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What Are Attack Vectors and 8 Ways to Protect Your Organization

What Is an Attack Vector?

8 Minute Read

An attack vector is a technique or pathway that threat actors use to access or penetrate a target network, system, application, or device. An organization’s threat surface represents all the vulnerable systems that can be targeted by threat vectors.

Threat actors have a wide range of attack vectors at their disposal, and regularly create new threat vectors. Attack vectors might allow actors to steal information, cause disruption, spy on a target, remotely control IT, or commit fraudulent actions.  

Common attack vectors include compromised credentials, phishing, malware, insider threats, vulnerabilities, and SQL injections. A threat actor can utilize one or several attack vectors to achieve an objective. For example, the actor can use both phishing techniques and brute force attacks to attempt to compromise credentials.

In this article:

Attack Vector vs Attack Surface

An attack vector provides threat actors with a point of entry into a target. Here are the two main types of vectors:

  • Direct attack vectors—the threat actor attacks the target directly. For example, phishing or malware. 
  • Indirect attack vectors—the threat actor exploits vulnerabilities in other systems. For example, using an Internet browser vulnerability in the operating system.

An attack surface consists of all security risks and entry points that a target is exposed to. It includes all unknown (potential) and known vulnerabilities across all systems, hardware, and network components. 

Related content: Read our guide to attack surface management
 

Common Types of Attack Vectors

Compromised Credentials

Threat actors use compromised credentials to breach applications, systems, devices, and networks. They actively try to compromise credentials through various techniques. For example, phishing attacks may trick users into divulging their credentials. A brute-force attack attempts different username-password combinations to find a real set of credentials. 

Phishing

Phishing is one of the most widely used attack vectors. This attack vector relies on social engineering techniques to trick users into downloading malicious files, clicking on malicious links, or revealing sensitive information. Threat actors use it for various purposes, such as obtaining credentials, launching ransomware attacks, and stealing financial information. 

Malware

Malicious software (malware) serves as an attack vector that helps threat actors steal data, breach systems, and perform malicious tasks. Most malware is designed to achieve specific objectives. For example, ransomware encrypts files and demands a ransom in return for encryption keys, and spyware spies on users and sends this information to the actor. 

Insider Threats

Insider threats act from within the organization as authorized users. It can be an employee that unintentionally reveals confidential information, like credentials, to a social engineering actor. There are also malicious threat actors—employees or ex-employees who deliberately abuse their privileges to perform unauthorized activities. For example, an ex-employee whose privileges were not revoked can steal trade secrets and delete those files. 

Vulnerability Exploits

A vulnerability is a flaw that threat actors can exploit to launch attacks on software or hardware. There are two main types of vulnerabilities—known vulnerabilities disclosed to the public and zero-day vulnerabilities that are unknown vectors. Threat actors use both types to launch attacks, but zero-day vulnerabilities are considered more lucrative as they give actors more time to attack before anyone knows of their activities. 

SQL Injection

Structured Query Language (SQL) is a programming language that enables communication with databases. Many servers storing sensitive data rely on SQL to manage the data. An SQL injection is an attack vector that injects malicious SQL to make the server expose information. 

A successful SQL injection targeting databases storing credit card numbers, personally identifiable information (PII), or credentials is a compliance violation that threatens not only users, but also the business that owns the database and the software vendor managing it.
 

8 Ways to Protect Against Attack Vectors

Attackers employ various techniques to infiltrate corporate networks and compromise IT assets. The specific techniques evolve continuously, so IT teams must regularly update the tools, practices, and policies they use to protect against cyberattacks.

Some effective techniques to protect against vector attacks include: 

  1. Implementing strong authentication—organizations should have password policies to ensure all usernames and passwords are strong and stored properly. Multi-factor authentication (MFA) should be mandatory, at least for sensitive systems and administrative accounts, to provide an additional protection layer.
  2. Performing penetration tests—penetration testing allows organizations to identify, prioritize, and test security vulnerabilities. Usually, an ethical hacker performs the penetration tests, either as an in-house employee or an external service provider. Penetration testers imitate attackers’ techniques to assess a network, application, or computer system’s hackability. 
  3. Regular auditing and vulnerability testing—organizations should conduct IT vulnerability tests at least every quarter, with external auditors conducting tests annually. Tests and audits are essential for identifying IT resource vulnerabilities and enable organizations to update their security controls and policies. 
  4. Employee training—every new employee must receive comprehensive IT security training. All employees should receive periodic (at least annual) training to keep up-to-date with security policies and best practices.
  5. Installing updates immediately—the IT department must install software, hardware, and firmware updates as soon as they become available. Field devices should receive security updates automatically via a “push” mechanism.
  6. Implementing a closed network—there are various ways to restrict access to sensitive enterprise systems and data. Cloud-based systems are useful for providing remote access. Organizations with BYOD policies must implement controls to protect their systems while allowing users to access the network with their devices. One strategy is to use virtual private networks (VPNs) to restrict access to a defined set of users without exposing data to the public Internet.
  7. Encrypting data on portable devices—strong data encryption is important for securing data on edge devices like laptops and smartphones. Organizations can select a robust encryption technology like Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) to minimize the risk of a data compromise. 
  8. Applying physical access controls—most hacks and data breaches affect IT infrastructure, but physical infrastructure can also provide attack vectors. Attackers can intrude into the physical spaces housing sensitive servers, data centers, and storage facilities. Organizations must secure and monitor access to their physical assets, including branch offices, field sensors, and file cabinets. 

Attack Surface Management with HackerOne

Visibility alone is not enough to minimize risk and resist attacks. Organizations need to know their attack surface. They need to risk rank their assets based on how a bad actor would prioritize and execute their attacks. 

HackerOne Assets blends intelligence from ethical hackers with asset discovery, continuous assessment, and process improvement to reduce risk across your ever-expanding digital landscape. You can identify, analyze, manage testing scopes, and track testing results in one place for a complete asset inventory. 

Once identified, asset risk can be ranked, coverage gaps addressed and remediation resources assigned. Our community of ethical hackers can enrich asset data to include technology mapping to enable asset tracking and foot-printing. With HackerOne Assets, organizations will know their attack surface and be armed to effectively resist attacks. 

Learn more about HackerOne Attack Surface Management