What is Lateral Movement?

    Lateral movement refers to the manner in which cyber attackers seek to infiltrate networks after compromising an initial endpoint. It involves moving horizontally across different sections of a network in order to uncover exploitable vulnerabilities, escalate privileges, and gain unauthorized access to additional systems to achieve their objectives.

    What are the common stages of lateral movement?

    Once an adversary gains an initial foothold in their target’s network, they begin engaging in lateral movement. The typical stages of lateral movement include the following:

    • Reconnaissance & discovery: Attackers utilize network scanning to gather information about infrastructure, configurations, and accounts, so as to identify vulnerabilities that they can leverage.
    • Privilege Escalation: Attackers exploit identified vulnerabilities and misconfigurations to engage in credential dumping and obtain log-in details. They then use these credentials to elevate their privileges on the network, granting them the ability to perform restricted actions and access sensitive data assets.
    • Access: With privileges elevated, attacks seek to move across the network via compromised systems, further exploiting compromised credentials and vulnerabilities to escalate the attack and achieve their objectives, such as encrypting or exfiltrating or destroying data.

    What are the challenges in detecting and responding to lateral movement?

    Effectively detecting and responding to lateral movement can be challenging for a variety of reasons, chiefly the following: 

    • Attacker stealth: Experienced attackers are known to employ stealth techniques, such as fileless malware, DNS tunneling, and living-off-the-land (LOTL) tactics to evade detection and bypass traditional security controls.
    • Network complexity: When managing large, complex IT environments comprising a multitude of systems and sub-networks, security teams can find it difficult to effectively detect the kind of anomalous behavior that is indicative of lateral movement.
    • Attack speed: Once an attacker gains initial access to the network perimeter, lateral movementaccess can occur rapidly, leaving a small window of opportunity for detection and response before the attacker moves on and compromises other systems.

    How to detect and prevent lateral movement?

    There are a variety of different techniques and tools that organizations can implement to aid the detection and prevention of lateral movement:

    • Implement network segmentation: Security teams can use segmentation to compartmentalize a network into smaller sub-sections, allowing them to contain potential threats and limit attackers’ capacity for lateral movement.
    • Engage in continuous monitoring: Organizations can engage in continuous monitoring and deploy endpoint detection and response (EDR) tools to detect and respond to suspicious user activity, such as abnormal file access or privilege escalation, in real time.
    • Conduct vulnerability assessments: Security teams can leverage vulnerability scanning and regular vulnerability assessments to proactively identify and remediate vulnerabilities that could be exploited to facilitate lateral movement.
    • Implement least privilege access: Organizations can operate on the principle of least privilege, implementing Zero Trust principles in the construction and maintenance of network architecture. This ensures users are continuously verified and only granted the minimum privilege they require, which aids both the prevention and early detection of lateral movement.

    Fostering visibility and vigilance to defend against lateral movement

    Lateral movement represents a considerable threat to organizations, enabling cyber adversaries to spread across networks, escalate privileges, and jeopardize vital assets and resources. However, by understanding the process involved and taking proactive security measures to prevent, detect, and respond to lateral movement, organizations can mitigate risk and enhance their overall cybersecurity posture.

    Glossary related terms
    Automated Penetration Testing Automated Security Breach and Attack Simulation (BAS) External Attack Surface Management (EASM) Red Teaming Security Control Validation Security Validation Vulnerability Management