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lateral movement techniques

Seven Common Lateral Movement Techniques

Inside the Attacker’s Playbook: Unmasking the most common lateral movement techniques  

Lateral movement techniques refer to the methods employed by attackers to move through a network, seeking to escalate privileges, access sensitive data, or achieve persistence. A common and insidious practice, making the most of the common lateral movement techniques is the bread and butter of any breach. 

Understanding these lateral movement techniques is vital for improving an organization’s security posture. Let’s explore some commonly used lateral movement strategies by hackers. 

  1. Exploiting Weak Passwords 

    Weak and reused passwords remain an all-too-common vulnerability. Once inside a network, attackers often try to crack the passwords of other accounts or machines to expand their reach. They might use lateral movement tools ranging from Mimikatz, which extracts credentials from memory, to traditional brute-force and social engineering methods.

    Actionable Steps:
    Enforce strong password policies.
    Encourage the use of password managers.
    Implement multi-factor authentication where possible.
    In-house cybersecurity training against spear phishing, etc.

  2. Pass the Hash

    In a Pass-the-Hash attack, hackers steal hashed user credentials instead of plaintext passwords. These hashes, stored within the Windows operating system, can be used to authenticate a user without knowing their actual password.

    Actionable Steps:
    Limit the use of privileged accounts.
    Regularly update and patch systems.
    Isolate critical systems and data.

  3. Credential Dumping

    Credential dumping involves extracting account login details stored in a system’s memory. Tools like Mimikatz or Windows Credential Editor are typically used. The dumped credentials are then used for lateral movement or privilege escalation.

    Actionable Steps:
    Monitor systems for unusual activity.
    Limit user privileges and restrict administrative credentials.
    Regularly change and randomize administrative passwords.

  4. Remote Services
    Bad Actors will often use remote services like Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) or Secure Shell (SSH) to move laterally. By compromising these services, attackers can execute commands, transfer files, or even seize control of other machines within the network.Actionable Steps:Regularly audit and secure remote services.
    Use multi-factor authentication for remote access.
    Monitor and log activity on remote services.
  5. Living off the Land

    In this approach, attackers use legitimate tools and processes already installed in the system to carry out malicious activities, making their actions harder to detect. Examples include PowerShell, Windows Management Instrumentation (WMI), and PsExec.

    Actionable Steps:
    Monitor and log the usage of system tools.
    Limit privileges and control access to administrative tools.
    Train IT teams to recognize unusual tool behavior.

  6. Lateral Movement via SMB Protocol

    The Server Message Block (SMB) protocol allows Windows machines to share resources like files and printers. However, attackers can exploit this to move laterally and even spread malware.

    Actionable Steps:
    Apply the principle of least privilege to shared resources.
    Use firewalls to restrict SMB traffic.
    Regularly patch and update systems.

  7. Man-in-the-Middle Attacks

    In this technique, attackers position themselves between two parties to intercept or manipulate data. Tools like Cain & Abel or Ettercap are often used for such attacks, allowing hackers to steal credentials or modify data in transit.

    Actionable Steps:
    Encrypt network traffic.
    Use Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) or Transport Layer Security (TLS) for data transmission.
    Regularly check for suspicious network activity.

Understanding these lateral movement techniques gives organizations a solid foundation to bolster their defenses. By implementing robust security measures and monitoring systems, organizations can hinder lateral movement, limit damage, and swiftly respond to threats.

As the saying goes: “Security is not a destination but a journey,” and every step a business takes in awareness and preparation is a massive stride toward a safer organization.  

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