January 26, 2024

What is unauthorized access?

Unauthorized access occurs when an individual or a program is able to view or use an application, computing system, network, or resource without the explicit permission of the owner or administrator or legitimate authentication. The repercussions of unauthorized access vary, but it can result in exploited vulnerabilities, bypassed security controls, or stolen credentials being used. Unauthorized access is a serious threat as it can lead to data breaches, compromised sensitive information, or service disruptions. 

How does unauthorized access occur?

Unauthorized access can occur in various ways, ranging from sophisticated methods that exploit vulnerabilities in a system’s security infrastructure to tricking careless users into sharing credentials. Among the many crafty ways threat actors gain unauthorized access are the following. 

Advanced persistent threats

Advanced persistent threats (APTs) are prolonged, sophisticated, and targeted malicious campaigns aimed at gaining unauthorized access. Once an attacker gains entry, they attempt to remain undetected for an extended period before launching the primary attack.

Advanced persistent threats typically target organizations with high-value information, money, or other assets and are characterized by their tenacity, continuing to exploit the target even after the initial target is achieved.  

Brute force attacks

Brute force attacks exploit weak credentials. Attackers use automated scripts to rapidly try numerous username and password combinations to find easily guessable credentials. 

Credential compromise

Credentials can be stolen through several methods, including phishing, keylogging, or APTs. Batches of stolen credentials can also be purchased. In this case, an adversarial tactic known as credential stuffing uses stolen usernames and passwords from one platform to gain unauthorized access to another.   

Cross-site scripting (XSS)

Attackers use web applications as an attack vector with malicious cross-site scripting scripts into web pages. When unsuspecting users interact with compromised pages, the attacker can hijack sessions or steal authentication tokens. 

Exploiting software vulnerabilities

Another method of unauthorized access is exploiting software vulnerabilities, such as outdated or unpatched software. This presents attackers with known weaknesses that can be used to gain access to applications, operating systems, or network services.   

Physical security breaches

Though less common than digital vectors, physical security breaches are also used to gain unauthorized access. The attacker utilizes physical access to servers, network devices, or other critical infrastructure components to obtain access to digital assets.   

Privilege escalation

To extend access privileges, an attacker often starts by gaining low-level access. Once initial access has been secured, the attacker uses their access to elevate their privileges.  

Unauthorized access does not always come from outside an organization. Disgruntled employees or other insiders with malicious intentions can use inside information to expand their access rights. 

Social engineering

Attackers use social engineering tactics (e.g., phishing, scareware, and watering hole attacks) to manipulate individuals within an organization to divulge sensitive information or perform actions that facilitate unauthorized access.   

SQL injection attacks

A SQL injection attack is a cyber attack technique where an attacker injects malicious SQL code into input fields or data entry points of a web application. The code manipulates SQL queries by tricking the application into executing unintended commands. This can lead to unauthorized access to data, data manipulation, or even command execution on the target operating system. 

What is a data breach?

A data breach is a security incident involving unauthorized access that results in the acquisition, compromise, exfiltration, exposure, or destruction of sensitive and confidential information. The source of a data breach varies; common vectors come from malware, phishing attacks, or exploitation of software vulnerabilities.   

Security teams and IT administrators play a pivotal role in preventing data breaches by implementing and maintaining robust security measures. A comprehensive understanding of how data breaches work, how unauthorized access is gained, and the repercussions are critical for ensuring that security and IT teams have the appropriate resources to combat them. 

Data breaches not only result in financial loss, but also damage an organization’s reputation and can lead to legal consequences. In addition to preventing unauthorized access, having an incident response plan enables a resilient defense against potential data breaches. 

Best practices for preventing unauthorized access

The following best practices are used to significantly reduce the risk of unauthorized access. These can help maintain the integrity, confidentiality, and availability of systems and data. 

  • Access controls
    Access controls regulate and manage user interactions with digital systems, ensuring that users have appropriate permissions based on their roles and responsibilities, while preventing unauthorized access. They are used at various levels, including file systems, databases, and network resources. Technologies used include network access control lists (ACLs), discretionary access control (DAC), mandatory access control (MAC), or role-based access control (RBAC). 
  • The principle of least privilege (POLP)
    According to the principle of least privilege, users (i.e., humans and machines) are given the minimum levels of access necessary to perform their tasks. This minimizes unauthorized access by reducing the attack surface.
  • Continuous monitoring
    Robust network and system monitoring solutions detect anomalies and suspicious activities proactively, using solutions, such as security information and event management (SIEM) tools, to aggregate and analyze log data for signs of unauthorized access.
  • Encryption   
    Encryption is used at various levels, including data at rest, data in transit, and even within applications and databases, to transform plaintext data into ciphertext through mathematical algorithms, rendering it unreadable without the appropriate decryption key and safe from unauthorized access. Additional uses of encryption to prevent unauthorized access include secure communication channels (e.g., HTTPS and SSL/TLS for web traffic), encrypted databases, and full-disk encryption. 
  • Installation of security patches and updates
    Regularly updating and installing patches for software, including operating systems and applications, helps protect against known vulnerabilities that attackers commonly exploit. 
  • Intrusion detection and prevention systems (IDS/IPS)
    Organizations deploy IDS/IPS to monitor network traffic for suspicious activity and block potential threats, and configure IDS to detect and respond to potential security incidents in real-time. IDS rules can be optimized to identify patterns indicative of unauthorized access attempts.
  • Layered authentication
    Implementing strong authentication, such as multi-factor authentication (MFA), a biometric input, a hardware token, or a one-time code sent via email or SMS for an additional layer of security makes it difficult for cyber attackers to gain unauthorized access. In addition, account lockout policies can be implemented to mitigate brute-force attacks.  
  • Network segmentation
    Dividing networks into segments limits an intruder’s ability to move laterally through systems in the event of a security breach.
  • Penetration testing  
    Conducting regular penetration tests helps identify and remediate vulnerabilities before attackers exploit them. Also, real-world attack scenarios can be simulated to evaluate the effectiveness of security controls. 
  • Security awareness training
    Training mitigates one of the most intractable cybersecurity threats—authorized users. Organizations can develop and implement ongoing security awareness programs to educate users about the risks of unauthorized access. Regular training can be scheduled to help team members learn to identify potential security threats, such as phishing emails, and follow safe online practices. Simulated phishing exercises test and improve user resilience against social engineering attacks.
  • Strong password management policy
    Requiring the use of complex and unique passwords can decrease the risk of unauthorized access through brute-force attacks significantly. Supplementing this by having users update passwords regularly and using password managers can further enhance cyber defenses. Most organizations enforce strong password policies, including the use of complex passwords and regular password changes. 

Digital and physical security controls help prevent unauthorized access

Organizations that implement and maintain robust cybersecurity and threat monitoring systems are better able to prevent unauthorized access. A comprehensive, layered approach that includes multi-factor authentication, strong password policies, regular software patching and updates, network monitoring, and strict access controls (e.g., following the principle of least privilege) effectively reduces the risk of unauthorized access. 

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