What is Privilege Escalation in Cybersecurity? Definition, Types, & Prevention

Written By Sambita Panigrahy  
Anuraag Singh
Approved By Anuraag Singh 
Published On November 1st, 2023
Reading Time 7 Minutes Reading

Organizations are more vulnerable to cyberattacks as they rely more on remote work options and bigger cloud systems. Attacks involving privilege escalation are a frequent and sophisticated danger, and they can affect any network.

Given that every asset could serve as a point of entry for hackers, organizations need a variety of protection tactics. Thus, here we are going to understand the process to prevent and protect your assets from privilege escalation attacks.

Before moving ahead with the prevention techniques, let’s know what privilege escalation is.

Privilege Escalation Definition

A cyberattack known as a “privilege escalation attack” seeks to gain unauthorized access to a system having privileged access. Attackers profit from user error, poor design, and mistakes in the operating system or online application. This has a direct connection to lateral movement, a cyberattacker’s tactic for deeper network penetration in search of valuable assets.

Internal or external use with unauthorized system privileges is the end outcome. Depending on the size of the breach, cybercriminals may cause just minimal or significant harm. This might be a straightforward illegal email or a massive ransomware attack. Further, these attacks may cause Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs) to operating systems if they go undiscovered.

How Does Hacker Carry Out Privilege Escalation Attack & What’s Its Aim?

Adversaries typically begin privilege escalation with a social engineering strategy that depends on persuading people to act in a certain way. The most fundamental is phishing, which refers to electronic messages with dangerous links. Once a user’s account has been compromised, the entire network is at risk.

Attackers look for gaps in organizational protections that let them get initial access or fundamental privileges by stealing credentials. Exploiting such vulnerabilities permits additionally enhanced privilege, as will be detailed in more detail later. Therefore, an effective approach must incorporate methods for early identification, prevention, and quick response.

The fact that many businesses today pay little attention to permissions is a major factor in the success of privilege escalation assaults. As a result, current security measures frequently fall short of being able to stop these attacks. And, then they start by acquiring access to an employee’s account. 

The attacker’s next move is to grant that account access it shouldn’t have by avoiding legitimate authorization channels. Accessing private information, interfering with business activities, and setting up backdoors to provide the attacker access later are all common objectives of these assaults.

Different Privilege Escalation Attack Techniques

It is possible to carry out a privilege escalation technique locally or remotely. On-site local privilege escalation starts, frequently by a member of the organization. Escalation of a remote situation can start practically anywhere. Either strategy can work for a determined attacker.

There are two main categories for attacks:

An attacker can obtain higher-level access to a regular user account with fewer rights by engaging in horizontal privilege escalation (also known as account takeover). If an employee’s username and password are stolen, the intruder will have access to their email, files, and any web applications or subnetworks they are a part of, as well as their email. After gaining this advantage, the attacker can migrate horizontally over the network and increase the scope of their privileged access to other privileged accounts.

Similar to horizontal privilege escalation, vertical privilege escalation starts with an attacker acquiring access to a lower-privilege account and then attempting to escalate vertically to a higher-privilege account. For instance, they may target users with administrators or root access rights, such as system administrators or IT support staff. It is possible to hack into other accounts using a privileged account.

Apart from that there are other types of privilege escalation attacks that exist. Let’s have a look at the same.

Other Kinds of Privilege Escalation/Social Engineering Attacks

  • Hijacking a URL or making a bogus URL to get clicks is known as cybersquatting or typosquatting. Attackers may use a bogus top-level domain (such as Sample.co,.cm, or.org in place of.com) or discreetly misspell a name (e.g., Sampe.com, Sarnple.com, or Samp1e.com).
  • Password exposure: Users will occasionally voluntarily share their passwords with friends or coworkers. Most frequently, they act inadvertently. They can have passwords that are simple to guess or leave their passwords written down in plain sight at their workspaces.
  • Users frequently forget passwords, which exposes security questions. They frequently have to respond to security questions to generate new passwords when they do. The solutions to security questions are now more accessible than ever thanks to social media.
  • Vishing, often known as “voice phishing,” is the practice of impersonating an authoritative figure over the phone to fool a victim into divulging sensitive information or downloading malware.
  • Techniques that rely on technology assistance may likewise be employed by enemies. The most frequent assaults are brute force attacks and credential dumping, however, there are many others:
  • Brute force attacks: These systematically automate password guessing and are particularly potent in systems with lax password restrictions.
  • Attacks known as “credential dumps” allow hackers to break into a network without authorization and take several user credentials at once.
  • Shoulder surfing: This refers to taking someone else’s login information through an insecure network or by breaking into their equipment.
  • Dictionary attacks: Using the length and requirements of a network, malicious parties join popular words to create potential passwords.
  • Password spraying is an attack method that makes use of automated attempts to open numerous accounts simultaneously using a few widely used passwords, such as “password,” “qwerty,” “123456,” and similar ones.
  • Attackers attempt to utilize credentials from one system on another in a practice known as “credential stuffing.” This is effective since so many users duplicate passwords on several networks.

How Can You Protect Yourself from Privilege Escalation?

Here are some tips you can follow to prevent and protect yourself from privilege escalation.

  • Remove old or vulnerable systems and quickly apply fixes.
  • Use the right remote desktop protocols and multifactor authentication.
  • Defend against typical malware types.
  • Look for proof of breaches on the dark web.
  • Perform perpetual penetration testing
  • Prevent alert fatigue caused by security solutions that generate too many false positives or alerts without a prioritized method of response.
  • Automate attachment sandboxing and email URL filtering.


Q- What is Privilege Escalation?

The act of obtaining higher levels of access or privileges than those that were initially granted through illegal means to a system or application is known as privilege escalation. This makes it possible for an attacker to carry out tasks that are normally reserved for privileged users.

Q- Why do attackers try this attack?

In order to run malicious code with greater privileges, access sensitive data, and obtain more control over a system, attackers try to escalate privileges. For a lot of cyberattacks, it’s an essential phase in the assault chain.

Q- What types of privilege escalation are there?

The two primary forms are horizontal (obtaining access to another user’s privileges) and vertical (raising one’s own privileges).

Q- Which techniques are frequently used to escalate privileges?

Privilege escalation techniques that are frequently used include manipulating users’ thoughts, software vulnerability exploitation, misuse of misconfigurations, exploiting weak or default passwords, and persuading users into executing malicious code.

Q- How can attacks related to privilege escalation be stopped?

Applying the least privilege principle, maintaining software and system updates, conducting frequent security audits, keeping an eye on and logging system activities, and using robust authentication techniques are all effective ways to stop this attack.

Q- How can user awareness help stop privilege escalation attacks?

Preventing this attack requires user awareness. One way to stop attackers from getting initial access is to educate users on security best practices, identify social engineering attempts, and avoid falling for phishing scams.