Recent events around the world have demonstrated that there are countless attack vectors which cybercriminals can exploit to gain access to your network, and your data. With cyberattacks costing their victims millions of dollars, being able to prevent these malicious programs from gaining a foothold is key. These footholds, also known as IT attack surfaces, present a significant threat to the modern cybersecurity team but what is an IT attack surface and what best practices can help to minimize it?
What is an IT attack surface?
An IT attack surface is defined as a set of all possible locations and entry points where an unauthorized user can access a network or system to extract data or cause a cyberattack.
For example, an organizations’ attack surface can include the company website, VPN and intranet, as well as ports, software platforms and servers.
As more technologies and software are added to an organization, a larger potential attack surface is created. So, as organizations add new resources and users, they must constantly be on guard to prevent potential threats to those resources.
What are the different types of IT attack surfaces?
There are typically three different types of attack surfaces, digital, physical, and social. Digital attack surfaces are made up of the components that connect to an organization’s network. Software applications, ports, servers, websites and Shadow IT components (apps used without the IT team’s permission) are all part of the digital attack surface.
Physical attack surfaces are made up of physical devices and endpoints where an unauthorized user could gain access. Laptops, desktops, cell phones, tablets, printers and USB drives are all considered to be physical attack surfaces.
Finally, social attack surfaces involve gaining the trust of an individual or group to be granted access outside of organizational policies. For example, an attacker gaining access through social connections to a contractor that frequently works with staff.
How are attack vectors and attack surfaces related?
An attack vector is the method unauthorized users use to access organizational systems. For example, a phishing email may be the attack vector used to gain access to other sensitive company data.
Attack surfaces and attack vectors are different but related concepts that often get confused. Attack vectors are the methods an unauthorized individual uses to breach or access an organization’s systems or accounts, such as via unpatched software, weak web components, expired certificates and public dev sites. Attack surfaces are the organization’s systems and accounts that get attacked or breached.
For example, an attack vector would be a cybercriminal using an unencrypted API to breach an organization’s network systems to steal employee data. In this scenario, an attack surface would be the organization’s network systems.
Every digital or physical attack surface can be accessed through a wide variety of attack vectors, and organizations frequently have dozens or hundreds within its network. The most common attack vectors include, but are not limited to phishing, malware, ransomware, compromised passwords, encryption issues, unpatched software, social engineering, and unsecure APIs
The IT attack surface reduction principle
The attack surface reduction principle is the idea that limiting an organization’s attack surface gives fewer entry points to would-be cyber attackers to access sensitive data.
Think of it like shooting at a target. A smaller target is hard to hit, and hitting a moving target is even more difficult.
The fewer vulnerabilities available for unauthorized users to access means internal teams have fewer resources they need to maintain and monitor. By extension, less enticing for attackers.
What is IT attack surface management and why is it important?
Attack surface management is an ongoing task in a comprehensive cybersecurity risk management program where attack surfaces are constantly analyzed, investigated, maintained and monitored to mitigate potential cyberattacks. Its overall goal is to identify potential vulnerabilities so that there are fewer entry points for a breach.
Organizations that are unaware of their various attack surfaces have no insight into their potential vulnerabilities and place themselves at a significant disadvantage in the event of an attack.
For entities that actively manage their attack surfaces, an attack surface analysis is crucial to gain a full understanding of potential weaknesses.
Conducting an IT attack surface analysis
An attack surface analysis maps out all potential security vulnerabilities within a network. It isn’t a quick fix, however it gives a more accurate map of where to get started to protect digital assets. Conducting an attack surface analysis and charting out potential vulnerabilities is key to tightening up security protocols to make an organization safer and more secure.
An attack surface analysis often includes: identifying all attack surfaces, Identifying all entry points (which can be thousands or more), Identifying high risk areas, with a focus on exterior systems that allow public access, defining user types and privilege levels, prioritizing potential risks, and identifying a breach or compromised system.
Attack surface evaluations aren’t simply a one and done task. As enterprises shift—by adding and removing users, tools, systems and interfaces—overall attack surfaces will grow and change, making an attack surface analysis an ongoing process. Pair periodic evaluations with regularly scheduled tasks aimed at minimizing potential attack surfaces to help keep vulnerabilities in check.
How to minimize IT attack surfaces: Six key strategies
One common way organizations start to reduce their cybersecurity risk is by minimizing their attack surfaces. Keep in mind that reducing the number of these areas is a helpful start, but it doesn’t mean that vulnerabilities still can’t be exploited. Consider these key methods to start minimizing organizational attack surfaces:
- 1. Get rid of unused or unnecessary software and endpoints
- Unused software and endpoints are ripe for exploitation. If an application or endpoint is no longer frequently accessed or needed, take steps to sunset their usage.
- 2. Implement Zero Trust
- Zero Trust is a cybersecurity philosophy that hinges on the idea that no user inside or outside of a network is trusted. Authentication, network segmentation, preventing lateral movement and limiting access to only necessary applications are the fundamental foundations for this approach to cybersecurity.
- 3. Provide cybersecurity training for employees
- Cybersecurity training for employees offers another line of defense against attackers. Trainings that help employees understand best practices can also help mitigate breaches from phishing emails and social engineering attempts.
- 4. Conduct regular vulnerability scans
- Periodic attack surface scans help organizations quickly find and identify potential exposure points.
- 5. Protect backups
- Old backups and copies of data are often included as part of a company’s overall attack surface. Protection protocols and access to that data should be strictly limited to help ensure they don’t become exploited.
- 6. Segment your network
- By dividing networks into smaller pieces, organizations can add hurdles to would-be attackers. Network segmentation actions such as micro-segmentation — isolating specific areas and setting up zero trust for that area — and firewalls help to maintain some distance between specific sections of an attack surface.
IT attack surface management is no small task. However, by taking steps to conduct an attack surface analysis and minimize attack surfaces, organizations can help mitigate the heavy cost of a breach.