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preventing lateral movement

Preventing Lateral Movement 101

A step-by-step guide to preventing lateral movement and stopping breaches in their tracks 

Lateral movement within an organization’s network is a crippling threat to IT security. Once a cyber attacker has breached the first line of defense and gained initial access to a network, the journey has only just begun. The attacker will then often proceed to move laterally across the network, hunting for valuable data to exploit or systems to compromise. This post will delve into the strategies your IT security team can employ to prevent and stop lateral movement, enhancing your organization’s cybersecurity posture.  

Understanding Lateral Movement so we can Prevent it 

Before diving into prevention and mitigation strategies, let’s have a quick recap to fully understand what lateral movement entails.

Lateral movement is a strategy employed by cyber attackers, where they maneuver through a network after gaining initial access to explore additional resources and expand their foothold. This process involves gaining higher-level credentials, exploiting vulnerabilities, and blending in with regular network traffic to evade detection.

Here at TrueFort, we specialize in preventing network exploitation and in lateral movement protection – it’s why organizations, from the top five telecom providers to government agencies, come to us for their lateral movement defense. Bad actors may get in, but if they do they’re going nowhere. 

Lateral movement protection needs to address both north-south and east-west traffic. While many traditional security tools are designed to monitor and protect north-south traffic (i.e., preventing external threats), it’s equally critical to guard against threats moving in the east-west direction (i.e., inside threats and lateral movement) to provide truly comprehensive protection against ever-evolving modern cyberattacks. 

The Lateral Movement Playbook: A Preventive Approach  

To stop lateral movement effectively, we must first prevent it from happening. Here are the essential preventive measures your IT security team should implement: 

Strengthening User Credentials and Authentication

In many instances, lateral movement exploits weak or compromised user credentials. Strengthening these is, therefore, a crucial step in preventing lateral movement. 

  • Use strong, unique passwords: Encourage the use of complex, unique passwords that are difficult to crack. Implementing a robust password policy can assist in this endeavor.
  • Implement Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA): MFA adds an extra layer of protection, making it harder for attackers to gain access even if they have a user’s password. 

Network Segmentation and Microsegmentation  

Network segmentation and microsegmentation can significantly reduce the attack surface, limiting an attacker’s ability to move laterally.  

  • Segmentation: Divide your network into smaller, isolated segments to limit an attacker’s ability to move across your entire network. Ensure that each segment can only communicate with the others as necessary for business functions.
  • Microsegmentation: Take segmentation a step further by isolating individual workloads within each segment. By doing so, even if an attacker gains access to a particular workload, they won’t be able to move beyond it. This is the very core of what we do, and is proven zero trust best practices. 

Regular Patching and Updates 

Cyber attackers often exploit known vulnerabilities in software and systems. Keeping your software up to date and applying patches promptly can significantly reduce opportunities for lateral movement.  

  • Keep systems updated: Regularly update all software and systems to ensure you have the latest security enhancements. 
  • Patch promptly: I worked with an IT support company for a while, and our (very sensible) office mantra was “ABP: Always be patching.” When a security patch is released, apply it as soon as possible. The longer a system remains unpatched, the longer it remains vulnerable to exploitation. 

Detecting and Preventing Lateral Movement: A Proactive Stance  

Even with preventive lateral movement cyber security measures, it’s crucial to maintain vigilance for any signs of compromise. Here’s how you can detect and halt lateral movement in its tracks. 

Anomaly Detection  

Detecting abnormal behaviors in your network is key to identifying and stopping lateral movement.  

  • Visibility is key: Knowing what applications and software are talking to what, where, and how is vital. It’s important to know what’s normal behavior so that any deviation from an approved benchmark can be flagged for action.
  • Continuous monitoring: Real-time cybersecurity monitoring of network traffic, user behavior, and system configurations is essential because it allows for the immediate detection of any suspicious activities and response to potential threats or breaches, thereby minimizing the potential damage and preventing attackers from further infiltrating or moving laterally within the network.
  • Employ AI and machine learning: Advanced AI and machine learning tools can help identify abnormal behavior patterns that may indicate lateral movement.  

Incident Response 

Having an effective incident response plan in place is crucial to minimize the damage if lateral movement is detected.  

  • Develop a plan: Create a comprehensive cybersecurity risk assessment and incident response plan that includes identifying the breach, containing the damage, eradicating the threat, and recovering from the incident.
  • Regular testing and updating: Regularly test and update your incident response plan to ensure its effectiveness in the face of evolving cyber threats. 

Regular Audits and Training 

Regular audits of your security measures and continuous training for your staff can significantly contribute to stopping lateral movement.  

  • Perform regular audits: Regularly audit your network security measures to identify any potential weaknesses that could be exploited for lateral movement.
  • Training and awareness: Train your staff to recognize the signs of a security breach, follow best practices for preventing lateral movement, and constantly update and reinforce that training. 

So, while preventing and stopping lateral movement might seem daunting, it’s a crucial part of any serious cybersecurity strategy and of business continuity. Implementing these strategies can go a long way toward safeguarding your network against lateral movement and strengthening your organization’s overall cybersecurity posture.   

Remember, in the world of cybersecurity, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

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