Privilege Escalation

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Do you know what privilege escalation is? Could you correctly answer this sample Security+ question?

Privilege Escalation Question

Your organization was recently attacked and forensic analysts are investigating the attack. They have created the following forensic diagram of the network.

Network diagram

Analysts are focused on several specific entries in the database server security log.

Assuming the analysts are correct, what is the MOST likely description of this attack?

A. Password attack

B. Pharming attack

C. Privilege escalation attack

D. Phishing attack

Based on the title of the post, I’m betting you know the correct answer is privilege escalation. However, the actual questions on the Security+ exam aren’t labeled so obviously. In order to answer them, you need to know why the correct answer is correct, and why the incorrect answers are incorrect.

More, if you know how to eliminate incorrect answers, you can discover the correct answer even if it’s not very familiar to you.

Understanding Privilege Escalation

Privilege escalation occurs when a user or process accesses elevated rights and permissions. When attackers first compromise a system, they often have minimal privileges. However, privilege escalation tactics allow them to get more and more privileges.

For example, imagine hacker Harry is attacking a web server over the Internet. He might only have guest or anonymous access to the system initially, and he can’t do much with this access. He uses different techniques during the attack to gain more and more privileges. If he can escalate his privileges high enough, he will have full administrative or root access to the system.

Malware frequently tries to gain access to elevated privileges through the logged-on user. For example, if a user logs on with administrative privileges, the malware can elevate its privileges through the user account.

Many organizations require administrators to have two accounts. They use one account for regular use and one for administrative use. The only time they would log on with the administrator account is when they are performing administrative work. This reduces the time the administrative account is in use, and reduces the potential for privilege escalation if the user’s system is infected with malware.

Remember this

A privilege escalation attack allows an attacker to access elevated rights and permissions. Requiring administrators to use two accounts, one with administrator privileges and another with regular user privileges, helps prevent privilege escalation attacks.

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Privilege Escalation and APTs

An advanced persistent threat (APT) is a group that has both the capability and intent to launch sophisticated and targeted attacks. There is a lot of evidence that they exist and are active, and privilege escalation is a core method of establishing a foothold within a network.

A lot of documentation indicates that many APTs start with a phishing attack. They try to lure unsuspecting users into opening an attachment or clicking a malicious link. The attachment installs malware onto the users system. Similarly, the malicious link attempts a drive-by download to install malware.

If the phishing attack is successful, the malware establishes a backdoor on the user’s system. The attacker than uses this backdoor to perform reconnaissance on the user’s system and network by embedding commands in what looks like harmless web pages.

Attackers systematically look for and exploit vulnerabilities gaining more and more privileges on the network. Of course, if a user is logged on as an administrator, this makes it much easier gain elevated privileges.


Privilege Escalation Answer

Q. Your organization was recently attacked and forensic analysts are investigating the attack. They have created the following forensic diagram of the network.

Network diagram

Analysts are focused on several specific entries in the database server security log.

Assuming the analysts are correct, what is the MOST likely description of this attack?

A. Password attack

B. Pharming attack

C. Privilege escalation attack

D. Phishing attack

Answer: C. Based on the available information including the log entries, the database server most likely suffered a privilege escalation attack.

  • The second log entry (Event ID 4672) indicates a user logged on using administrator special privileges.
  • The fifth log entry (Event ID 4648) indicates a user logged on interactively (it is accompanied with two logon entries (Event IDs 4624) in Windows systems. This includes logging onto the server locally or remotely. Once logged on, the user can run and interact with applications.
  • The sixth log entry (Event ID 4673) indicates a user attempted to exercise a special privilege but failed.
  • The seventh log entry (Event ID 4673) indicates a user attempted to exercise a special privilege and succeeded.

Admittedly, an actual log would include thousands of entries. However, on an exam where you only have about a minute to answer any question, CompTIA doesn’t expect you to scan through thousands of entries.

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You'll see a graphic explaining what you might be required to do on the actual exam to match different types of attacks with the name of the attack type. You'll then have five questions that test your knowledge and ability to correctly answer the questions. This is similar to Set 2 but expands on the possibilities. The set also includes a link to a page showing the end solution for the overall performance based question simulation.

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If you know what the other answers are, you can easily eliminate them and still come to the same correct answer.

It’s unlikely this is a password attack. An online password attack would have multiple logons with Audit Failure instead of Audit Success. Nothing indicates an offline password attack occurred.

A pharming attack redirects a web site’s traffic to another web site, but this isn’t indicated in the scenario at all.

While this might have started as a phishing attack, the scenario doesn’t mention email at all.

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