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How to stop malicious privileged user attacks

Image of a laptop with access denied by code.
Image: Adobe

The 2022 report on threats from privileged users by the Pohnman Institute indicates that the number of privileged users increased by 44% in 2020, costing $ 15.38 million per attack. With the great vulnerability of privileged user attacks, avoiding security threats from malicious privileged users and the threats they pose to your organization are more critical than ever.

Who is the special user?

The privileged user may be an employee with an order to access the company’s sensitive information. Understanding what constitutes a privileged user can help organizations monitor and mitigate attacks by malicious privileged users. In most cases, privileged users are given greater access to the company’s source code, networks and other technical fields. These additional privileges undermine the sensitive data in the organization.

While it is important to provide privileged access to certain employees for successful management of an organization, care must be taken to define these privileges and provide adequate restrictions to areas where users are not authorized to access them.

Understanding attacks by privileged users

Privileged user attacks often take advantage of the vulnerabilities of the organization, which can be system misconfigurations, vulnerabilities, or arbitrary access controls. While standard users have limited access to sensitive files and system databases, privileged users – in addition to having exclusive access to these sensitive resources – are entitled to greater access.

Depending on their intentions, privileged users can move to gain control of most systems or access root and root access until they have complete control of the entire environment. When they do so, it will be easier for them to control the accounts of lower-level users and extend their privileges.

See: Mobile Device Security Policy (Tech Republic Premium)

The ways in which privileged user threats are published

1. credential exploitation

Credentials such as usernames and passwords are common ways to launch privilege attacks.

In this case, the attacker may try to find out the credentials of the system administrator because their accounts have more privileges to sensitive data and system files. Once users with malicious privilege gain control of credentials, it’s only a matter of time before they can use them.

2. Exploits of special vulnerability

Vulnerabilities are code, design, implementation, or configuration errors that can be used for malicious attacks. In other words, vulnerabilities that privileged users can exploit can affect the operating system, network protocols, applications, online applications, infrastructure and more.

Vulnerability does not guarantee that a privileged user’s attack will succeed; This only indicates the existence of risk.

3. Poorly configured systems

Another type of exploitation vulnerability is configuration issues.

Most configuration problems that privileged users can exploit usually come from poorly configured security settings. Some instances of poorly configured systems include using a default password for the system administrator, unpacking newly installed software with unconfirmed cloud storage and default security settings exposed to the Internet.

4. Malware

Special attackers with root access and advanced knowledge of viruses and malware can exploit some security loopholes in your company’s system configurations. Additionally, using malware such as Trojans and ransomware may be easier for special users because they have basic access to the system environment.

See: Password Breach: Why Pop Culture and Passwords Don’t Mix (Free PDF) (Tech Republic)

How can business organizations stop attacks by privileged users

There are several ways business organizations can prevent or mitigate the occurrence of privileged user attacks. Any company can use preventive measures, but mitigation depends on the type of attack.

1. Minimum privileged access

Many organizations make the mistake of giving employees access to privileges greater than their job demands. Unfortunately, this practice creates vulnerabilities that help malicious attacks by privileged users.

One way you can avoid this situation is to adopt the principles of least privileged access. This principle is a corporate security practice that supports limiting access to privileged users only to the data, system and application they need to succeed in their role.

Therefore, to implement this, all the roles in the organization and the required privileges must be audited by top security experts within the company. Doing this will help prevent situations that give users unnecessary access. Critical audit areas include system administrators, domain administrators, database administrators, payroll managers and root users.

2. Security policies should guide privileged users

Make sure the privileged user’s security policy is in place to guide what the privileged user can and cannot do. This policy should also include the consequences a user may face in violation of any security policies. Again, this policy should state what privileged users should do if they leave the company or change their role within the company.

The best practice in most organizations is to deduct every security privilege granted to users before they quit. In the event of a change in the role of the privileged user, revoke the privileges of the previous user and audit how the previous privileges were handled before assigning new roles to new roles.

3. Implement periodic security monitoring

Another way to reduce the threat of malicious privileged user attacks is to come up with a security monitoring team that periodically monitors how all privileged users use their access to perform their roles. This security monitoring exercise can be done manually by a team of top security experts or automated using security watch tools.

Additionally, make sure all employees are aware of this periodic security monitoring process but leave it to them without any specific date to avoid situations where malicious privileged users can cover their tracks.

For complete monitoring of privileges, focus on how users manage, destroy, create, and modify access. If you suspect any red flag in the entry, withdraw or tie access to the multifactor authentication system to prevent impending vulnerabilities.

4. Implement multi-factor authentication

Another way to stop the occurrence of malicious privileged user attacks in your organization is to deploy multi-factor authentication so that some user privileges require authentication before allowing user access. Although this is a snag in the workflow, it is better than leaving critical system access in the hands of malicious privileged users.

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