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What is Lateral Movement?

Attackers seldom breach a network at their final destination. They look for the easiest entry point—a forgotten endpoint device, a compromised admin password extracted from the dark web, or an unwitting employee who downloads and installs malware. Once they gain this initial foothold, they use lateral movement, typically with compromised or newly discovered admin accounts to reach their goal: Personally Identifiable Information (PII data), sensitive emails, strategic information, or anything else of value. They then use unprotected privileged access to steal this data and lock it away with ransomware.

In its simplest terms, lateral movement is when attackers take control of one asset within your network and then obtain privileged access to move around and exploit other assets.

Like the 2013 Target breach, attackers may island-hop into your network from a smaller, less protected third party’s network or they may gain access directly. Regardless, once they’re in, they move laterally across your network until they reach their target or land upon something else they know is valuable.

Think back to the SolarWinds attack. If anything positive came from that attack, it’s that even more people now realize how dangerous lateral movement can be— and why it’s important to build up a defense against it. A year later, hackers broke into Colonial Pipeline’s network via a compromised user name and password and threatened to seize control of the largest fuel pipeline in the US. As a result, Colonial Pipeline shut down the pipeline for the first time in its 57-year history. The company paid 75 bitcoin to ransom the network—almost $4.5 million.

Those attacks weren’t outliers. Attacks—and their severities—have been on the rise. During 2020, ransomware attacks rose 485% year-over-year. Many factors—the COVID-19 pandemic, growing numbers of work- from-home workers, and the commoditization of ransomware-as-a-service— drove this growth, but the fact remains: lateral movement attacks will remain part of our reality for a long time.

But, perhaps more importantly, this surge in ransomware attacks exposed the weak or reactive security practices that companies have cobbled together as they raced to navigate the technological—and social—change brought on by demand for digital transformation recently and the hard realities of the pandemic over
the last year. Many of these security tools and practices had to be rolled out too quickly. They have left gaps that allow attackers to gain access to and move laterally from one system to another with relative ease.

How does Lateral Movement work?

Network diagrams often show traffic entering and leaving your network on the Y axis and movement within your network on the X axis. That’s why capabilities moving laterally within your network often get called east-west traffic, while capabilities that cross your perimeters are called north-south traffic. It’s how recon malware downloads its weaponization, when it uses lateral movement to achieve a more advantageous vantage point on the network, for example.


After cyberattackers breach your perimeters—say by phishing login credentials from an unwitting, overly helpful employee—they use that access to steal even more privileged user credentials (or even just the hashes) with ever-higher levels of access, ultimately including privileged access.

By stealing the credentials (literally, the identities) of your employees, these cyber criminals move laterally across your network by logging into other accounts and machines, searching for other assets or credentials to steal. They become digital insiders and can stay for days, months, and years—dormant and lurking—until they’re ready to strike.

It is difficult to detect lateral movement attacks because these cybercriminals are masquerading as your trusted users and weaponizing their access. While the breach is occurring, it’s hard to even know it. The access and the account will probably be authorized, even though the bad-actor who is dialing in from miles, or continents, away isn’t.

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The Three Stages of Lateral Movement

When thieves strike your network, many follow familiar patterns while they exploit lateral movement to move across your systems.

These stages aren’t unlike the steps a tourist takes in a foreign country when they’re trying to keep a low profile and blend in before they venture out to explore. even attackers often follow the predictable patterns of human nature.


Thieves Start by Learning the "Lay of the Land"

Before they can, or even know how to, move laterally across your network, thieves start by laying low and learning about the setup and culture of your IT ecosystem. They watch your admin users, your devices. They map your network. They’re looking to learn from you, so they can learn how to attack you.

They want to understand:

  • Network hierarchies
  • Host naming conventions
  • The location of your payloads
  • Your operating systems
  • Access control systems

Like that timid tourist navigating a new country, they don’t want to make a wrong move that will expose them. They want to stay invisible.

These bad actors come armed with tools. Their tools tell them where you’ve put your firewalls and other end-point security. They learn what’s available to access, and where these assets are located in your network. They build their own or adapt open-source tools, but often, can purchase the entire stack of attack tools from dark web marketplaces.

During this reconnaissance phase, attackers lurk and gather data until they know enough about you, your admin users, and your ecosystem. Then, they move.


Thieves Then Steal Log-In Credentials


To do anything inside a network—valid or illicit—you need a user ID and a password that work. Lateral movement is no different. The lowest-tech way to steal a privileged user’s log-in credentials is still to ... just ask for them.


In phishing, cybercriminals prey on workers’ trusting natures, unfamiliarity, or even indifference to a technical- looking request. They may impersonate your tech support team and ask admin users to enter their ID and password into a fake portal, for example. Or, they call your admin user, impersonate a technical employee, and hoodwink the user to verify their identity by asking and getting their username and password. They only need one privileged user in your company to be helpful.

It happens more often than you think. December 2020 research from Security Boulevard shows that over 30% of phishing emails are opened and 12% are clicked through.


One step more complex than phishing, cybercriminals use typosquatting when they set up a fake website that impersonates a valid one. In the fake site’s URL, they may make a common misspelling to the true website’s name, move a letter, or add a period. Another common method is to add a hyphen and another word to a valid site name.

At the fake site, the cybercriminals appropriate the logos, branding, and color scheme of the target company to treat the unwitting visitor to a mimicked user experience.

Once they begin receiving hits, these cybercriminals steal credentials, payment card details, and other PII. After they gain access to a user’s credentials, the bad guys use lateral movement within the network or island-hop to reach the crown jewels.

Advanced Password-Stealing Scheme

Beyond phishing and typosquatting, cybercriminals can target the user login credentials of even the savviest users
on your network—without them ever knowing. Through a Pass-the-hash attack, cybercriminals steal the hashes of a user’s password without ever needing to learn the actual plaintext password. They then use the hashes to authenticate to a remote service or server.

Cybercriminals may also use tools like Mimikatz to pilfer passwords and user credentials stored in the memory of a machine or keylogging tools to steal a password as it’s being typed.


Intelligence Gathering

After they’ve gained the confidence to move around your network and have stolen the identity of one or more of your admin users,

Cybercriminals now set about searching out the assets they want. They move laterally along the paths that will take them there.

From the privileged user they’ve hacked, they move through your network, seeking new and successively more important locations and users. They hope to find the holy grail—privileged access that’s been left active and forgotten. They need that excess standing privilege to enter your network’s most protected areas.

Why is it so hard to detect Lateral Movement?

During the pandemic, we’ve seen the damage that lateral movement can cause, but it’s an attack strategy that has plagued the industry for years. Why? Think about it. As an industry, we’ve put so much effort into improving endpoint cyber security. Privileged access controls just haven’t kept up.

Cyber attackers exploit this lack of privileged access management as an easy attack vector. They see it as a simpler task to gain access through a compromised credential or privilege escalation and then ride that lateral movement across your network. That’s what happened in the SolarWinds attack. The cyber attackers gained access to the SolarWinds network and then installed malicious code into Orion, SolarWinds’ software system.

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When SolarWinds unknowingly pushed trojanized updates to this software out to as many as 33,000 customers, the malicious code went with it, replicating across cyberspace and granting the cyberattackers footholds in thousands of companies to move laterally. At last count, the fallout from the SolarWinds attack is estimated to have reached some 18,000 SolarWinds customers, ranging from well-known Fortune500 companies to high-level agencies within the US government.

Why are breaches like SolarWinds so hard to detect?

It’s hard to detect lateral movement within a network because it’s hard to determine who is driving that authorized credential and what their intent might be. It might just look like normal network traffic. SolarWinds customers certainly didn’t automatically red-flag their Orion updates as they arrived, even though they had been trojanized with malicious code sent by cyberattackers.

How to use Zero Trust to contain Lateral Movement

With the right tools, you can contain lateral movement and mitigate the damage cyberattackers can do to you and your environment.

Even if an intrusion occurs, lateral movement becomes much harder to accomplish if you’ve removed 24x7 administrator access with a Zero Trust access model. With a Zero Trust approach, any system must reverify your access and reestablish trust explicitly. That’s not always as easy as it sounds. That’s why excess standing privilege is so prevalent across today’s networks.

total instances of standing privilege (from systems successfully scanned)

broken down by server

broken down by workstation

average number by server

average number by workstation

When Remediant went into an American multinational corporation recently, we ran the Remediant SecureOne platform for an hour. We found more than 1.3 million instances of standing privilege.

That means that the company had 1.3 million risks for adversarial lateral movement.

It wasn’t that the company had neglected its Infosec responsibilities. They are publicly traded, are subject to SOX controls, and are under the scrutiny of one of the big audit firms.

If they can have undetected privileged access risk, there are likely other instances of standing privilege that remain hidden as well. Then, the question becomes: how much excess standing privilege do you have lurking in your system?

With Remediant SecureOne, you can discover and reduce standing privilege by 99% in just minutes. You can then add back privileged access on a Just-in-Time (JIT) basis with MFA to enable Zero Standing Privilege (ZSP) and implement Zero Trust security. This prevents lateral movement by providing the admin user access to only the right resource for a limited amount of time after which the JIT session is revoked.

Remediant SecureONE: For wherever you are on the path to better security

When we meet with organizations and they ask about Remediant SecureOne, we find that they either:

  • need a better security program after a breach
  • have already invested in security, but want to improve their program
  • have invested in security and have been breached, and wonder what else they can do

Whether you’re just starting out on improving your program, or you need to patch up holes after a breach, we designed Remediant SecureOne to help you by removing the excess standing privilege that accumulates on company networks over time.

An integral component of your information security strategy, Remediant SecureOne helps you stand up a Zero Trust model for administrator access via Just In Time Administration. Our approach removes the threat of lateral movement by eliminating the unnecessary, always-on/always-available admin rights.

We don’t replace eDR or traditional PAM. We work with them. When you use Remediant SecureOne with your existing PAM or endpoint security solution, you’ll find that we’re better together, improving your security controls across the board.

So, what does Remediant SecureOne offer that EDR and PAM don’t?

Complement EDRs

We didn’t create SecureOne to replace endpoint Detection & Response (EDR). We built SecureOne to complement EDR’s best qualities. SecureOne now integrates with CrowdStrike Falcon, Sentinel One, and VMware Carbon Black Cloud to deliver the industry’s first PAM and EDR solution. By integrating with endpoint security solutions, Remediant leverages the EDR agent to enable and revoke JIT access on remote Windows systems that are outside the corporate network and have no VPN connectivity.

While traditional EDR protects your endpoints by monitoring them, Remediant SecureOne brings you the confidence that comes when you know your standing privilege is managed and that the people using it are the people it was assigned to.

Where Traditional PAM Falls Short

Even with the best Privileged Access Management (PAM) solution, you can still fall victim to a breach. Traditional PAM manages credentials, not access. That’s because traditional PAM leaves lots of Just-in-Case administrative access (standing privilege) in place rather than accomplishing Zero Standing Privilege (ZSP) and establishing a Zero Trust model.

Traditional PAM doesn’t help customers eliminate the 24x7 standing access that attackers use once they compromise a privileged user. And, with SecureOne, we’ll help you create a process to stop excess standing privilege from coming back.

How to Fight Lateral Movement

Fight Lateral MovementPrivileged Access Management and Endpoint Detection & Response remain just as important today in the fight against Lateral Movement. But they’re just a part of the solution.

What happens when cyber criminals breach your endpoints? What happens when they find excess standing privilege that was granted according to PAM’s tenets but never shut off?

That’s where the Zero Standing Privilege (ZSP) you get by adopting Just In Time (JIT) and a Zero Trust approach with MFA comes in. By removing unnecessary standing privilege, attackers can’t use it to gain lateral movement across your system. They’re contained. They cause less damage. They’re stuck in the entryway they’ve found. You contain a minor incident so it doesn’t become a major breach.

With SecureOne, admin users still get the privileged access they need to do their jobs and keep their business going. Then, it’s shut off when the job is done. That access can’t be weaponized and used to move across your network.

With SecureOne in your arsenal of cybersecurity tools, you get protection that helps keep attackers out, but has a plan for when they break in too.

How Remediant Can Help

It’s hard to detect lateral movement—even while it’s happening. With the right controls and tools, however, you can prevent lateral movement from occurring or even stop a breach in progress. By implementing a Zero Trust privileged access model for your administrators, you remove the 24x7 admin rights that cyberattackers need to move laterally across your network. even if they hack into a trusted user’s privileged account, they will not be able to weaponize that access if it’s been turned off.

With a Zero Trust model, a credential’s access to endpoints gets revoked and cannot be used for lateral movement. When your privileged user needs that access again, Remediant SecureOne helps you provision that access back on a time-limited, principle-of-least-privilege basis.

SecureOne helps you implement a Zero Trust approach in your organization by:

  • Finding and removing privileged access
  • Reducing your attack surface
  • Implementing just-in-time access, going forward with MFA to enable ZSP
  • Protecting against lateral movement attacks such as ransomware

Adopting Zero Standing Privilege through a solution like Remediant SecureOne reduces an attacker’s ability to move laterally from endpoint to endpoint and removes a key tactic attackers use when they breach your network.

As organizations continue to pursue their digital transformation goals, Remediant SecureONE helps Security Architects and Security Managers implement and maintain critical privileged access controls through its agentless Zero Trust approach. Remediant SecureONE takes on the privileged access account sprawl present in many of today’s IT environments and helps control lateral movement attacks before they start.

Remediant SecureONE helps you implement Zero Standing Privilege and identify, address, and protect against excess privileged access through Just-In-Time administration.

Different than legacy PAM solutions, Remediant SecureONE detects and enforces Zero Standing Privilege at scale. Working together with other security platforms, Remediant SecureONE helps you achieve attack surface reduction and strengthen the controls protecting your organization against lateral movement attacks.

5.5 hours
to enable across all servers

reduction in risk

And it’s easy to implement. SecureOne takes just 5.5 hours to enable across all servers and delivers an improved Total Cost of Ownership with its 99% reduction in risk with no additional FTE requirements. Can we help you prevent lateral movement next?

Get a demonstration of Remediant SecureONE today!

See firsthand how to stop lateral movement & prevent ransomware attacks by removing 24x7 admin access.