Understanding the basics of Cloud Security: Cloud Privilege Escalation

Michael Osakwe
March 31, 2023
Understanding the basics of Cloud Security: Cloud Privilege EscalationUnderstanding the basics of Cloud Security: Cloud Privilege Escalation
Michael Osakwe
March 31, 2023
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Cloud privilege escalation is a growing concern for organizations as they embrace cloud-based infrastructure and services. To address  the risks associated with privilege escalation, it's vital to implement robust security practices. In this post, we’ll cover privilege escalation as it relates to cloud security risk and the best practices for mitigation.

Defining privilege escalation and its impact on cloud administrators

Privilege escalation is a security exploit where an attacker gains access to a higher level of privileges or permissions than they were initially granted, allowing them to perform unauthorized actions within a system or network.

In Software as a Service (SaaS) systems and cloud infrastructure, application privileges define the level of access and control that users have over resources and services. These privileges enable users to perform various actions, such as creating or deleting resources, modifying configurations, and accessing sensitive data. While these privileges are essential for legitimate users to perform their tasks, they can also be misused by attackers to compromise security, leading to data breaches or other malicious activities.

Consider a cloud-based Customer Relationship Management (CRM) application, like Salesforce, for example. In these systems, various roles are assigned to users, such as sales representatives, managers, and administrators, each with different levels of access and control.

Sales representatives are typically granted privileges that allow them to create and update customer records, add notes, and track their interactions with customers. Managers, on the other hand, may have additional privileges, such as generating reports, overseeing sales representatives' activities, and managing team targets. Administrators have the highest level of privileges, which include managing user accounts, configuring the application, and accessing sensitive data. This typically makes administrator level accounts high targets, for an attacker who wants to modify or exfiltrate data, however an attacker can still feasibly increase their privileges even if they initially access an account with limited permissions.

Horizontal vs. vertical privilege escalation 

Privilege escalation can be classified into two categories: horizontal and vertical. 

Horizontal privilege escalation occurs when an attacker gains unauthorized access to another user's account with similar privileges. For example, an attacker might impersonate a co-worker to access sensitive data within a shared cloud storage service. 

Vertical privilege escalation, on the other hand, involves gaining access to a higher level of permissions or privileges. An example would be an attacker in a cloud system finding a password or API key that allows them to access a more sensitive system. We've seen a dramatic increase in this type of attack in the last few years, where threat actors inside systems find passwords or credentials that allow them to access things like Privileged Access Management tools and senstive backends. This threat can really only be mitigated by having visibility into whether employees are following security best practices by not sharing sensitive data which can be accomplished with Cloud DLP.

The role of security misconfigurations in privilege abuse

Security misconfigurations, such as overly broad permissions for a specific account or inappropriate application settings, can set the stage for privilege abuse. These misconfigurations can occur due to human error, lack of understanding, or negligence. When attackers identify these weaknesses, they can exploit them to gain unauthorized access and control over cloud resources, putting an organization's sensitive data and systems at risk. We illustrate this risk below with the following scenarios

  1. Poor IAM and access management: Misconfigured identity and access management (IAM) policies can allow attackers to escalate their privileges by exploiting overly permissive settings or policy loopholes.
  1. Cloud provider vulnerabilities: Attackers can target vulnerabilities in cloud applications or services to gain unauthorized access and elevate their privileges.
  1. Vulnerable APIs: Poorly secured APIs can be exploited by attackers to access sensitive data, modify configurations, or perform other unauthorized actions.
  1. Social engineering: Attackers may target end-users to obtain sensitive information, such as OAuth tokens, API keys, passwords, and other credentials. This information is often shared in plaintext within collaborative SaaS applications like Slack or Jira, making it easier for social engineers to find and exploit. While zero trust identity is essential to keeping threat actors out, it's crucial to remember that true security extends to zero trust data security, ensuring the protection of data within cloud systems. Organizations must scan for API keys and other secrets wherever their employees collaborate.

Defending against cloud privilege escalation

Addressing cloud privilege escalation requires multiple proactive steps that will improve your security posture to make such attacks less likely and to mitigate their impact should they occur.

Identity-based approaches to addressing privilege escalation

Identity-based approaches to addressing privilege escalation include practices that proactively grant users permissions and access to systems based on their role and the tasks that they’re required to do. Examples of this are: 

  1. Least Privilege access enforcement: Assign users the minimum set of permissions necessary to perform their tasks. Regularly review and update permissions to ensure users only have access to the resources they require.
  1. Segregation of Duties (SoD): Implement a system where multiple users are responsible for completing critical tasks, reducing the risk of unauthorized actions by a single individual.
  1. Role-Based Access Controls (RBAC): Organize users into roles with predefined sets of permissions, simplifying the process of managing and granting access to resources.
  1. Strong Authentication: Use multifactor authentication (MFA) to enhance security and reduce the risk of credential compromise. Encourage the use of strong, unique passwords and educate users about the risks of password reuse.

Data-based approaches to addressing privilege escalation

Because data is ultimately what you’re trying to secure in the cloud, these approaches ultimately about ensuring that:

  1. Only store as much data as needed. Your organization is only storing the amount of sensitive data that is absolutely necessary for carrying out its responsibilities to its stakeholders, nothing more.
  1. Store data only where it's secure. This sensitive data is only stored in appropriate channels, where only individuals with need-to-know access can view or modify the data.
  1. Don’t store keys and credentials in the open. Data that can be used to access other sensitive systems, like keys or credentials, are not exposed in readable plaintext.
  1. Educate employees about security hygiene. Educate employees about the proper policy for handling and sharing customer data, credentials, or other sensitive data that can affect your organization if exposed. Additionally, educate users about the risks associated with privilege escalation, social engineering, and phishing attacks. Encourage users to report suspicious activities and incidents.

Accomplishing these objectives without the appropriate tools can be difficult. Our post on zero trust data security elaborates on how companies can achieve them with ease.

Vulnerability-based approaches to addressing privilege escalation

Organizations need to be aware of supply chain attacks that may affect their security within SaaS based applications, and additionally need to scan for vulnerabilities within any cloud infrastructure or applications that they personally maintain.

  1. Monitor access logs within SaaS and cloud apps. Conduct routine audits of user accounts, permissions, and access logs to detect anomalies and potential privilege escalation attempts. Implement real-time monitoring to detect and respond to suspicious activities quickly.
  1. Patch and Update Management: Regularly update and patch software, including operating systems, applications, and cloud services, to address known vulnerabilities that could be exploited for privilege escalation.
  1. Secure APIs: Implement proper authentication, authorization, and input validation for APIs to prevent unauthorized access and exploitation of vulnerabilities.
  1. Incident Response Plan: Develop a robust incident response plan to quickly identify, contain, and remediate privilege escalation incidents.

By implementing these techniques and maintaining a proactive approach to cloud security, organizations can significantly reduce the risk of privilege escalation and protect their critical assets in the cloud.

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