What Is an Attack Vector? 8 Common Examples

By Jeff Aldorisio

Posted on Jan 25, 2021

Many organizations are undergoing an expansive digital transformation, and as a result, their attack surface is growing. This increases the number of exploitable vulnerabilities on enterprise networks, and organizations must take the necessary steps today to securely defend their cybersecurity tomorrow.

Organizations must gain a complete understanding of the vulnerabilities across their IT ecosystem so that a comprehensive cybersecurity program can be created. Then, the necessary steps can be taken to mitigate risks as well as put necessary defenses in place to ensure everything is protected moving forward. Doing so will allow security teams to keep up with cyber criminals as they evolve their attacks to try and stay ahead.

Let’s explore the common types of attack vectors, how they’re leveraged by adversaries, and what your organization can do to defend against them.

How do attack vectors, attack surfaces, and security breaches differ?

To effectively build a cyber risk management program, you must have an understanding of the difference between attack vectors, attack surfaces, and security breaches.

Here are the key differences between each:

Attack vectors

Attack vectors are the means or tactics by which hackers can gain unauthorized access to a network. They can be exploited by malicious actors to gain access to confidential information or to launch a coordinated cyber attack.

Attack surfaces

An organization’s attack surface is made up of all of the various touch points through which adversaries can gain access to or manipulate the network, or extract sensitive data. Attack surfaces can be physical or digital. Physical refers to hardware or physical devices such as computers, tablets, routers, and servers; Digital includes software, web and desktop applications, networks, and ports, for example.

Data breaches

A security breach occurs when unauthorized parties access, steal, or publish an organization’s confidential or protected information.

Why and how are attack vectors used by cyber criminals?

The most common driver behind cyber attacks is monetary gain, followed by access to personally identifiable information (PII) for identity fraud and industry trade secrets, or patented information. Additionally, the motivation behind an attack may be related to moral oppositions held by the hackers, and their attacks could be an attempt to diminish an organization's reputation or harm sales.

There are two overarching ways that cyber criminals can carry out an attack. The first is passive, which refers to an attempt to access data in a way that does not impact system resources. The second is active, which refers to an attempt to disrupt service on a system or site.

8 examples of common attack vectors

For many organizations, their digital attack surface is expanding. To effectively secure a network amid evolving threats, organizations must be aware of the leading players across industries.

Explore 8 common types of attack vectors:

1. Ransomware

Ransomware attacks are a subset of malware attacks and can cut off a user’s access to critical applications. Attackers will typically seize all control over a database, and demand a ransom in return for restored access. The most important way to defend against ransomware attacks is to ensure that all of your devices and software are consistently up-to-date on any necessary patches.

2. Phishing

Phishing attacks are among the most common types of attack vectors, and can be one of the harder vulnerabilities to mitigate given the primary target is not typically tech-savvy. They use social engineering tactics to trick the target into clicking a link or providing confidential information by disguising as an official email entity or organization. The best way to avoid phishing attacks is by fostering a culture of cybersecurity awareness so that employees understand what to look out for.

3. Distributed-denial-of-service (DDoS)

A Distributed-Denial-of-Service attack involves disrupting traffic on a site by overloading it and rendering it inoperable. These attacks are typically carried out with the help of botnets, which are used to create an overflow of requests on the site until it is no longer able to function properly. As organizations adopt new internet of things (IoT) devices, they’ll need to implement defenses to keep all devices protected.

4. Compromised, weak, or stolen credentials

Weak or compromised usernames and passwords are a leading cause of security breaches, so clear guidelines for users are necessary to ensure that the proper steps are taken. Credentials should not be shared between employees or across devices, as this makes it easier for hackers to turn a single breach into a much larger issue. Two-factor identification and password managers can also help to ensure that everyone in your organization is aware of the implicit vulnerabilities of weak credentials.

5. Insider threats

Insider threats come in all shapes and sizes; both negligent and malicious. These attacks are typically carried out by a trusted member within the organization like an employee or contractor. An example of negligence is when sensitive information is sent to the wrong user, while an example of maliciousness might entail someone selling that information to an outside source. One way to mitigate these attacks is with zero-trust security, which only gives users the exact level of access that they need to carry out their job function, nothing more.

6. Third-party vendors

While third and fourth-party vendors enable flexibility and improved productivity for many organizations, they must take the cybersecurity posture of their third-party vendors just as seriously as their own. The cost of third-party data breaches is rapidly increasing, and with more than 50% of organizations claiming to have experienced at least one data breach caused by a third-party, it’s clear why a comprehensive third-party risk management program is a necessity.

7. Poor encryption

Without proper encryption, organizations may fall victim to man-in-the-middle attacks as data is transmitted across a network. When users connect to networks or applications that are at risk, the likelihood of the sensitive information being exposed in a data breach rises. Proactive and preventative measures should be taken to ensure that all data is being secured as it moves between users and applications. Data should be encrypted not just in-transit, but at rest and in processing as well.

8. System misconfiguration

Misconfiguration can create easy opportunities for hackers to leverage and exploit vulnerabilities. The key to protecting against this is to continuously monitor your organization’s cyber hygiene so that you can ensure application and device settings are up-to-date with industry standards and best practices.

How SecurityScorecard can help secure system vulnerabilities

Organizations are rapidly expanding their digital attack surface as they adopt intelligent technologies and work with new third or fourth party vendors. Proactive risk management is key in staying ahead of cyber criminals as attack vectors evolve and become more complex.

With SecurityScorecard, organizations can see an overview of their cybersecurity posture and the most important risks within their network. By using data-driven, objective, and continuously evolving security ratings, SecurityScorecard can provide complete visibility into critical weaknesses and prioritize them based on their impact. Easy-to-read ratings ranging A-F evaluate an organization’s risk across 10 groups of risk factors, which helps identify all of the potential attack vectors found in a network.

The first step in improving your organization’s cybersecurity posture is to gain an understanding of the potential vulnerabilities and attack vectors facing your organization. This helps IT teams make informed decisions about how to prevent and respond to attacks. Additionally, employees can know what to keep an eye out for and how to respond if they believe they have encountered a security incident or breach. Without this crucial step, organizations may find themselves playing catch-up with cyber criminals, rather than staying ahead.

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