DESPITE ALL THE cybersecurity industry’s talk of preventing “breaches,” a computer network in some ways is less like a fortress and more like a human body. And skillful hackers are like germs: They tend to get in via some orifice or another. Once inside, it’s whether they can thrive and multiply their infections—and what vital organs they can reach—that determines whether the outcome is a sneeze or a full-on catastrophic takeover.
In many modern hacking operations, the difference comes down to a technique known as “credential dumping.” The term refers to any means of extracting, or “dumping,” user authentication credentials like usernames and passwords from a victim computer, so that they can be used to reenter that computer at will and reach other computers on the network. Often credential dumping pulls multiple passwords from a single machine, each of which can offer the hacker access to other computers on the network, which in turn contain their own passwords ready to be extracted, turning a single foothold into a branching series of connected intrusions. And that’s made the technique at least as crucial to hackers’ work—and as dangerous for sensitive networks—as whatever phishing email or infected attachment let hackers find entry into the network in the first place.