Cybersecurity encompasses hundreds of concepts. While you might be familiar with some of these concepts privilege escalation is a related concept that often goes unnoticed. Nonetheless, it can pose a serious risk to your business and its information technology (IT) infrastructure. Here’s everything you need to know about privilege escalation.

What Is Privilege Escalation?

Privilege escalation is a type of cyber threat that involves an authorized user gaining elevated permissions or privileges. The unauthorized user essentially “escalates” his or her privileges. With higher privilege levels, unauthorized users can perform malicious activities like stealing data or deploying malware.

How Privilege Escalation Works

Many networks, systems and machines assign privileges to their users. Low-level users, for instance, may only be able to view data. Medium-level users may be able to view and edit certain types of data. Admin-level users, on the other hand, have may unrestricted access to the data. Privilege escalation happens when an unauthorized user gains — by some illicit means — elevated permissions or privileges.

Vertical vs Horizontal Privilege Escalation

Most forms of privilege escalation fall under one of two categories: vertical or horizontal. Vertical privilege escalation is characterized by a lower-level user gaining access to functions or permissions reserved for higher-level users. Horizontal privilege escalation, in comparison, is characterized by a normal user accessing functions or permissions reserved for other normal users.

Most privilege escalation attacks are vertical. They involve users elevating their privilege levels and, thus, performing tasks they shouldn’t otherwise be able to perform. Horizontal privilege escalation attacks are different in the sense that they don’t actually involve elevated privilege levels. Instead, users access functions or permissions that are reserved for other users with the same privilege levels.

Mitigation Strategies for Privilege Escalation

There are several things you can do to mitigate the threat of privilege escalation attacks. Implementing robust access controls, for instance, can deter these attacks. Make sure all users only have access to the minimum functions and permissions that they need.

You should also enforce strong authentication processes. Don’t rely entirely on passwords. Instead, use multifactor authentication (MFA). MFA will protect the integrity of users and their respective privilege levels.

Another mitigation strategy for privilege escalation is to regularly monitor and audit your business’s IT infrastructure. You can use security software to automatically monitor your business’s IT infrastructure in real time. If a user’s privilege levels suddenly change, the security software may flag the event.