Over the past couple decades, the likelihood of any given organization suffering a cybersecurity breach has advanced from unlikely to probable. And, when a breach happens to your organization, it’s probable that one of your users will be a key contributor – either through intentional, nefarious actions, or more likely at the hands of an external attacker who exploits the user’s workstation and hijacks their privileges to gain network access.

The Attack Chain: Breaking Traditional Boundaries

The attack chain today frequently consists of three steps:
  1. Perimeter Hacking: The attacker exploits asset vulnerabilities via drive-by downloads, phishing, direct hacking, etc.
  2. Privilege Hacking and Escalation: The attacker highjacks privileges via exploits and phishing, or leverages stolen/cracked passwords.
  3. Lateral Movement & Exfiltration: The attacker leverages privileges, passwords and exploits to compromise other resources.
By default, most organizations focus primarily on the perimeter of their network, adopting a fortress mentality – build a big, thick wall and sit safely behind it. This tends to be a binary solution, the wall either works or it doesn’t. And, hackers are adept at finding the weak brick to gain entry, or, in the case of a rogue insider, simply starting inside the wall.

The One-Two Punch: Vulnerabilities and Privileges

In a recent survey conducted by BeyondTrust, almost 20% of respondents reported seeing attacks on their networks that combined vulnerability exploitation with the use of privilege to move laterally across their systems. When we see the Verizon Data Breach Investigation Report revealing that vulnerabilities discovered in the 1990s are still being exploited, it’s clear that we need to get better at vulnerability assessment and remediation. The risk is clearly compounded when we also consider that over 30% of organizations surveyed reported that it was common for users to be running as admins. While organizations are increasingly prioritizing vulnerabilities with known exploits, privileged access management needs to be put on equal footing. Implementing an effective privileged access management (PAM) solution is critical to protecting your environment from both external and internal cyberthreats. In our new white paper, “5 Steps to Being Privilege Ready in Today’s Threat Environment,” we discuss how to accomplish just that. For a condensed “how to” on privilege readiness, also be sure to check out the infographic at the end of this blog.

Why Privilege Readiness Is Essential Today

The risk from a user running as an administrator isn’t limited to the potential exploitation by a hacker, it also includes the impact of mistakes made by that user. A standard user opening a phishing email or inadvertently causing ransomware to run on their system is limited by the user’s access privileges. The user won’t be able to modify critical system files, write data too much of their hard disk, or stop monitoring and management tools. They also wo n’t be able to extract password hashes from the local system caches, eliminating the risk of pass-the-hash (PtH) – one of a hacker’s primary methods to move across the network. Over 80% of the known vulnerabilities in Windows require the logged in user to be an Administrator (or equivalent) to be useful to a hacker. Ransomware relies on users having access to lots of data directly to ensure the impact of the malware is large enough to make companies pay the ransom, a standard user account can be completely frustrating for the hackers. By controlling and limiting the amount of privilege that users have, you mitigate the impact from external attackers as well as from internal mistakes. Clicking on the wrong button, deleting the wrong file(s), or installing risky software (both for malware and license management) can cause untold delays and outages in your network.