Detecting Lateral Movement with Machine Learning

By Srikanth 8 Min Read
8 Min Read
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In today’s cybersecurity environment, IT professionals and business leaders must be proactive in protecting against emerging threats. Lateral movement, a tactic used by attackers to move stealthily through a network, is a serious threat. Machine learning is currently leading the way in detecting these covert attacks. This article will explore what is lateral movement, explain how to detect it using machine learning techniques, and go over prevention strategies for strengthening your cybersecurity defenses.

What is Lateral Movement?

In 2023, data breaches increased by 78%, highlighting the growing threat of Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs). Lateral movement is an important phase in APT attacks, where attackers navigate a system’s infrastructure to locate and access sensitive data or systems.

Lateral movement refers to cyber attackers’ techniques after gaining initial access to your network. During this phase, attackers search the network to access valuable information or systems to steal data, compromise systems, or secure their network presence. This exploration helps them achieve their malicious objectives.


The primary goal of lateral movement is to maintain a stealthy presence while accessing important data. This strategy enables attackers to move through the network undetected, exploiting vulnerabilities and weaknesses in security protocols. As they move, attackers frequently leave subtle hints of their presence. Recognizing these can allow you to detect and stop these activities before they cause significant damage.

Machine Learning Techniques to Identify Lateral Movement

Machine learning (ML), a form of artificial intelligence, can process vast datasets, extract insights, and make informed decisions or predictions autonomously without direct human instruction.

Here are a few machine-learning techniques that can help you identify lateral movement.

Graph analysis can help you understand the relationships and interactions among different entities within your network. This technique constructs a graph of your network, with nodes representing entities (like users and devices) and edges representing interactions. By analyzing this graph, machine learning algorithms can identify unusual network patterns that might indicate lateral movement.

Machine learning graph analysis uses powerful algorithms to sift through complex datasets, revealing hidden patterns and correlations that traditional detection methods may miss. This approach is especially effective at detecting lateral movement because it can process and analyze the massive amounts of data generated by network interactions in near real-time. Furthermore, it enables the use of sophisticated anomaly detection techniques, which can identify irregularities in network behavior that indicate unauthorized or malicious activity, providing invaluable insights to cybersecurity teams.

Anomaly detection is another machine-learning technique that can help identify lateral movements. This method involves training a machine learning model on typical network activity. Once the model has a good understanding of typical network behavior, it can continuously monitor network activity for deviations from the norm, which could indicate unauthorized or suspicious lateral movements. Early detection enables security teams to address potential threats before they escalate or spread across the network.

Anomaly detection is especially good at detecting subtle, nuanced irregularities that would not trigger traditional security alarms. For example, suppose an account that typically uses resources during business hours suddenly begins accessing other systems in the middle of the night. Here, anomaly detection can flag this activity for further investigation. This sensitivity and specificity in identifying potential lateral movement allows organizations to stay one step ahead of attackers, ensuring the integrity and security of networks.

Behavioral analysis is another ML technique that studies entities’ behavior within your network. By leveraging machine learning, behavioral analysis can dynamically profile the everyday activities of users, devices, and networks, creating a baseline of expected actions. Then, it can compare ongoing activities against these baselines to identify abnormal behavior that may indicate lateral movement, such as unusual access patterns or unexpected data flows between network segments.

Behavioral analysis’s strength lies in its ability to adapt and learn from the constantly changing landscape of network activity, making it effective for detecting threats that circumvent traditional security measures. For example, if a user’s credentials are compromised and used to gain access to network or resource areas outside of their normal scope of work or permissions, the system can quickly detect these actions as anomalies. This method helps identify potential lateral movements and improves security by encouraging a more sophisticated and proactive defense strategy.

Preventing Lateral Movement

While machine learning offers significant potential for detecting lateral movement, it’s not a silver bullet. You’ll face challenges, like managing the large volumes of data necessary for machine learning and dealing with false positives. Moreover, the complexity of distinguishing between benign and malicious activities within such a vast dataset can further complicate the effective deployment of machine learning solutions.

To prevent lateral movement, it is vital to establish a multi-layered security strategy that includes both technological and procedural components. Implementing strict access controls and regularly reviewing user permissions can help to reduce the attack surface. Furthermore, network segmentation can limit an attacker’s movement across the network by establishing isolated zones with limited access to sensitive resources and data.

Other techniques you can consider include:

  • Deep Learning for Traffic Analysis: Use deep learning models to analyze network traffic in real-time, detecting patterns and anomalies that may indicate unauthorized lateral movements without relying on predefined rules or signatures.
  • Natural Language Processing (NLP) in Command Analysis: Analyse command line inputs and PowerShell scripts using natural language processing (NLP) techniques to detect malicious commands or scripts that could be utilized to move laterally.
  • Reinforcement Learning for Adaptive Defense: Use reinforcement learning algorithms to dynamically adjust security policies and controls in response to detected threats, effectively learning from each interaction and improving safeguards against lateral movement.

As cyber threats evolve, so too should your cybersecurity strategies. Machine learning offers a promising tool for detecting lateral movement, with its ability to analyze vast amounts of data and identify subtle patterns that might indicate an attack.

However, it’s also essential to focus on prevention, using techniques like least privilege access, multi-factor authentication, and regular patching and updates. With a combined approach of advanced detection and proactive prevention, you can protect your network from lateral movement and ensure your digital assets remain secure.

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