Attack vector vs attack surface, Understanding the distinction between both is essential for cybersecurity professionals to proactively identify and mitigate potential threats, as it allows them to focus on specific vulnerabilities (attack vectors) within the broader context of overall system weaknesses (attack surface), ensuring a more comprehensive and effective defense strategy.
“Attack vector” and “Attack surface” are those two terms that are used interchangeably. Yet, these terms have distinct underlying concepts. Grasping these disparities can enhance your comprehension of security intricacies, empowering you to enhance your organization’s security by discerning between these terms effectively. As we progress, we will explore the meaning of each term and delve into Attack vector vs Attack surface with their fundamental distinctions.
Table of Contents
What does “Attack vector” mean?
An attack vector is a path or a method that cybercriminals use to gain unauthorized access to a computer system or network to launch an attack. It refers to any means or mechanism through which an attacker can exploit vulnerabilities in a system, application, or network to carry out malicious activities, such as stealing sensitive data, installing malware, or disrupting services.
Attack vectors can include various techniques, such as phishing emails, software vulnerabilities, social engineering, or physical access to devices, among others. Understanding different attack vectors is crucial for organizations to defend against cyber threats effectively.
Some of the attack vectors can be social engineering via email, unpatched software, targeted malwares, insider threats, etc.
What does “Attack surface” mean?
Attack surface refers to the sum of all possible points where an unauthorized user or malicious software can try to enter or extract data from an environment. In the context of computer security, it represents the vulnerabilities and entry points in a software application, system, or network that could potentially be exploited by attackers.
A larger attack surface indicates more potential avenues for attacks. For instance, an application running multiple services, open network ports, and various input channels (like APIs or user interfaces) has a larger attack surface compared to a simpler, isolated application.
Some of the attack surfaces can be physical security loopholes, network security, etc.
Here are the types of attack vectors and surfaces.
Fundamental differences: Attack vector vs Attack surface
The difference between an attack vector vs attack surface can be understood by going into more depth about each one of them. Let’s see them below.
Attack Vector –
- Definition: An attack vector is a path or a means by which a hacker gains access to a computer or network server to deliver a payload or malicious outcome. It is essentially the method or technique used by an attacker to exploit a vulnerability in the target system.
- Example: A common attack vector is a phishing email that tricks a user into clicking on a malicious link, leading to the installation of malware on the user’s device.
- Focus: Attack vectors focus on specific vulnerabilities and the methods used to exploit them. They are about the “how” of an attack.
- Includes: Techniques like phishing, malware, brute force, etc.
Attack Surface –
- Definition: Attack surface refers to all the points where an attacker can enter or extract data from a system. It encompasses all the vulnerabilities, entry points, and possible attack vectors in a system that are accessible to an attacker.
- Example: In a network, the attack surface might include open ports, insecure APIs, weak user passwords, outdated software, and other potential points of entry or exploitation.
- Focus: Attack surface focuses on the entirety of potential vulnerabilities in a system. It provides a broader view of all possible ways an attacker might infiltrate a system, including both known and unknown vulnerabilities.
- Includes: Techniques like hardware, software, infrastructure, etc.
Relationship: attack surface vs attack vector
- Interconnection: Attack vectors are part of the attack surface. Each specific method (attack vector) contributes to the overall potential points of vulnerability (attack surface) in a system.
- Dynamic Nature: Attack vectors can change rapidly as new vulnerabilities are discovered or new hacking techniques are developed. The attack surface is relatively stable, representing the overall landscape of vulnerabilities at a given point in time.
How to mitigate both attacks
Since we understood what is the difference between attack vectors vs attack surface, now let’s see how we can reduce or mitigate them to protect ourselves or the organization.
Guarantee the ongoing currency of all software through the implementation of automated updates across systems. For proprietary software, teams may conduct thorough vulnerability assessments to detect potential ingress points and coding weaknesses, subsequently addressing and rectifying any identified issues.
Enact and enforce strict password management policies requiring long and complex passwords, implement systems for secure password storage, and demand frequency rules for changing passwords.
Instruct employees on the art of identifying phishing attacks. Effectively designed firewalls also serve to thwart the activation of internet-borne malware by intercepting it prior to its reach into a network or individual endpoint.
What is the relationship between attack vectors and attack surface?
Interconnection: Attack vectors are part of the attack surface. Each specific method (attack vector) contributes to the overall potential points of vulnerability (attack surface) in a system.
Dynamic Nature: Attack vectors can change rapidly as new vulnerabilities are discovered or new hacking techniques are developed. The attack surface is relatively stable, representing the overall landscape of vulnerabilities at a given point in time.
What is the difference between an exploit and an attack vector?
Definition: An exploit is a piece of software, a chunk of data, or a sequence of commands that takes advantage of a vulnerability or a flaw in a computer system, application, or network to cause unintended or unanticipated behavior to occur.
Function: Exploits are used by attackers to leverage known vulnerabilities (or sometimes zero-day vulnerabilities, which are unknown to the system owner or vendor) and gain unauthorized access, execute arbitrary code, or perform other malicious actions on a targeted system.
Definition: An attack vector is the means or path that attackers use to exploit vulnerabilities in a system. It is the method, technique, or avenue used by an attacker to deliver an exploit to the target system and compromise its security.
Function: Attack vectors can be diverse and include methods such as phishing emails, malicious websites, infected USB drives, software vulnerabilities, weak passwords, and more. Attack vectors provide the entry points or routes through which exploits are delivered to target systems.
Interconnection: An attack vector is the broader concept that encompasses various methods (including but not limited to exploits) used to deliver attacks. Exploits are specific tools or techniques within the arsenal of attack vectors.
How to reduce of protect oneself or an organization from such attacks?
1. Using two-factor authentication via a trusted second factor can reduce the number of breaches that occur due to compromised credentials within an organization.
2. Keep an eye out for disgruntled employees and monitor data and network access for every device and user to expose insider risk.
Why are Attack Vectors Exploited by Attackers?
1. Cybercriminals can profit from targeting your organization’s software systems, including activities like illicitly acquiring credit card information or online banking credentials.
2. Another prevalent incentive is to obtain access to personally identifiable information (PII), healthcare data, and biometrics for the purpose of perpetrating insurance fraud, credit card fraud, or unlawfully acquiring prescription medications.