What Is Lateral Movement?

Lateral movement refers to the steps and techniques cybercriminals use to navigate through a network after gaining initial access. Moving laterally to avoid detection allows attackers to control additional systems, escalate privileges, and locate valuable data within an organisation's infrastructure.

In an effort to exploit vulnerabilities or misconfigurations in the target environment, lateral movement enables threat actors to remain undetected while gaining additional access to secure data.

The primary goal of lateral movement is often data exfiltration, where sensitive information such as intellectual property, financial records, or personal data is stolen for malicious purposes like extortion or sale on the dark web. In other cases, attackers may use lateral movement tactics for sabotage (e.g., deploying ransomware) or espionage.

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Why Is Lateral Movement a Concern?

Lateral movement is a major cybersecurity issue because it allows attackers to breach access to additional resources and sensitive data, despite discovering the first infected machine. In turn, this method presents many concerns:

  • Invisibility: Cybercriminals using lateral movement blend in with normal network traffic patterns and avoid detection by traditional security tools.
  • Persistence: Once inside a network, attackers employing lateral movement can establish footholds, making it difficult for cybersecurity teams to eradicate them completely.
  • Ease of propagation: With many organisations adopting interconnected networks and cloud services, it's easier than ever for threat actors to exploit these connections during their campaigns.
  • Damaging consequences: Successful execution of lateral movements can lead not only to significant financial losses but also reputational damage due to regulatory penalties and loss of customer trust.

Protecting against lateral movement tactics requires understanding how cyber attackers work along with implementing robust cybersecurity measures, such as continuous monitoring and advanced threat detection capabilities.

How Do Lateral Movement Attacks Work?

Lateral movement attacks are a multi-stage process that allows cybercriminals to gain unauthorised access, maintain persistence, and move laterally within an organisation's network. Understanding the common stages of lateral movement can help organisations and cybersecurity professionals detect and prevent these threats more effectively.

Initial Compromise

The first stage in a lateral movement attack is the initial compromise. Cybercriminals may exploit employee devices or accounts via phishing emails, social engineering, or software application vulnerabilities to gain unauthorised access. Once inside the network, attackers establish a foothold by installing malware or other tools designed for reconnaissance and further exploitation.


In this stage, attackers gather information about their target environment by scanning networks for open ports, identifying active devices and services running on them, as well as locating valuable data assets such as intellectual property or sensitive customer information. This intelligence helps criminals plan their next steps while avoiding detection by security systems.

Credential Harvesting

To facilitate lateral movement across the network infrastructure, threat actors need valid user credentials (usernames/passwords) with appropriate privileges. These are obtained through various means, like installing keylogging malware during the initial compromise phase or exploiting weak organisational password policies.

Password Spraying Attack

A popular technique used in credential harvesting is called a password spraying attack. This tactic involves attackers using commonly known passwords for multiple login attempts against numerous accounts simultaneously until they find one that works without triggering account lockouts due to failed logins.

Exploitation of Vulnerabilities

Once the attackers have valid credentials, they exploit known software applications or operating systems vulnerabilities to escalate their privileges. This allows them to access sensitive data or execute commands on other devices within the network, effectively spreading their influence laterally across multiple systems.

Persistence and Data Exfiltration

The final stages of a lateral movement attack involve establishing persistence by creating backdoors for future access and exfiltrating valuable data from compromised systems. Threat actors may introduce extra malicious software, like ransomware or Remote Access Trojans (RATs), to gain remote control of infiltrated machines and keep a lasting hold on the organisation's IT network.

Lateral Movement Techniques

In lateral movement attacks, cybercriminals use various techniques to move through a network and gain unauthorised access to valuable data. Understanding these methods help IT personnel and cybersecurity professionals better protect their organisation's sensitive information. Here are some common lateral movement techniques:

  1. Pass-the-Hash (PtH): In this technique, attackers steal hashed user credentials from one system and use them to authenticate on other systems within the same domain. This allows them to bypass password-based authentication mechanisms without needing the actual plaintext passwords.
  2. Remote Execution: Attackers exploit vulnerabilities in remote services or applications to execute malicious code on targeted systems. Examples of tools for carrying out remote execution include PowerShell, PsExec, and Windows Management Instrumentation (WMI).
  3. Man-in-the-Middle (MitM) Attacks: Cybercriminals intercept communication between two parties by positioning themselves in the middle of the conversation flow. By leveraging MitM attacks, they manipulate or eavesdrop on exchanged data without either party knowing they have been compromised.
  4. Lateral Phishing: After compromising an email account within an organisation, attackers send phishing emails from that account to other employees or partners with requests for sensitive information or to click on malicious links. This technique leverages the trust between colleagues and increases the likelihood of a successful attack.
  5. Living off the Land (LotL): Attackers use existing built-in tools, scripts, and applications in an organisation's environment to carry out their attacks. By using legitimate tools, they can blend in with normal network activity and evade detection by security solutions.

These lateral movement techniques are just a few examples of how attackers navigate through networks undetected. To effectively defend against these threats, organisations must implement robust cybersecurity measures that focus on detecting and preventing unauthorised access. This includes internal reconnaissance to identify potential vulnerabilities and prevent lateral movement.

Types of Cyber-Attacks That Use Lateral Movement

Lateral movement is a common tactic used by cybercriminals through various types of attacks. By understanding different attack scenarios, IT teams and cybersecurity professionals can prepare better defences against these threats. Below are some common types of cyber-attacks utilising lateral movement:

  1. Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs): APTs are long-term, targeted attacks where adversaries gain unauthorised access to a network and remain undetected for an extended period. These attackers often employ lateral movement techniques to move through the network, escalate privileges, and exfiltrate sensitive data. Learn more about Advanced Persistent Threats.
  2. Ransomware Attacks: Ransomware is a type of malware that encrypts files on infected systems and demands payment from victims in exchange for decryption keys. Attackers may use lateral movement to spread ransomware across multiple devices within an organisation's network, increasing its impact and potential payout.
  3. Data Breaches: Data breaches occur when unauthorised individuals access sensitive information stored within an organisation's systems or databases. Attackers often leverage lateral movement tactics to locate valuable data repositories before exfiltrating this information.
  4. Credential Theft Attacks: Credential theft involves stealing usernames and passwords from users or organisations with malicious intent, such as gaining unauthorised access or selling them on the dark web. Cybercriminals often use lateral movement to harvest credentials from multiple systems, escalating their access and control over the targeted network.
  5. Insider Threats: Insider threats can originate from employees or contractors who have legitimate access to an organisation's systems but misuse this access for malicious purposes. These individuals may employ lateral movement techniques to cover their tracks or gain unauthorised privileges within the network.

In each attack scenario, detecting and mitigating lateral movement is crucial in preventing extensive damage and minimising potential losses.

How to Detect Lateral Movement

Detecting lateral movement in a timely manner is crucial for minimising the damage caused by cyber-attacks. If not detected quickly enough, attackers can access sensitive data and critical systems, causing significant harm to your organisation. It’s critical to be aware of different techniques and utilities that can assist in effectively recognising lateral movement.

Network Monitoring

Network monitoring is vital in detecting unusual activity within your network infrastructure. By continuously analysing network traffic patterns and comparing them against established baselines, anomalies indicative of lateral movement can be identified early on. Tools like IDSs and SIEMs are commonly used for monitoring networks to detect suspicious activity.

User & Entity Behaviour Analytics (UEBA)

User and entity behaviour analytics involves tracking user activities across an organisation's IT environment to identify abnormal behaviours that may indicate malicious intent. UEBA tools use machine learning algorithms to establish normal usage patterns for each user account and then flag any deviations from these patterns as potential threats.

Endpoint Detection and Response (EDR)

Endpoint detection and response (EDR) solutions provide real-time visibility into endpoint activities throughout an organisation's network. These tools monitor system processes, file modifications, registry changes, etc., enabling security teams to identify suspicious actions indicative of lateral movement attempts.

Tips for Effective Lateral Movement Detection:

  • Implement a multi-layered security approach that combines network monitoring, user behaviour analytics, and endpoint security detection to maximise visibility into potential threats.
  • Regularly update your threat intelligence feeds to stay informed about the latest attack vectors and lateral movement techniques used by cybercriminals.
  • Conduct periodic security assessments and penetration tests to identify IT infrastructure vulnerabilities that could be exploited for lateral movement.

Inadequate lateral movement detection can lead to severe consequences, like catastrophic data breaches, financial losses, reputational damage, and regulatory penalties. By employing the tools and strategies discussed above, organisations can significantly enhance their ability to detect malicious activities before they escalate into full-blown attacks.

How to Prevent Lateral Movement

To effectively prevent lateral movement attacks, organisations must adopt a multi-layered approach that focuses on securing their networks and endpoints. This involves implementing various security measures, monitoring suspicious activity, and educating employees about potential threats. Here are some critical steps you can take to minimise the risk of lateral movement:

  1. Network Segmentation: Divide your network into smaller segments or zones with restricted access controls. This limits an attacker's ability to move laterally within your environment.
  2. Access Control: Establish strict access control policies based on the principle of least privilege (POLP). Ensure that users only have access to resources necessary for their job roles.
  3. Patch Management: Regularly update all software applications and operating systems with the latest patches to close known vulnerabilities exploited by attackers during lateral movement attempts.
  4. Multi-factor Authentication (MFA): Require MFA for remote access and privileged accounts to reduce unauthorised logins resulting from stolen credentials or brute force attacks.
  5. Endpoint Detection and Response (EDR): Implement EDR solutions to continuously monitor endpoints for signs of compromise, detect lateral movement attempts, and respond to threats in real time.
  6. User & Entity Behaviour Analytics (UEBA): Leverage UEBA tools that analyse user behaviour patterns to identify anomalies indicative of lateral movement attacks. UEBA tools can help detect suspicious activities within your network.
  7. Cybersecurity Awareness Training: Educate employees with security awareness training about the risks associated with phishing emails, social engineering tactics, and other common attack vectors used by cybercriminals during lateral movement campaigns.

These proactive measures significantly reduce the likelihood of a successful lateral movement attack on your organisation's network. Combining strong security policies with advanced monitoring technologies and employee education initiatives will better equip you to defend against this growing threat landscape.

By taking proactive steps to prevent lateral movement, such as implementing proper network segmentation and limiting user privileges, organisations can greatly reduce the risk of a successful attack. With the help of advanced security solutions from Proofpoint, IT teams can further protect their networks from malicious actors attempting lateral movement.

How Proofpoint Can Help

In the fight against lateral movement attacks, Proofpoint offers a comprehensive suite of tools and solutions designed to detect, prevent, and respond to these threats. By leveraging advanced technology and cybersecurity expertise, Proofpoint helps organisations protect their sensitive data from cybercriminals who seek unauthorised access.

Targeted Attack Protection (TAP)

Proofpoint's Targeted Attack Protection (TAP) is an innovative solution that detects malicious activities at various stages of the attack lifecycle. TAP uses machine learning algorithms and threat intelligence to identify suspicious behaviour patterns associated with lateral movement techniques, such as credential theft or remote code execution.

Email Protection Solutions

Email remains one of the most common vectors for initial infiltration by cybercriminals seeking network lateral movement opportunities. Proofpoint's Email Protection Solutions provide robust protection against phishing attempts, malware delivery via email attachments or links, and other tactics to gain entry into your organisation's infrastructure.

Response With Incident Response Services

In the event of a lateral movement attack, a quick response is crucial to minimise damage and contain the threat. Proofpoint's Incident Response Services provide expert assistance in investigating, containing, and remediating security incidents involving lateral movement techniques. These services focus on threat investigation, containment strategies, and remediation assistance.

Leveraging Proofpoint's comprehensive suite of tools and services can significantly enhance an organisation's ability to detect, prevent, and respond effectively to lateral movement attacks. To learn more about how Proofpoint can help safeguard your organisation against lateral movement attacks, contact Proofpoint today.