What Is Lateral Movement in Cyber Security 2024 – The Cyber Express

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Imagine a thief dancing through your house, undetected, searching for your valuables. That’s exactly what happens in a cyberattack when hackers gain a foothold and begin “lateral movement.”

In Fact, 25% of data breaches involve lateral movement! Hackers can spend weeks or months silently hopping from system to system, stealing your data, installing ransomware, or wreaking havoc on your network. It’s a scary thought, but don’t panic! In this article, we’ll talk about what is lateral movement in cyber security, how it happens, what the stages are, and how to prevent it!

What Is Lateral Movement in Cyber Security?

Imagine a thief breaking into your house. They don’t just grab the first thing they see and flee. They creep around, searching for valuables in different rooms. This is precisely analogous to what happens in cyber security with lateral movement.

In the digital world, lateral movement refers to a cyberattacker’s strategy after gaining initial access to a network. Their objective isn’t to stay put; it’s to spread their reach and navigate the network undetected. Think of it as the attacker moving laterally across the network map, seeking out more critical systems and sensitive data.

This ability to move freely within a network allows attackers to achieve their ultimate goals, which can include:

  • Data Exfiltration: Stealing sensitive information like financial records, intellectual property, or personal data.
  • Disruption: Taking control of critical systems and causing operational downtime or outages.
  • Deployment of Ransomware: Encrypting important data and demanding a ransom for its decryption.

Lateral movement is a crucial tactic employed by Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs). Unlike basic cyberattacks that aim for quick gains, APTs are sophisticated and methodical. They establish persistence within a network, allowing them to move laterally and achieve their objectives over a longer period.

How Does Lateral Movement Work?

The success of lateral movement hinges on the attacker’s ability to blend in with legitimate network traffic. Here’s a breakdown of the typical workflow:

  1. Initial Foothold: The attacker exploits a vulnerability in a system (through phishing, malware, etc.) to gain a foothold within the network.
  2. Reconnaissance: Once inside, the attacker gathers information about the network layout, user accounts, and system permissions. This reconnaissance helps them identify potential targets and choose their next move.
  3. Credential Theft: Attackers often target privileged accounts with higher access levels. They might use various techniques like social engineering or brute-force attacks to steal usernames and passwords.
  4. Exploiting Vulnerabilities: Attackers may exploit unpatched vulnerabilities in operating systems or applications to elevate their privileges on compromised systems.
  5. Moving Laterally: Armed with stolen credentials or elevated privileges, the attacker can move laterally to other devices and servers within the network. This process continues until they reach their target or are detected.

What Are the Stages of Lateral Movement?

Lateral movement is a multi-step process attackers undertake to expand their foothold within a compromised network. Here’s a detailed breakdown of the stages involved:

  • Maintaining Access (Establishing Persistence): The initial compromise might be through a phishing email, a malware download, or an exploited vulnerability. However, the attacker’s primary concern becomes ensuring they can maintain access even if the compromised system is rebooted or security measures are implemented.

Common techniques used at this stage include:

  • Installing Backdoors: Backdoors are malicious programs that provide the attacker with a persistent remote access channel to the compromised system. These backdoors can be hidden within legitimate files or processes, making them difficult to detect.
  • Modifying System Configuration: Attackers might modify system configurations (startup scripts, registry entries) to ensure their backdoor or malicious code automatically launches whenever the system restarts.
  • Gaining Foothold in Active Directory: In a Windows domain environment, attackers might target Active Directory, the directory service that manages user accounts and permissions. By compromising user accounts or gaining control over domain controllers, they can gain widespread access throughout the network.
  • Lateral Movement Techniques: Once the attacker has established persistence, they can leverage various techniques to move laterally across the network. Here are some common methods:
    • Remote Access Tools: Legitimate remote access tools like RDP (Remote Desktop Protocol) or SSH (Secure Shell) can be misused by attackers to access other systems remotely. By exploiting weak passwords or misconfigurations, they can pivot from the initially compromised system to other devices.
    • Pass-the-Hash (PtH) Attacks: Attackers can steal password hashes (scrambled versions of passwords) from the compromised system. These hashes can then be used to authenticate to other systems if they share the same password hashing algorithm.
    • Exploiting Network Shares: Network shares are folders or drives on a network that are accessible to other users or groups. Attackers might exploit misconfigurations in network share permissions to gain access to sensitive data on other systems.
    • Lateral Phishing: Attackers may use information gleaned from the compromised system (email addresses, contact lists) to launch targeted phishing attacks against other users within the network. These phishing emails might trick users into revealing their credentials or clicking on malicious links that further compromise other systems.
  • Escalating Privileges: Gaining access to a standard user account might not be enough for the attacker to achieve their objectives. They often seek to escalate their privileges to gain access to more sensitive systems and data. Techniques used for privilege escalation include:
    • Exploiting Local Vulnerabilities: Attackers may exploit unpatched vulnerabilities in the operating system or applications running on the compromised system to elevate their privileges.
    • Lateral Privilege Escalation: Techniques like PtH attacks or exploiting misconfigured service accounts can be used to gain access to privileged accounts on other systems within the network.
    • Zero-Day Exploits: In some cases, attackers might leverage zero-day exploits – vulnerabilities unknown to software vendors – to escalate privileges.
  • Command and Control (C&C) Communication: Attackers establish communication channels with their C&C servers to receive instructions, upload stolen data, and maintain control over compromised systems. These C&C servers can be located anywhere in the world, making it challenging to track and disrupt them. Techniques used for C&C communication include:
    • DNS Tunneling: Attackers can hide their communication within seemingly legitimate DNS requests, making it difficult to detect by traditional security measures.
    • Steganography: Data can be hidden within images, videos, or other seemingly harmless files, allowing attackers to exfiltrate stolen information under the radar.
    • Peer-to-Peer (P2P) Networks: Attackers might leverage P2P networks to establish a decentralized C&C infrastructure, making it more resilient to takedowns.
  1. Actions on Objectives: Once attackers have reached their target systems or elevated their privileges to the desired level, they can initiate actions aligned with their overall goals. These actions may include:
  • Data Exfiltration: Stealing sensitive information like financial records, intellectual property, or personal data. Attackers might exfiltrate data through various channels, including the C&C server, cloud storage services, or removable media.
  • Disruption and Denial-of-Service (DoS) Attacks: Taking control of critical systems and causing operational disruptions or complete outages. This can cripple essential services and cause significant financial losses.
  • Ransomware Deployment: Encrypting important data and demanding a ransom for its decryption. Ransomware attacks have become a major threat in recent years, causing havoc for businesses and organizations.

How to Detect Lateral Movement in Cyber Security?

How to Detect Lateral Movement in Cyber Security

Early detection of lateral movement is crucial to minimize the damage caused by cyberattacks. Here are some methods to identify lateral movement within your network:

  • Security Information and Event Management (SIEM) Systems: These systems collect and analyze logs from various network devices and security tools, allowing you to identify suspicious activity patterns indicative of lateral movement.
  • User and Entity Behavior Analytics (UEBA): UEBA solutions monitor user and device activity within the network to detect anomalies that might suggest unauthorized access or lateral movement attempts.
  • Network Traffic Analysis: By closely monitoring network traffic flow and identifying unusual connections or access attempts to unauthorized resources, you can potentially detect lateral movement.
  • Endpoint Detection and Response (EDR) Tools: EDR solutions provide visibility into what’s happening on individual devices within the network. They can detect suspicious activities like unauthorized login attempts or privilege escalation, which could be signs of lateral movement.

Examples of Lateral Movement in Cyberattacks

Here are a couple of real-world examples to illustrate how lateral movement works in cyberattacks:

  • The NotPetya Attack (2017): This devastating ransomware attack exploited a vulnerability in Ukrainian tax accounting software. Attackers gained initial access through phishing emails and then used stolen credentials to move laterally across the network, ultimately deploying ransomware that crippled critical infrastructure.
  • The SolarWinds Supply Chain Attack (2020): Attackers compromised the SolarWinds Orion platform, a network monitoring software used by many organizations. This allowed them to insert malicious code into software updates that, when installed, provided them with a foothold within victim networks. Once inside, they could move laterally to access sensitive data and systems.

How to Prevent Lateral Movement in Cyber Security?

How to Prevent Lateral Movement in Cyber Security

Lateral movement thrives on weak network security practices. Here are some key strategies you can implement to fortify your defenses:

  • Principle of Least Privilege (POLP): Grant users only the minimum level of access required to perform their jobs. This minimizes the potential damage if an attacker compromises a user account.
  • Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA): Implement MFA for all user accounts, adding an extra layer of security beyond usernames and passwords. MFA requires a secondary verification factor, like a code from a mobile app, to access sensitive systems.
  • Application Whitelisting: Restrict access to only authorized applications on user devices. This prevents attackers from executing malicious software that could facilitate lateral movement.
  • Network Segmentation: Divide your network into smaller segments with restricted access between them. This limits the attacker’s ability to move freely across the entire network if they gain access to a single device.
  • Vulnerability Management: Regularly patch vulnerabilities in operating systems, applications, and network devices. Unpatched vulnerabilities are easy targets for attackers to exploit and gain a foothold within the network.
  • Endpoint Security Solutions: Deploy endpoint security solutions that monitor devices for suspicious activity and provide real-time protection against malware and other threats.
  • Regular Security Awareness Training: Train employees on cybersecurity best practices, including how to identify phishing attempts and avoid social engineering tactics. This can significantly reduce the risk of attackers gaining initial access through social engineering techniques.
  • Continuous Monitoring: Continuously monitor your network activity for suspicious behavior using security tools like SIEM and UEBA. This allows you to detect potential lateral movement attempts and take swift action.

What Do You Do If You Find Lateral Movement in Your Network?

Discovering lateral movement within your network can be a stressful situation. However, by following a structured approach, you can effectively contain the threat, minimize damage, and prevent future occurrences. Here’s a detailed breakdown of the steps to take: Isolate the Compromised System:

  • Immediate Action: Your top priority is to prevent the attacker from spreading laterally and compromising more systems. Isolate the infected system from the network as quickly as possible. This could involve:
    • Disabling the network adapter on the infected device.
    • Moving the device to a separate, isolated network segment.
    • Shutting down the system entirely if necessary (consider the criticality of the system and potential data loss).
  • Identify Additional Compromised Systems: While isolating the initial entry point, conduct a quick investigation to identify other potentially compromised systems. Utilize security tools like SIEM or EDR to look for signs of suspicious activity across the network.

Contain the Threat:

  • Stop Further Attacks: Once you’ve isolated the compromised system, take steps to prevent further lateral movement and potential data exfiltration. This may involve:
    • Disabling user accounts suspected of being compromised.
    • Changing passwords for all potentially affected accounts, enforcing strong password complexity requirements.
    • Blocking access to command-and-control servers used by the attacker to communicate and receive instructions.

Investigate the Incident:

  • Gather Evidence: Collect forensic evidence from the compromised system(s) for further analysis. This may include logs, memory dumps, and suspicious files. Utilize forensics tools to reconstruct the attacker’s actions and identify the attack vectors used.
  • Determine Scope of Breach: Investigate the extent of the attacker’s movement within the network. Identify what data may have been accessed, modified, or exfiltrated. Tools like network traffic analysis can be helpful in this stage.

Remediate the Issues:

  • Patch Vulnerabilities: Identify and patch vulnerabilities exploited by the attackers. This applies not just to the compromised system, but to all systems within the network to prevent similar attacks in the future.
  • Review Security Policies: Analyze your existing security policies and identify any weaknesses that might have facilitated lateral movement. Consider implementing stricter access controls, network segmentation, or multi-factor authentication (MFA) where appropriate.

Recover from the Attack:

  • System Restoration: If feasible, restore compromised systems from backups created before the attack. Ensure backups are secure and not accessible from compromised systems.
  • Data Recovery: If data was exfiltrated during the attack, attempt to recover it from backups. Consider involving data recovery specialists if necessary.
  • Improve Security Posture: This is an ongoing process. Leverage the findings from the investigation to enhance your overall security posture. Update security tools, conduct vulnerability assessments regularly, and continuously monitor network activity for suspicious behavior.

Report the Incident:

  • Internal Reporting: Inform relevant internal stakeholders about the incident, including the extent of the breach and potential impact. This helps ensure everyone is aware of the situation and can take appropriate precautions.
  • External Reporting: Depending on the severity of the attack, regulations in your industry, or the type of data compromised, you might be required to report the incident to relevant authorities like law enforcement or data protection agencies.

Key Takeaways

  • Lateral movement allows attackers to roam freely within your network after gaining initial access, increasing the risk of data breaches and system disruptions.
  • Early detection is critical; utilize security tools like SIEM, UEBA, and EDR to identify suspicious activity indicative of lateral movement.
  • Implement robust security practices like the principle of least privilege, multi-factor authentication, and network segmentation to make it difficult for attackers to move laterally.
  • If you suspect lateral movement, isolate compromised systems, contain the threat, investigate the incident, remediate vulnerabilities, and recover your network.


What is lateral movement vs vertical movement in cyber security?

Lateral movement involves the horizontal spread across a network once an initial breach is achieved, while vertical movement refers to escalating privileges within the network to gain deeper access.

What is the lateral movement path?

The lateral movement path is the route taken by an attacker within a network to move from one compromised system to another, often using legitimate credentials or exploiting vulnerabilities.

What is lateral movement in threat hunting?

Lateral movement in threat hunting refers to identifying and tracking an attacker’s movement within a network to understand the extent of a compromise and mitigate further damage.

What are lateral movement use cases?

Attackers commonly use lateral movement to gain access to sensitive data, escalate privileges, or spread malware within a network, highlighting the importance of detecting and preventing such movements.

What is lateral movement in Mitre ATT&CK?

In the Mitre ATT&CK framework, lateral movement is a tactic attackers use to move through a network after initial access, aiming to achieve their objectives.

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