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What is Lateral Movement?

What is lateral movement in the context of cybersecurity?

Lateral movement in cybersecurity refers to the tactics and techniques that threat actors use to progressively move through a network or system after gaining an initial foothold or access point. It involves unauthorized traversal of a network, aiming to access and compromise other systems, assets, or data within the network.

What is the primary goal of an attacker when they engage in lateral movement?

The primary goal of an attacker in lateral movement is to expand their control and presence within a network, moving laterally from one compromised system or account to another. This allows them to gather information, escalate privileges, and potentially reaching high-value assets or critical infrastructure components.

How does lateral movement differ from other types of cyberattacks or intrusions?

Lateral movement specifically focuses on the progression and exploration within a compromised network. It differs from initial intrusion or external attacks, which are often aimed at gaining the first entry point into a network. Lateral movement occurs after the initial breach and involves maneuvering within the network’s internal infrastructure.

What are some common techniques and tactics used for lateral movement within a network?

The common techniques used for lateral movement, as classified by MITRE includes:

  • Exploitation of Remote Services
  • Internal Spear-phishing
  • Lateral Tool Transfer
  • Remote Service Session Hijacking
  • Remote Services
  • Replication Through Removable Media
  • Software Deployment Tools
  • Taint Shared Content
  • Use Alternate Authentication Material

Are there any notable real-world examples of lateral movement attacks?

One notable real-world example is the WannaCry ransomware attack in 2017. After initial infection, WannaCry used an exploit called EternalBlue to spread laterally across vulnerable systems within networks, leading to a widespread ransomware outbreak.

How can organizations detect and identify lateral movement within their networks?

Organizations can detect and identify lateral movement through:

Monitoring and analyzing network traffic for unusual or unauthorized activities such as SMB file transfers of a suspicious file.

Monitoring logins for anomalies and suspicious activities such as failed login attempts or logins at unusual timings.

Conducting threat hunting exercises to proactively search for indicators of lateral movement.

Darktrace DETECT can help with identifying lateral movement within a network based on unusual activities.

What challenges do organizations face when trying to prevent or mitigate lateral movement attacks?

Challenges faced by organizations in preventing or mitigating lateral movement can include:

Complexity of modern networks: Large and interconnected networks can make it difficult to track lateral movement due to poor visibility.

Insider threats: Malicious insiders may have legitimate access to systems, making detection challenging.

Evolving tactics: Attackers continually develop new techniques to evade detection.

What role does endpoint security play in defending against lateral movement?

Endpoint security solutions, such as Endpoint Detection and Response (EDR) tools, play a crucial role in defending against lateral movement. They monitor and analyze endpoint activities, detect suspicious behavior, and respond to threats by isolating compromised systems or taking remedial actions.

While these solutions are important, EDR solutions primarily focus on individual endpoints. Given that they can detect suspicious activity on  endpoints, they may have limited visibility into lateral movement activities across the network. This lack of holistic visibility can make it challenging to detect lateral movement effectively.

Sophisticated attackers may use advanced evasion techniques to bypass or evade detection by EDR solutions. These techniques could include polymorphic malware, fileless attacks, or leveraging legitimate tools and protocols in unexpected ways, making it difficult for EDR solutions to detect lateral movement activities.

For these reasons, organizations and security leaders tend to prefer a "platform" approach to security solutions. A security platform like Darktrace's ActiveAI Security Platform uses a combination of AI techniques to understand your enterprise data in real time to deliver preventive and live threat detection, with targeted autonomous response to shut down known and novel threats without disrupting business operations. This approach is capable of stopping sophisticated threat actors that might use legitimate services or evasion tactics to avoid EDR tools.

What security solutions and strategies can organizations implement to effectively protect against lateral movement and limit its impact on their networks?

Solutions and strategies organizations can employ to mitigate lateral movement attacks include:

Network Segmentation: to limit lateral traversal within the network.

Authentication and Access Control: users should be authenticated to access resources and access controls can be implemented to limit access.

Regular Patch Management: Systems and software should be patched with the latest updates to reduce the exploitation of known vulnerabilities.

Security Awareness Training: Employees should be educated to recognize and report suspicious or unusual activity.

Incident Response Planning: The security team should be well prepared to respond to and contain lateral movement attempts.

Network Monitoring Tools: Can help to monitor and detect unusual behavior and activities which can indicate lateral movement.

Related glossary terms

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