Uncovering Pivoting Attacks: Real-Life Scenarios


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I have seen it all – from phishing scams and data breaches to ransomware attacks. But what happens when an attacker shifts their focus mid-attack, quickly changing tactics to bypass security measures? That’s where “pivoting attacks” come in, and they’re becoming more and more common in today’s digital landscape.

Picture this: you think you’ve secured your network against all possible threats, but suddenly, you receive alert after alert about unauthorized access attempts. You investigate, and find that your network has been infiltrated by an attacker who has already hacked into a lesser-protected device on your network and is now using it as a launchpad to access sensitive information. Scary, right?

In this post, I’m going to share with you some real-life scenarios of pivoting attacks that I’ve encountered throughout my years working in cyber security. I’ll explain how these attacks work, what the attackers are after, and most importantly, how to defend against them. So, buckle up and get ready for a wild ride through the dark and dangerous world of pivoting attacks.

What is an example of a pivoting attack?

A pivoting attack is a technique often used in advanced persistent threat attacks, where the attacker gains unauthorized access to a network and then proceeds to “pivot” to another endpoint to gain further access and increase their reach. This technique can be achieved by escalating compromised credentials to access admin accounts for another internal application. Let’s take a closer look at some examples of a pivoting attack:

  • Lateral movement pivoting: In this attack, the attacker gains entry to one part of a network and then proceeds to pivot to another section of the network by exploiting vulnerabilities to escalate privileges. This allows the attacker to move laterally through the network and gain access to more sensitive areas.
  • Proxy pivoting: Here, the attacker uses compromised credentials to set up a proxy server within the network, which allows them to intercept and manipulate traffic between different systems. This provides an effective way for the attacker to monitor and modify network communications.
  • Port forwarding pivoting: This technique involves the attacker exploiting vulnerabilities on a compromised system to establish a connection to another system outside of the network. This effectively allows the attacker to bypass perimeter security measures and gain access to systems that would otherwise be inaccessible.

    In conclusion, a pivoting attack is a sophisticated technique used by attackers to gain unauthorized access to a network and move laterally through the compromised system to access more sensitive areas. As cyber threats continue to evolve, it is essential for organizations to implement comprehensive security measures to prevent and detect pivoting attacks.

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    1. Keep a close eye on your system logs and network traffic to detect any unusual or unexpected behavior that could indicate a pivoting attack.

    2. Harden your network perimeter and endpoints with robust security protocols and ensure that all software and firmware are kept up-to-date.

    3. Conduct regular penetration testing to identify potential vulnerabilities that could be exploited in a pivoting attack, and mitigate them appropriately.

    4. Educate your employees and stakeholders to recognize the signs of social engineering and phishing attempts that are often used to initiate a pivoting attack.

    5. Consider implementing network segmentation and access controls to compartmentalize your network and prevent lateral movement in the event of a pivoting attack.

    Overview of Pivoting Attacks

    Pivoting attacks are a type of cyberattack in which an attacker gains unauthorized access to a network of an organization and then “pivots” to another endpoint within that network to further infiltrate the system. The pivoting process will enable the attacker to broaden their reach within the organization’s systems and increase their chances of achieving their goals. This type of attack can be carried out with various techniques, and the primary objective is to exploit vulnerabilities in the organization’s security posture.

    The pivoting process is aimed at exploiting multiple vulnerabilities in the organization’s networks, systems, and applications. The attacker gains entry into the organization’s network, using whatever technique is available. Subsequently, the perpetrator moves from one endpoint to another, using the compromised access. Typically, the attacker will initially target vulnerable endpoints with weak access controls or those with outdated or unpatched software.

    How Pivoting Process is Utilized in APT Attacks

    Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) attacks are targeted attacks that focus on specific organizations with specific objectives and are persistent in their efforts to gain access to those organizations’ systems. Pivoting attacks are an essential component of APT attacks as they enable the attacker to move laterally within an organization’s systems to increase their chances of achieving their objectives.

    APT attackers are often looking for specific data or systems, and by moving laterally, they can uncover vital systems that may prove to be useful. APT attackers are also typically more patient and organized than other attackers. Pivoting attacks offer them the ability to gradually move through a system without setting off alarms, allowing them to remain undetected for longer than usual.

    Types of Pivoting Attacks

    There are many types of pivoting attacks that have emerged over time. Here are some of the most common types:

    • Port Forwarding: This is a technique in which an attacker establishes a connection between a remote and a local port, bypassing firewalls.
    • Tunneling: In this type of attack, the attacker uses network protocols that create tunnels such as SSH to connect to a remote system.
    • Proxy Chains: Proxy chains use a series of proxies to route traffic from the attacker’s computer to the targeted system, making it difficult to trace the attack back to its source.
    • Pass the Hash: This attack involves stealing hashes from passwords that have already been authenticated on a network, enabling the attacker to move from one system to another without the need for further authentication.

    Impact of Pivoting Attacks on Organizations

    Pivoting attacks can have a serious impact on organizations. By moving laterally through an organization’s systems, attackers can access sensitive data, install malware, and damage systems. The attack can also cause a loss of trust from customers and partners, which can lead to a decline in revenue and reputation damage.

    Moreover, pivoting attacks can also be expensive for organizations. Mitigating the damage caused by advanced and persistent threats requires a lot of time, effort, and investment. Organizations need to invest in security measures such as firewalls, intrusion detection, and response systems to detect and prevent these types of attacks.

    Techniques Used in Pivoting Attacks

    Attackers use several techniques to carry out pivoting attacks. Some of these techniques include:

    • Credential Theft: Attackers can use malware to steal authentication credentials from compromised systems, allowing them to impersonate legitimate users to other systems.
    • Exploiting Known Vulnerabilities: Attackers can exploit known vulnerabilities in a system to gain access to an endpoint.
    • Social Engineering: Attackers can use social engineering tactics to trick employees into revealing sensitive information such as usernames and passwords.
    • Session Hijacking: Attackers can hijack a legitimate user’s session to gain unauthorized access to the targeted system.

    Common Targets in Pivoting Attacks

    Attackers usually target systems that are not properly secured. These systems usually are not up-to-date with the latest security patches or have weak access controls. Common targets in pivoting attacks include remote desktop accounts, web servers with unpatched vulnerabilities, outdated or end-of-life systems, and systems with weak access controls.

    Examples of Successful Pivoting Attacks

    One notable example of a successful pivoting attack is the breach of Target Corporation’s systems in December 2013. Attackers exploited a vulnerability in Target’s HVAC system to gain access to their point-of-sale (POS) systems. The attackers then pivoted from the HVAC system to the POS system, compromising the data of around 40 million credit and debit cards used at Target stores.

    Another example happened in 2020 when a group of attackers known as UNC1945 gained unauthorized access to an energy company’s network and pivoted to its production network. They conducted reconnaissance and planning activities for over two months, intending to cause physical damage to the company’s operations before their activity was detected.


    Pivoting attacks are increasingly becoming a significant risk for organizations, and they require sophisticated tools and techniques to detect and prevent them. Attackers use different methods to evade security measures and move laterally within an organization’s network. To protect themselves from these types of threats, organizations need to invest in security measures such as firewalls, intrusion detection, and response systems that are designed to detect and prevent these types of attacks. It is essential always to stay vigilant, keep systems up to date, and train employees on basic cybersecurity practices to prevent successful pivoting attacks.