Launching a cyber attack on an IT system or network has many similarities with infiltrating a physical building or location. For one, the attackers need a way to gain access to the inside — whether sneaking through a ground-floor window or exploiting a hidden vulnerability in a software application. Gaining access is a crucial step in cyber attacks, which means that ethical hackers need to be familiar with how it works and the most popular techniques for gaining access. Below, we’ll discuss the definition of gaining access in cyber security, the ways to safeguard IT environments from attackers gaining access, and more.
What Does “Gaining Access” Mean in Cyber Security?In cyber security, the term “gaining access” refers to an unauthorized entry into a computer system or network by hackers, cyber criminals, and other malicious actors. This is distinguished from authorized entries, in which individuals receive permission to use specific computing resources. Granting proper access control and permission is a critical aspect of information security and data security. Attackers seek to gain access to their targets by taking advantage of the vulnerabilities and weaknesses that they discover. The possible end goals of gaining access include seizing control of the IT environment, causing damage, disrupting normal operations, or even stealing valuable data. Gaining access is also a practice used in ethical hacking. Unlike malicious hackers, ethical hackers are security experts who work with organizations to detect and resolve vulnerabilities in their IT security landscape. Ethical hackers seek to gain access as part of a simulated cyber attack that they launch on the target. After the attack is complete, the hackers meet with the organization to discuss the attack’s success and how to patch any discovered flaws.
How Do Attackers Gain Unauthorized Access?Hackers may use a variety of techniques to gain access to a target system, including:
- Exploiting software vulnerabilities: Attackers may scan for common software vulnerabilities, such as SQL injection, cross-site scripting (XSS), and others listed on the OWASP Top Ten. They may also exploit bugs and weaknesses in operating systems, network devices, and other potential entry points.
- Password cracking: Some insecure IT environments may allow attackers to crack passwords via brute-force attacks, repeatedly trying different login credentials until they find the right combination for user authorization.
- Phishing: Phishing emails and websites impersonate a trusted individual or organization, trying to fool recipients into revealing their credentials. Attackers can then use these credentials to gain access to the target system.
- Social engineering: Social engineering involves using social and psychological tactics to manipulate a target into doing a particular action. For example, attackers may claim to be a new employee or repairer to gain unauthorized access to a computer or network.
What Are the Ethical Implications of Gaining Access?When attackers are able to gain access to an IT system, it can have devastating consequences for the target. If the intruders can escalate their privileges successfully, they are able to compromise additional systems and launch any number of attacks. Data breaches are one common — and potentially disastrous — implication of gaining access. When attackers seize control of an account with access to sensitive information, they can exfiltrate this data and use it to turn a profit (such as blackmailing the target or selling the information to the highest bidder). Recovering from a data breach can have a severe impact on the business. For example, a study found that 60 percent of companies affected by a data breach raised their prices as a result (IBM, 2023). As a result, ethical hackers and other cybersecurity practitioners need to obey strict legal and professional boundaries when doing their work, taking into account the ethical considerations and responsibilities involved. These include:
- Authorization: Obtaining authorization for activities from the owner of the target system. This includes informed consent about what exactly the test activities will involve.
- Data privacy: Treating the organization’s data with care, especially sensitive and confidential information. They should be aware of their obligations under laws and regulations such as HIPAA and Sarbanes-Oxley.
- Do no harm: Avoiding damage to the organization’s IT resources. Any vulnerabilities discovered should be reported to the organization promptly and responsibly, allowing them to fix the issue.
What Measures Can Be Implemented to Prevent Unauthorized Access?When using computer systems, adhering to ethical guidelines and obtaining proper authorization before accessing restricted resources is crucial. Businesses have a number of safeguards and tricks up their sleeve to block attackers from gaining unauthorized access to their IT systems. The cyber defenses against gaining access include:
- Strong authentication: Organizations should implement strong user authentication methods such as strong password policies and multi-factor authentication (MFA). MFA requires users to verify their identity in multiple ways (e.g., a password and login code) before gaining access.
- Regular updates and patches: Security researchers are constantly discovering new hardware and software vulnerabilities, which creates fresh opportunities for attackers. Organizations need to stay on top of these upgrades, regularly applying the latest versions to close these potential entry methods. • Principle of least privilege: Applying the principle of least privilege can help mitigate attacks and limit the reach of attackers, even if they succeed in gaining access (NIST). According to this principle, users should be granted only the minimum level of privileges they need to perform their duties, which hampers the movement of attackers if they gain access to a particular account.
- Security solutions: Deploying IT security solutions such as firewalls and IDS/IPS (intrusion detection/prevention systems) can help detect attackers and block them from gaining access. These tools automatically monitor network traffic for suspicious activities and anomalies and send alerts to security personnel.
How Can Organizations Detect and Respond to Unauthorized Access?The good news is that organizations have various tools and techniques to detect and block unauthorized access. Logging and monitoring software can gather large amounts of data on system events, analyzing them for anomalies and suspicious activity. IDS/IPS (intrusion detection/prevention systems) solutions can automatically detect and respond to possible security incidents. In addition, organizations should have qualified IT security personnel at hand. Cybersecurity professionals such as ethical hackers, penetration testers, and security analysts play an invaluable role in identifying vulnerabilities and investigating potential unauthorized access attempts.
How Ethical Hackers Can Get Hands-On Practice Gaining Access with C|EHGaining access is a crucial technique for both malicious actors and ethical hackers who seek to stop them in their tracks. If you are interested in learning more about gaining access, you can explore the curriculum of EC-Council’s Certified Ethical Hacker (C|EH) program that covers the five stages of ethical hacking as mentioned below:
- Reconnaissance: Collecting information about the target.
- Scanning: Probing the target’s IT environment for vulnerabilities.
- Gaining access: Entering the target environment via one of the identified vulnerabilities.
- Maintaining access: Continuing to exploit the vulnerability while remaining undetected.
- Clearing tracks: Hiding and deleting evidence of the intrusion.