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What to Know About Privilege Escalation Attacks (and How to Prevent Them)

Mark Lukehart

young busy female specialist in cybersecurity

Privilege escalation attacks are a type of cyberattack designed to gain access to a specific account or system with elevated privileges. These attacks take advantage of vulnerabilities in the target system to access sensitive data or cause structural damage.

Because these attacks have the potential to be so damaging, organizations should take proactive steps to prevent them. Let’s take a closer look at what privilege escalation attacks are, why they happen, and how to stop them in the future.

Key Takeaways

  • Privilege escalation is when a user increases their access to a device or system, often promoting themselves to the administrator level.
  • Many hackers use privilege escalation to steal sensitive data or cause internal damage to the target system.
  • To increase their privileges, hackers use techniques like social engineering and malware. They’ll also exploit existing vulnerabilities in your system.
  • Constant system monitoring, employee training, and a robust access policy are all necessary to prevent privilege escalation attacks.

What is Privilege Escalation?

Privilege escalation is a process in which a user gains access to an operating system or network with more permissions or privileges than intended. With these elevated privileges, attackers are able to access files, change settings, and take other actions without authorization from the proper parties.

If this malicious activity isn’t caught in time, it could cause long-term damage to your systems, compromise both employee and customer privacy, and expose your organization’s intellectual property. You’ll need a robust cybersecurity strategy in order to keep your access controls secure.

Types of Permissions

There are two different types of permissions that hackers could exploit, depending on how your system is configured. The first is user permissions. As the name implies, these permissions are designed for specific people or groups of people using a system.

These permissions will specify which files, directories, and applications the user account has access to. They are usually assigned based on the user’s role within the company and the type of work they’re doing.

System permissions could also be exploited during a privilege escalation attack. These permissions are much broader than user permissions.

In most cases, only administrator accounts are able to change system privileges. Once hackers gain access to system privileges, they have the ability to change network configurations and cause serious damage.

Types of Attacks

There are also two different types of privilege escalation attacks: horizontal privilege escalation and vertical privilege escalation.

Horizontal privilege escalation is the process of taking over another user’s account. With this type of privilege escalation, hackers usually focus on low-level accounts that are highly vulnerable.

Vertical privilege escalation is when a hacker increases the level of access for an account they already have. This type of privilege escalation often requires more sophisticated secondary attacks to reach higher level access controls.

Motivation Behind Privilege Escalation Attacks

Privilege escalation attacks are often financially motivated. Many organizations collect and store large volumes of valuable data, but keep it protected by security controls. By exploiting system vulnerabilities and gaining access to administrator privileges, hackers can access this data.

Many cybercriminals will then either hold the data for ransom or sell it to other illicit organizations. In fact, 86% of all data breaches are motivated by money.

Money is a very common motivator for privilege escalation attacks, but it isn’t the only one. Some hackers will conduct these attacks on high-profile targets as part of a broader ideological or political statement.

Privilege escalation is often just one piece of the puzzle in a complex cyberattack. For example, a hacker might use privileged accounts to access consumer contact information, which they could then use to launch a large-scale phishing scam.

In most cases, privilege escalation attacks come from outside cybercriminals. However, they can also come from employees inside your organization. When this happens, it is usually a form of retaliation by a disgruntled employee.

Common Attack Vectors

Hackers use a variety of privilege escalation techniques to achieve their goals and enter protected systems. Prior to their attack, they will assess their target system for security vulnerabilities and determine the most viable strategy.

Understanding these attack vectors is essential when monitoring for threats and developing your cybersecurity strategy. Here are four of the most common privilege escalation attack vectors to watch out for.

Exploiting Vulnerabilities

Every system has its flaws, and cybercriminals are always on the lookout for vulnerabilities to exploit. They will look for misconfigurations or a lack of access control within their target system, its applications, or even its hardware.

After identifying a vulnerability, the hacker will leverage it to increase their level of access. For example, a buffer overflow could be manipulated to execute a specific piece of code for privilege elevation. The hacker might also look for vulnerabilities in unpatched software programs to increase their software access.

These are just two examples of ways that hackers exploit system vulnerabilities to access higher privileges. There are endless possible system vulnerabilities, which is why constant monitoring and regular updates are necessary to keep your system safe.

Social Engineering

Social engineering is a set of manipulative techniques that take advantage of inconsistencies in human behavior. With social engineering, hackers use manipulative techniques to convince account holders to reveal sensitive information or even to change the target access management system.

There are many ways that hackers use social engineering to manipulate their targets. They often pose as a representative from trusted software platforms or even a trusted coworker to ask for login details. Many hackers will also create elaborate stories in an attempt to build trust with their targets, which is called pretexting.

Social engineering can also happen in person, which is called tailgating. In tailgating attacks, the hacker will sneak through doors or even pose as someone else to gain access to off-limits areas. Once in these areas, they will use technology to change the system’s root privileges.

By exploiting human psychology, attackers are able to break into systems without even touching a piece of code. The best way to stop social engineering attacks is by training your employees. When your team knows the signs of social engineering, they will be more likely to stop it in its tracks.

Malware and Phishing

Cybercriminals often use phishing and malware to achieve their end goals. These strategies are often used with the end goal of privilege escalation.

Malicious software, or malware, is malicious software designed to monitor and potentially damage the target system. Malware can be configured specifically with the goal of privilege escalation. Ransomware, a type of malware that steals valuable data in an attempt to extort money, is a common type of malware.

Phishing, on the other hand, is a form of social engineering designed to deceive victims into sharing their login credentials. Phishing often comes in the form of a seemingly benign email where the sender poses as a trusted contact. It’s also by far the most commonly reported cybercrime in the US, with over 300,000 individuals affected in 2022 alone.

Insider Threats

Many organizations underestimate just how much damage their employees have the potential to do. Insider threats start within your system, which makes them difficult to identify and stop. 

In some cases, this happens as a result of malicious intent. For example, a disgruntled employee may use their access to steal data.

However, insider privilege escalation attacks can also happen as a result of carelessness or lack of training. Employees, contractors, and business partners with access to your system may misuse their privileges or accidentally share sensitive information with third parties.

Proper employee training and privilege management help to prevent these insider threats from escalating. It’s also crucial for organizations to remove privileges for terminated employees or business partners immediately to prevent unauthorized access.

Understanding the Stages of a Privilege Escalation Attack

Privilege escalation attacks don’t happen instantaneously. Hijacking accounts and gaining privileged access takes time. Here are the typical stages of a privilege escalation attack to help you prepare.

Initial Access

The first step in a privilege escalation attack happens when a threat actor secures a foothold within the system. This happens in a variety of ways, whether it’s successfully obtaining login details via a phishing attack, exploiting system misconfigurations, or finding a backdoor in target web applications.

At this point, the hacker has access to the system, but it is limited. They will use this limited access to move on to the next step and plan a longer-term privilege escalation strategy.


Once inside, the hacker will gather as much information as possible about the digital environment. This phase is called enumeration, and it gives the hacker an opportunity to identify potential targets and map the broader network before taking further action.

At this point, the hacker will identify other associated user accounts and analyze the system configuration. They will also assess the applications they have access to and how they can use them to gain high-level privileges. Hackers often use tools like Nmap and Netcat to do this.


Once they’ve gathered information, the hacker will exploit vulnerabilities throughout the system. These vulnerabilities could include unpatched software, insecure protocols, or weak passwords. With this, the attacker gains further access to the system and can start to cause damage.

Privilege Escalation

Now that the hacker has an “in” with their target system, they will use it to elevate their privileges. In most cases, they will aim for administrative or root privileges, which will allow them to access all of the data available in the system.


Once the exploitation is complete, the attacker will use their newly elevated access to achieve their end goals. This could be stealing sensitive data or launching further attacks to damage the system even more. The attacker may also disable existing security systems or create their own backdoors to ensure that they retain access to the system.

Mitigation Strategies

Privilege escalation attacks pose a very real threat to your organization’s data. However, there are many mitigation strategies your security team can use to keep these attacks from happening.

Least Privilege Principle

The principle of least privilege states that each user should only have access to the parts of the system they need to complete their designated tasks. Most organizations already apply this principle to every standard user. However, it’s also important to apply it to privileged users. Limiting privileges for everyone will minimize possible attack vectors if an account is compromised.

Regularly Patching and Updating Systems

Many hackers launch their privilege escalation attacks by finding vulnerabilities in outdated systems and applications. To prevent this from happening, implement updates and patches for your systems as soon as they are available. Schedule a designated time each month for updates to ensure that they don’t fall by the wayside.

Strong Authentication and Authorization Policies

A strong username and password may not be enough anymore to protect your employee accounts. 81% of company data breaches were caused by weak passwords. You’ll need to implement a stronger authentication policy to protect your data and prevent credential theft.

One of the most effective ways to do this is through multi-factor authentication. This practice requires at least two forms of identity verification in order to access your account. These are usually a password and a secondary code sent to an external device.

Monitoring and Detection

24/7 monitoring is the best way to stop attackers in their tracks. Implement automatic monitoring tools across your system to notify you when suspicious behavior arises. If you’re not sure where to start with system monitoring, consider working with a third-party IT provider to do so.

Employee Training and Awareness

There’s plenty that your employees can do to prevent privilege escalation attacks from happening, but they need to know what to look for. Provide regular employee training so your team knows how to spot the signs of phishing, malware, and insider threats. Additionally, your employees should know how to set strong passwords and keep their devices protected while working remotely.

How a Managed Service Provider Can Help

Taking steps to prevent privilege escalation attacks is essential for any business. However, small businesses often don’t have the resources to handle these technical challenges on their own.

This is where managed service providers can help. Managed service providers (MSPs) are third-party IT experts who will handle your cybersecurity monitoring and strategy for you. An MSP will work with your in-house team to manage risk, monitor your systems, and develop an authentication policy that works.