Networking / November 7, 2023

What is a Lateral Movement? Learn Everything You Need to Know

Introduction: What is Lateral Movement?

Cybersecurity is an ever-evolving field, and one of the tactics that have gained prominence over the years is “lateral movement.”. Constantly thinking multiple moves ahead, cyber attackers are planning complex strategies to infiltrate networks and get to sensitive data. Lateral movement is one tactic where attackers, upon gaining initial access, moves sideways or laterally within a network seeking out particular assets or data, often without being detected. Some of the sophisticated techniques involved in this tactic include exploiting infrastructure vulnerabilities, leveraging stolen credentials, and even waiting for months for the right moment to strike after gaining access.

How Lateral Movement Works

To fully understand how lateral movement works, one must understand its intricate stages. The process, as defined in the MITRE ATT&CK framework, begins with Reconnaissance. This initial phase is foundational, with attackers surveying the landscape, familiarizing themselves with the intricate layout of the network, its vulnerabilities, and identifying critical nodes or points of interest. Reconnaissance might involve a range of tactics, from simple internet searches about a company to more complex measures like scanning network ports to detect openings. Attackers might also engage in social engineering ploys, trying to trick employees into revealing crucial information or even deploying preliminary malware to see how a system responds. All these efforts have one aim: to build a comprehensive picture of where the vulnerabilities lie and how they can be best exploited.

Following this, attackers proceed to Credential Dumping and Privilege Escalation. This stage is pivotal as the attackers, having breached the network, now aim to amass superior credentials. Such enhanced access acts as a key, facilitating a deeper, more invasive attack into the network. Credential dumping might involve extracting passwords, tokens, or hashes from a system’s memory. Tools are popular in this phase, providing attackers with the ability to harvest credentials, even if they’re not immediately visible. But merely having a set of credentials is not always enough. To move freely within a network, gain access to restricted areas, or install further malware, an attacker often needs elevated privileges. This is where privilege escalation comes into play. By exploiting vulnerabilities in software or using previously dumped credentials, attackers aim to gain higher-level permissions, allowing them greater freedom and control over a network. In essence, they move from being an external intruder to an insider with significant power.

The final step involves gaining Initial Access. Armed with advanced permissions and credentials, attackers can navigate more freely, pinpointing high-value data targets, and accessing them, all the while strategizing to minimize detection risks. Depending on their end goal – whether it’s data theft, deploying ransomware, or merely causing disruption – attackers will navigate the internal network, often leveraging tools and techniques designed to maintain stealth. They might move from one machine to another, using tools to execute processes on remote systems or employ techniques like Pass-the-Ticket (PtT) to authenticate and access different parts of the network without raising alarms. A key aspect of this stage is persistence. Attackers aim not just to access systems but to ensure they can maintain this access over time, even if their initial entry points are discovered and closed off. To achieve this, they might install backdoors, create new user accounts, or even alter system logs to hide their activities.

Understanding lateral movement is necessary for defending against it. By grasping the mechanics of each stage – from the preliminary scouting of Reconnaissance to the final infiltration in Initial Access – organizations can better prepare their defenses, implement robust detection mechanisms, and respond swiftly if they detect signs of an intruder in their midst. In the realm of cybersecurity, awareness and preparation remain our most potent weapons.

What Types of Attacks Use Lateral Movement?

Lateral movement plays a role in various attack types. Attackers navigate through a network after gaining initial access, seeking to expand their footprint and reach their primary objective. While it’s a tactic employed in many cyber-attacks, some types of threats rely heavily on lateral movement to be effective. There are four specific attack types and understanding how and why they use lateral movement to further their malicious agendas can best help to prevent them.

Ransomware attacks, now infamous for their disruptive power, often use lateral movement to maximize their impact. Once inside a network, it isn’t enough for ransomware to simply lock down a single machine; attackers aim to encrypt as many systems as possible. By navigating through the network and identifying critical servers or data stores, they can inflict maximum damage and, by extension, demand higher ransoms. This navigation is made possible through lateral movement. By exploiting vulnerabilities, using stolen credentials, or employing tools designed for network traversal, ransomware can proliferate through a network quickly, bringing businesses to their knees.

Data Exfiltration is about extracting sensitive data from a compromised network. For an attacker, it’s not just about gaining initial access, but also about reaching places where sensitive information resides. This could be customer databases, intellectual property, financial records, or any other valuable data. Lateral movement is crucial here; it enables attackers to traverse a network silently, avoiding detection while they locate and siphon off data. The longer they can move undetected, the more information they can steal, making the technique a cornerstone of many high-profile breaches.

Another type of attack is espionage which gathers intelligence without raising alarms. Whether driven by state-sponsored actors or corporate competitors, espionage operations require a deep dive into the target’s internal systems to fetch classified or proprietary information. Once they’ve infiltrated a network, attackers employ lateral movement to explore, often targeting specific departments, individuals, or systems that house the intelligence they seek. By maintaining a low profile and using sophisticated tools, these cyber spies can often maintain a presence in a network for months or even years, continually extracting information and sending it back to their handlers.

Botnets, networks of compromised computers controlled by a central entity, are a potent tool in a cybercriminal’s arsenal. But how do individual systems become part of a botnet? Lateral movement plays a role. Once an attacker has compromised a single system within a network, they can use it as a launching pad to infect others. This spreading technique allows a botnet operator to grow their network of ‘zombie’ computers rapidly. Whether these botnets are then used for Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks, further malware distribution, or other malicious activities, the key is in rapid proliferation, which lateral movement facilitates.

Detecting Lateral Movement

To effectively counteract lateral movement, one must first be adept at detecting it.

Understanding one’s attack surface is the foundational step in detecting lateral movement. Essentially, the attack surface comprises all the potential vulnerabilities an attacker might target to infiltrate your network or commandeer your data. This means every device, every software application, and every potential loophole. It’s crucial for organizations to regularly inventory all devices connected to the network, whether it’s the primary server or a seemingly innocuous IoT device. Equally important is cataloging software applications, especially those that can access the internet or manage sensitive data. Lastly, scanning and assessing for vulnerabilities will ensure that as threats evolve, so does your awareness of potential entry points.

A significant aspect of lateral movement revolves around manipulating permissions and identities. Once attackers breach a system, they usually aim to escalate their privileges or masquerade as a trusted user to delve deeper. Hence, monitoring user behavior becomes a vital tool in our arsenal against these threats. By establishing and understanding the typical behavioral baselines for users, anomalies can be swiftly detected. For instance, if an employee who usually accesses data within a specific department suddenly starts pulling sensitive files from elsewhere, it’s a red flag. Alongside this, organizations should audit user permissions frequently. The principle is simple: provide only the minimum necessary access to users based on their roles. This limits potential breach points. Implementing security measures like Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) also adds a layer of security. Even if cybercriminals manage to snatch credentials, MFA can halt their progress, potentially even unmasking their operation.

In the realm of detection, it’s all about pinpointing deviations from the expected. Hence, measuring anomalies and ensuring detection accuracies are critical. Through monitoring East-West network traffic, unusual data transfers can be flagged – especially those that occur during odd hours, between unrelated servers or systems or using unexpected ports. Concurrently, a thorough analysis of system and application logs can provide insights into potential breaches. Even if attackers attempt to alter or delete logs, any inconsistency or lapse can shine a light on their malicious activities. And while no detection mechanism can claim perfection, organizations should continuously strive to enhance the accuracy of their alerts. Whether it’s tweaking parameters to reduce false positives or refining processes to avoid overlooking genuine threats, the iterative fine-tuning of detection systems is a continuous journey.

While lateral movement is a formidable tool in a cyber attacker’s repertoire, it’s not insurmountable. Through understanding your network and focusing on anomaly detection, organizations can effectively counter lateral movement threats.

Steps to Detect Lateral Movement and Identify Data Breaches

Protecting your network is an ongoing task, and when it comes to lateral movement, prevention is undoubtedly better than cure:

Eliminate Blind Spots: Threat actors take advantage of encrypted communications, including in virtual machines and containers, to conceal their own activities. Ensure you have a solution, such as Gigamon Precryption™ and network detection and response (NDR) solutions, that can remove these blind spots and detect lateral movement over encrypted channels.

Proactively Hunt for Advanced Threats: Don’t wait for threats to reveal themselves. Put a proactive threat hunting framework into place to help seek them out.

Maintain Proper IT Hygiene: A well-organized and maintained IT environment is less prone to vulnerabilities.

Update Software Regularly: Patching software ensures that known vulnerabilities are addressed.

Maintain Strong Password Policy Management: Implement and enforce stringent password policies. Single Sign-On solutions enable users to easily login to multiple applications and websites and discourages password sharing.

Protecting Your Network with Gigamon

With all the difficulties cybersecurity can bring, having a trusted ally can make all the difference. Gigamon stands out as a leader in the deep observability market, offering solutions tailored to detect and identify lateral movement effectively. By partnering with Gigamon, businesses can fortify their digital boundaries, ensuring they remain resilient against the ever-innovative threats of the digital age.

**Written by Gigamon utilizing AI research.

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