Unchecked User Privileges

Chris Swagler | June 3rd, 2024


In the modern digital landscape, the risk of unauthorized access is a significant concern for businesses when it comes to unchecked user privileges. This threat is not only from external threat operators but also from internal users who might escalate their privileges without approval, causing potential data breaches. This article delves into understanding how users can elevate their privileges at any given moment and what measures organizations can take to mitigate this risk. An escalated privilege refers to the process where a user obtains more access rights or permissions than initially assigned. It is a noteworthy security concern because it can lead to unauthorized access to confidential data, changes in system configurations, and potential data breaches. In a worst-case scenario, escalated privileges can enable a malicious insider or a cybercriminal who has compromised a user’s account to wreak havoc within an organization.

In most organizations, the IT department holds the responsibility of assigning roles and privileges to users. However, the traditional practice of providing users with administrative privileges for the sake of convenience or to bypass the lengthy approval process poses a grave security threat. Unfortunately, this has been the case in many businesses, with numerous IT professionals admitting to bestowing unnecessary admin rights to avoid user complaints or streamline the workflow. The consequences of such a practice can be disastrous. It provides an open window for hackers to exploit and gain unauthorized access to sensitive data. For instance, an employee with unnecessary admin rights could fall for a phishing scam, inadvertently providing the attacker with escalated privileges. Consequently, the hacker can steal sensitive data, install malicious software, or even take control of the system.

It is crucial to understand that privilege escalation can occur in two ways. Horizontal privilege escalation happens when a user acquires the privileges of another user who has the same level of access. This type of escalation is usually seen in scenarios where users share their credentials with their peers. On the other hand, vertical privilege escalation, also known as privilege elevation, occurs when a user gains higher-level privileges, typically those of an administrator. This type of escalation is more detrimental as it can lead to more severe data breaches. So, what can businesses do to prevent privilege escalation and secure their systems? Firstly, organizations need to adopt the principle of least privilege (PoLP). This principle implies that users should be granted the minimum levels of access necessary to accomplish their tasks.

By limiting the privileges to what’s needed, businesses can significantly reduce the risk of both horizontal and vertical privilege escalation. Secondly, businesses should invest in advanced security solutions. These include tools that can detect unusual activity, such as sudden changes in user behavior, and alert the organization about potential threats. These solutions can also help organizations to monitor and control user access, further reducing the risk of privilege escalation. Additionally, businesses should regularly review and update their user access rights. This practice ensures that employees only have the access they need and that any unnecessary privileges are revoked timely. Regular audits of user activities can also help organizations identify suspicious behavior and take immediate action. Lastly, fostering a strong security culture is essential. This involves educating employees about the risks of sharing credentials and the importance of adhering to the company’s security policies.

In conclusion, unchecked user privileges pose a significant threat to an organization’s cybersecurity. By adopting the principle of least privilege, investing in advanced security solutions, regularly reviewing user access rights, and promoting a strong security culture, businesses can mitigate the risk of privilege escalation and ensure the security of their systems. At SpearTip, our cybersecurity gap analysis assesses the overall risk of your security architecture by determining security maturity based on the effectiveness of current security controls and providing recommendations on how to comply with modern security frameworks. This assessment takes a more granular approach to aligning with the NIST framework. A roadmap of recommendations is provided to schedule checkpoints for you to address any gaps discovered. The ShadowSpear Platform is an integrable security solution with the combined capabilities of SIEM, AV, MDR, anti-phishing tools, and much more. Our SOC provides your business with a team of experienced professionals, 24/7/365 monitoring and threat remediation, and a proven cybersecurity tool dedicated to ensuring threat actors never establish a foothold in your environment.

If your company is experiencing a breach, call our Security Operations Center at 833.997.7327 to speak directly with an engineer.


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