets, and determining the most appropriate segmentation strategy. However, once implemented, they provide an essential layer of protection against lateral movement.

Strong Access Controls and Privilege Management

Another effective strategy to mitigate the threat of lateral movement is the implementation of strong access controls and privilege management. This practice involves limiting user access rights and privileges to the minimum necessary for performing their job functions.

In this way, even if an attacker manages to compromise a user's credentials, the damage they can do is limited by the user's access rights. This strategy also involves monitoring and managing the use of administrative privileges, which could provide an attacker with unrestricted access to the network if compromised.

It's important to note, however, that implementing strong access controls and privilege management is not a one-time task. Instead, it requires ongoing management and review to ensure that access rights and privileges remain appropriate as roles and responsibilities within the organization change.

Advanced Endpoint Protection and Monitoring

Endpoint protection and monitoring are crucial in preventing lateral movement. Advanced endpoint protection solutions can detect and block suspicious activities on endpoints, such as the execution of malicious software or unauthorized changes to system settings.

These solutions also allow for continuous monitoring of endpoints, providing visibility into activities that may signal a breach. This includes monitoring for signs of lateral movement, such as unusual login patterns or attempts to access sensitive resources.

However, effective endpoint protection and monitoring require more than just the right technology. They also require a well-trained security team that can interpret the data produced by these tools, identify potential threats, and respond quickly to mitigate any identified risks.

Regular Security Audits and Vulnerability Assessments

Regular security audits and vulnerability assessments are also crucial in preventing lateral movement. These activities help identify weaknesses in the organization's security posture that could be exploited by attackers.

Security audits involve a comprehensive review of the organization's security policies, procedures, and controls to determine their effectiveness. Meanwhile, vulnerability assessments involve identifying, classifying, and prioritizing vulnerabilities in the organization's systems and software.

By identifying and addressing these vulnerabilities, organizations can prevent attackers from gaining an initial foothold in the network, thereby stopping lateral movement before it even begins.

Employee Training and Security Awareness

Last but certainly not least, employee training and security awareness can play a crucial role in preventing lateral movement. Many cyberattacks begin with a simple phishing email or other social engineering tactics aimed at tricking employees into revealing their login credentials.

By training employees to recognize and report these attempts, organizations can significantly reduce the risk of an initial breach. Moreover, a security-aware workforce can serve as an additional line of defense, helping to detect and respond to signs of a breach that may have otherwise gone unnoticed.

In conclusion, while the threat of lateral movement is a significant concern in cybersecurity, there are effective strategies that organizations can employ to mitigate this risk. By implementing network segmentation and microsegmentation, strengthening access controls and privilege management, using advanced endpoint protection and monitoring, conducting regular security audits and vulnerability assessments, and promoting employee training and security awareness, organizations can protect themselves against this silent but deadly cyber threat.

Author Bio: Gilad David Maayan

Gilad David Maayan is a technology writer who has worked with over 150 technology companies including SAP, Imperva, Samsung NEXT, NetApp and Check Point, producing technical and thought leadership content that elucidates technical solutions for developers and IT leadership. Today he heads Agile SEO, the leading marketing agency in the technology industry.


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