5 Best Practices To Fend Off Privilege Escalation Attacks

These days, there are various emerging cyber security threats. Similar to other cyberattacks, privilege escalation leverages the security gaps within an organisation’s applications and network services, primarily those with poor access control systems. This type of attack occurs if threat actors manage to access even just one user account and the sensitive information it contains. They can then exploit their newly obtained privileges to execute administrative commands, disrupt IT systems, and steal private data. Apart from operational and financial losses, a successful attack also lends to a damaged reputation. As such, it is vital to be wary if your business could be vulnerable to privilege escalation and consider the following best practices to prevent it from ever happening.

Detecting Privilege Escalation Attacks

In most cases, privilege elevation detection involves identifying outliers, pattern recognition, and monitoring unusual activities. However, given their unpredictability, these attacks can be difficult to detect. If a threat actor gains credentials of any kind and network access at any point, they can maintain ongoing access as the system continues to recognize them as an authorized user.

It is difficult to estimate the average time needed to identify a privilege escalation incident since these attacks can take weeks and even months. The long dwell time means attackers can continue escalating their privileges and collecting data and other credentials.

Best Practices Against Privilege Escalation

As cyberattacks become increasingly sophisticated, organisations must ensure their security measures are sufficient to always be one step ahead of hackers.

1. Use MFA authorisation

OWASP’s Top 10 ranks broken authentication as the second most common vulnerability that leads to user account compromise. Threat actors generally break authentication by stealing login information via social engineering or brute force attacks or getting access to web session data. Thus, using multi-factor authentication and complex passwords is vital in better securing user accounts.

While it may seem intuitive to allocate separate levels of protection according to user levels of permissions, the key to preventing privilege escalation lies in lower-level user accounts. By completely blocking outsider access to these user accounts, privilege escalation cannot start in the first place.

2. Switch to automated patch management

As mentioned previously, privilege escalation occurs when hackers exploit software flaws or vulnerabilities in operating systems. This emphasises the importance of maintaining up-to-date systems as timely security patches keep your deployed software secure against these vulnerabilities. Having the latest security updates is among the best ways of significantly reducing the chances of attackers discovering vulnerabilities they can exploit.

Patch management is undoubtedly tiresome and often impossible to do if done manually. Automated patch management simplifies this task as it facilitates vulnerability management and covers a wide range of software vendors, from big names like Microsoft to other proprietary ones. This solution also handles most of the work in verifying patches, such as scanning for potential adware, testing, repackaging, and more so they can be deployed as soon as possible.

3. Adopt high-quality traffic filtering solutions

DNS-level threats are growing in frequency which can be mitigated by strong traffic filtering solutions. Cloud capabilities for such tools are also recommended, given the prevalence of cloud service adoption among businesses today. Modern traffic filtering solutions leverage technologies such as AI-based prevention, machine learning, cybercrime intelligence and power to detect and block hidden and emergent threats with extreme accuracy.

4. Conduct regular vulnerability scanning

It becomes significantly more challenging for intruders to gain access to a network if all of its infrastructure elements are frequently scanned for security weaknesses. Vulnerability scanning entails detecting unauthorised modifications, misconfigurations, insecure or unpatched systems and apps, and many other potential vulnerabilities so they can be addressed before threat actors can exploit them.

5. Use an automated Privileged Access Management tool

A robust privileged access management strategy serves as a good counterattack method against privilege escalation, which can only be truly efficient with the help of an automated tool that optimises monitoring and protecting privileged accounts from all threats. Privileged Access Management (PAM) lets organizations escalate or deescalate users’ rights when necessary and generates reports on incidents to help with investigations and audit requirements. Naturally, a PAM strategy must always be based on the principle of least privilege, which means restricting access to users, services, and applications to the bare minimum required to complete their tasks.


Given the severe consequences of a successful privilege escalation attack, organisations need to have a solid incident response plan at the ready. In the event such an attack occurs, isolating the affected account takes priority, then changing its passwords and ultimately disabled. A post-mortem investigation process is essential to determine the scope of the intrusion and which resources were affected.

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