What is Attack Surface Management and Why is it Important?

By Kasey Hewitt

Posted on Nov 23, 2020

In modern business environments, organizations are facing increased pressure to adopt digital solutions to stay competitive. While these solutions have undoubted benefits for organizations, they also expand their potential attack surface and expose them to increased levels of cyber risk. If left unaddressed, these risks can create critical security gaps that can be exploited by cybercriminals.

To help stay protected, many organizations are adopting cyber attack surface management programs that work to continually assess their networks for potential threats. With an attack surface management system in place, organizations can proactively evaluate risk and reduce their attack surface in real-time, limiting the impact of cyber threats.

What is a cyber attack surface?

A cyber attack surface consists of digital assets that threat actors can use as attack vectors across an organization’s IT environment, including device, access, network, application, software, hardware, and firmware vulnerabilities.

When reviewing attack surface risk, organizations normally engage in a surface analysis to look for weaknesses that can lead to unauthorized access and data breaches.

What is the difference between a physical and digital attack surface?

Attack surfaces can be physical or digital, so organizations need to understand the difference so that they can monitor both.

Physical attack surface

The physical attack surface consists of endpoint device or system vulnerabilities that threat actors can use to gain unauthorized access to the networks sitting inside the company’s firewall.

Some examples of devices and systems that increase the physical attack surface include:

  • Workstations, both desktops and laptops
  • Hard drives
  • Smartphones
  • Tablets
  • USB drives
  • Internet of Things (IoT) devices like printers

Some measures for securing the physical attack surface include:

  • Strong password policies
  • User authentication
  • User authorization
  • Multi-factor authentication
  • Identity and Access Management (IAM) policies

Digital attack surface

The digital attack surface consists of the attack vectors connected to the public internet, outside the firewalls, that threat actors can use to gain access to resources sitting inside the firewall. People often refer to the digital attack surface as the organization’s “digital footprint.”

Some examples of assets that make up the digital attack surface include:

  • Publicly facing websites
  • Servers
  • Cloud-based storage and applications
  • “Shadow IT”
  • Ports
  • Serverless functions

Some controls used to reduce digital attack surface risk include:

  • Firewalls
  • Network segmentation
  • Security update installation
  • Endpoint monitoring
  • Encryption
  • Network scanning to detect new devices
  • Secure configurations

What is attack surface discovery?

Attack surface discovery is the process of using passive security research and scanning to identify all assets across the organization’s digital footprint.

This passive scanning process can include the discovery of assets and risks associated with:

  • IP addresses
  • Applications
  • Code repositories
  • Email security
  • Stolen credentials
  • Exposed cloud resources
  • Malware
  • Open ports
  • Cloud service misconfigurations
  • Devices
  • Hostnames
  • IoT devices

What is the difference between attack vector and attack surface?

Although many people use the terms interchangeably, attack vectors and attack surfaces are different.

The attack surface is all the potential points across your physical and digital assets where threat actors can attempt to gain unauthorized access to systems, networks, and software.

An attack vector is the methodology attackers use to gain unauthorized access or exploit the security weakness. Often, organizations determine the attack vector by tracing the threat actors’ behaviors, including tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs).

What are the types of attacks?

Understanding the different types of attacks can help mitigate risk. Once the organization knows the different attack vectors and how they relate to the attack surface, it can put better security controls in place.

Phishing

This is a common social engineering methodology that sends fake emails to end users, hoping to trick them into taking an action against their best interests. This usually involves downloading a malicious file or clicking a malicious link.

Malware

Successful phishing attacks often incorporate installing malware on a device. Malware, or malicious code, can be used to take over a device. In some cases, threat actors will use the device as a network or system entry point, then elevate privileges to move laterally across networks. Other times, the malware is used to take control of the device as part of a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack.

Compromised credentials

Another outcome of phishing attacks can be compromised credentials. Often, threat actors will insert links to fake “login portals,” tricking people into inputting their username and password. In other cases, compromised credentials can arise from weak passwords.

Unpatched operating systems, software, and firmware

When a security vulnerability is found in code, the manufacturer creates a security “patch,” or fixed code that needs to be installed. Since malicious actors know these common vulnerabilities and exposures (CVEs), they can exploit them and gain unauthorized access to the organization’s digital assets.

What is cyber attack surface management and why is it important?

Cyber attack surface management is the testing and continuous monitoring for new vulnerabilities that malicious actors can exploit as part of an attack. More specifically, surface management means:

  • Identifying all on-premises and cloud-based locations that can be infiltrated
  • Classifying areas according to risk level and organizational impact that a data breach would cause
  • Prioritizing high-risk areas and remediating weaknesses as soon as possible
  • Monitoring the surface area continuously to look for new control weaknesses and vulnerabilities

The ongoing analysis of networks and systems helps organizations identify and address vulnerabilities as they arise. In doing so, businesses can actively reduce their potential attack surface while also improving their overall cybersecurity posture. With this method, organizations also realize increased transparency, helping to strengthen customer relationships and business partnerships.

What are the components of a comprehensive cyber attack surface management program?

Several components should be considered when building an attack surface management program. That said, it is also important to integrate security functionalities as this will help improve the accuracy and efficiency of your program.

Here are four components of a comprehensive cyber attack surface management program:

1. Asset identification and prioritization

The first step in attack surface management is to identify all of your internet-facing assets. Once an organization has a record of its assets, it can classify them based on the level of risk they present to your business. This can be done by setting organizational risk tolerance and appetite statements and comparing them to individual asset risk levels. From there, the company can prioritize asset control remediation based on their risk.

2. Security ratings

Security ratings enable businesses to continuously monitor the cyber health of their environments and ecosystems which is vital to the success of attack surface management programs. With a comprehensive view of their network and supply chain risk, organizations can expedite vulnerability identification and reduce their attack surface in real-time.

Security ratings also allow for the continuous monitoring of third-party ecosystems. When you work with vendors, you incur their risks meaning that effective third-party risk management is essential. With security ratings, you can easily identify cybersecurity risks across your vendor portfolio, allowing you to actively manage each vendor’s potential attack surface.

3. Network segmentation

By dividing a network into segments, network administrators can better control asset traffic flow, helping to improve threat identification. In addition, network segmentation adds an extra layer of security to a network. Even if the network is compromised, threat actors will be unable to move laterally across networks.

Often, network segmentation starts with network access controls that limit who can access what network, establishing a zero-trust approach to security.

4. Security threat intelligence

Cyber threat intelligence provides organizations with greater visibility into the current threat landscape, helping them protect against attacks.

Using insights from cybersecurity data, organizations are better able to identify and prioritize exploitable vulnerabilities on their networks. Threat intelligence can also be used to monitor cybercrime activity, which helps organizations ensure that they have adequate levels of security.

How SecurityScorecard can help manage your cybersecurity attack surface

The key to effectively managing your attack surface is having continuous visibility into your internal and third-party network environments. Organizations that leverage SecurityScorecard’s Security Ratings gain an outside-in view of their IT infrastructure, enabling them to prioritize vulnerability remediation. With insights gained into network threats, organizations can streamline risk management, reducing their attack surface.

Security Ratings also help businesses manage vendor risk by providing third-party risk insights in one centralized dashboard. This enables companies to quickly and easily identify, prioritize, and resolve issues within their vendor portfolio.

As more organizations undergo digital transformation, cyber attack surface management will become a necessity. With SecurityScorecard, businesses have access to the tools and resources they need to build and maintain comprehensive cyber attack surface management programs.

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