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Attack Vector vs Attack Surface vs Attack Path (Interaction & Differences)

Tally Netzer
May 30th, 2023

Cybersecurity is an intricate, multidimensional game of defense that requires businesses to stay one step ahead of threat actors. Among the several dimensions to consider, understanding the differences between attack vectors, attack surfaces, and attack paths is paramount. In this blog post, we aim to elucidate the concepts of attack vector, attack surface, and attack path, and how information security professionals can help secure their digital terrain more effectively.

Attack Vector vs. Attack Surface vs. Attack Path: Key Differences

While an attack vector is a method or pathway that a threat actor uses to gain access to a network, the attack surface of a network is the sum of all of the different attack vectors an attacker could use to enter or extract data. Meanwhile, an attack path is the sequence of steps an attacker can take to breach to breach a network.

What is an Attack Vector?

An attack vector refers to the method or pathway a threat actor uses to gain unauthorized access to a network. These methods may range from malicious email attachments to software vulnerabilities and can be used to exploit weaknesses in a network’s defense system. The primary aim of a threat actor utilizing an attack vector is to disrupt, damage, or gain control over the network.

Common attack vectors

Here are a few attack vectors commonly exploited by cybercriminals:

  1. Phishing Attacks: This is a common attack vector targeting organizations’ human attack surfaces. Cybercriminals use email or malicious websites to solicit personal information by posing as a trustworthy organization or individual.
  2. Malware: Malware is any software intentionally designed to cause damage to a computer, server, client, or computer network. Types of malware include viruses, worms, trojans, ransomware, and spyware.
  3. Man-in-the-Middle (MitM) Attacks: Here, the attacker secretly relays and possibly alters the communication between two parties who believe they are directly communicating with each other.
  4. SQL Injection: This attack involves the manipulation of a site’s database using malicious SQL statements. It’s often used to view, modify, or delete the content of a database.
  5. Zero-day Exploits: These involve the exploitation of a software vulnerability that is unknown to the software’s creators. By the time the vulnerability becomes known, and a patch is developed, damage may already have been done.
  6. Cross-Site Scripting (XSS): This occurs when a web application gathers malicious data from a user. The data is usually in the form of a malicious script, which can then be used to steal data.
  7. Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS): This attack involves overwhelming a server or network with more access requests than it can handle, causing it to become slow or unresponsive.

What is an Attack Surface?

The attack surface of a network is the sum total of all the different points (attack vectors) where an unauthorized user (the attacker) can try to enter data or extract data from an environment. As enterprises increasingly rely on third-party web services, vendors, and platforms, their attack surface grows and becomes more complex. Consequently, their risk of potential cyber threats increases.

According to IONIX research, 20% of highly exploitable attack surface risks originate in the organization’s digital supply chain. Our patented Connective Intelligence technology allows organizations to uncover their internet-facing assets and their digital supply chain, thereby identifying and assessing the risks lurking within their sprawling network of dependencies.

What is an Attack Path?

An attack path refers to the sequence of steps or chain of actions that an attacker can take to exploit to breach a network or system. It is important to understand that attack paths that originate in an organization’s non-business-critical assets or even externally in their digital supply chain, can pose an immediate threat to an organization’s IT infrastructure.

To put it into context, consider a scenario where an external supplier with seemingly harmless access to your IT infrastructure becomes compromised. This compromise could provide a launching point for an attacker to infiltrate your network. Despite the supplier’s systems not being business-critical to your operations, control of subsidiary risk has now become a vital in managing attack paths leading to your core assets.

Similarly, a low-risk, non-business-critical asset in your own IT environment could harbor a vulnerability that, while not dire in isolation, serves as a stepping stone in an attacker’s path towards more critical targets. This could be as simple as a poorly secured development server or a legacy system that’s still network-connected but no longer actively maintained.

Such scenarios underscore the importance of a comprehensive attack surface management strategy, where every asset, regardless of its perceived importance, is regularly scrutinized for vulnerabilities. By understanding and mapping out potential attack paths, proactive measures can be put in place to secure not just the “crown jewels,” but also the less obvious assets that could unwittingly serve as conduits for attackers. That’s why mapping and analyzing attack paths has become a critical component of advanced cybersecurity strategies and is a key aspect of tools such as attack surface management platforms.

How attack surface management solutions can mitigate attack vector risks

Attack Surface Management (ASM) plays a significant role in detecting and mitigating different types of attack vectors. Let’s break down how it helps to mitigate the risks posed by these common f attack vectors:

  1. Phishing Attacks: ASM can help protect against phishing by monitoring for suspicious activity, such as the creation of new domains that closely resemble the company’s domain, which could be used to trick employees or customers.
  2. DNS Takeover: DNS (Domain Name System) takeover attacks occur when an attacker gains unauthorized control over the DNS server. This unauthorized access allows the attacker to redirect the traffic from the original site to a malicious one. An external ASM strategy can mitigate this by monitoring for unusual DNS changes or suspicious activity linked to your domains.
  3. Domain Hijacking: Domain hijacking, also known as domain theft, involves changing the registration of a domain name without the permission of the original registrant. The hijacker can then use the domain to launch malicious activities such as phishing attacks or ransom demands. Regular monitoring of domain registration details can help detect and prevent domain hijacking.
  4. Malware: ASM solutions can identify risky open ports, unpatched software, or potential backdoors that could serve as entry points for malware. The visibility gained from ASM tools also helps in understanding if any part of the infrastructure has been communicating with known malicious entities, which may indicate a malware infection.
  5. Man-in-the-Middle (MitM) Attacks: ASM platforms can help monitor for unsecured communication protocols, weak encryption standards, and network misconfigurations that can be exploited for MitM attacks. By flagging these issues, they can be remediated before being exploited.
  6. SQL Injection: ASM can discover and help secure web applications, APIs, and databases that might be susceptible to SQL injection attacks. Regularly scanning and monitoring these assets for vulnerabilities can significantly reduce the risk.
  7. Cross-Site Scripting (XSS): ASM solutions can detect vulnerable web applications and APIs that could be susceptible to XSS attacks. This allows organizations to prioritize and remediate these vulnerabilities, effectively reducing the risk.
  8. Third-Party and Supply Chain Risks: ASM can identify risks associated with third-party vendors, such as insecure APIs or compromised software, helping you manage the risk in your digital supply chain.
  9. Zero-day Exploits: While it’s impossible to directly protect against an unknown zero-day exploit, ASM helps in rapid detection and response. Once a zero-day vulnerability becomes known, ASM solutions can help identify which assets are affected so they can be patched or isolated as quickly as possible.

In essence, the right Attack Surface Management provides a proactive approach to cybersecurity, allowing organizations to discover and address vulnerabilities before they can be exploited by attackers.

IONIX Attack Surface Management Platform

IONIX is the only Attack Surface Management (ASM) platform that uses Connective Intelligence technology to map and analyze the attack surface and its digital supply chain. Going beyond assets, it uncovers and evaluates connections, mapping attack paths, including those that originate in the digital supply chain.

IONIX’s Active Protection automatically neutralizes critical threats such as insecure DNS records or cloud storage objects, like AWS S3 buckets or Azure blobs, can potentially be hijacked by attackers, leading to risks such as malicious content exposure or DNS takeover. When IONIX identifies such high-risk vulnerabilities, its Active Protection features swiftly steps in to mitigate these threats, eliminating the need for manual intervention and enhancing the security of the targeted assets.

To learn more about IONIX ASM book a demo.


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