We have journeyed completely past the stone age into the digital age—an era marked by heightened tech use. The internet is particularly driving this era in a consequential way and now, more than ever, the world has seen more people come online. As of April 2022, about 5 billion people the world over actively use the internet.
For businesses, the deeper we immerse our systems into the ocean of this data-driven world, so are cyber attackers waxing stronger in their evil games. Gone are the days when what we knew as an attack is someone showing up in your premises with a weapon. Today, attackers or perhaps hackers, now use a more subtle means known as attack vectors to take hold of unguarded business systems.
What is a cyber attack vector?
An attack vector is any means by which a hacker can gain access to your company's network including data and systems. There are many different types of attack vectors as we’ll learn, and hackers are always finding new ways to exploit them.
How do cyber attackers make use of attack vectors?
Cyber attackers or hackers make use of attack vectors in two main ways namely active and passive.
Passive attack: The cyber criminal simply gathers information about the target. This information can include anything from the target's name and email address to the type of software they're using. With this information, the criminal can craft targeted attacks that are more likely to succeed in infecting your systems. These kinds of attacks are not easily detected because no data or system resources are altered.
Active attack: Unlike a passive attack, which is when someone simply gathers information about your systems over time, an active attack is an attempt to damage or destroy your business network.
A typical example of this kind of attack is a masquerade attack where an intruder pretends to be a trusted user then steals login credentials to gain access privileges to system resources.
The top 10 types of cyber attack vectors with examples
There are several types of attack vectors that attackers are now using vigorously to target organizations whether large or small. But let us concentrate on the top ten common attack vectors. They include:
1. Credential-based vectors
Credential-based vectors are those that relate to various loopholes in credentials. It could be a compromise, a weakness or reusing credentials.
Compromised credentials: Compromised credentials are login details that have been stolen or hacked. When this happens, the attacker gains access to your employees’ accounts and can potentially do damage or steal sensitive information.
Once attackers compromise credentials, they can easily move through your organization's networks, wreaking havoc on your data and systems. To solve this, you need to implement effective password policies that will instill a strong password culture. It’s also critical to use multi-factor authentication.
Weak credentials: Weak credentials are simply login details that can be easily guessed or cracked. They're often easy to remember, such as simple passwords or sequential numbers. Cyber criminals often exploit weak credentials through guesswork.
There are a few different types of weak credentials that can put your business at risk. Here are a few examples:
- Weak passwords: easily guessed passwords, such as «password» or «1234.»
- Default accounts and passwords: accounts that come pre-configured with software systems, often with easily guessed passwords.
- Shared accounts: accounts that are shared by multiple users in your company, making it difficult to track who is accessing the account and what they are doing.
Reusing credentials: This happens when one uses the same credentials across several accounts. So if a hacker happens to land on a heavily reused set of username and password, for example, you can imagine the kind of damage they can wreak to all the other accounts where these credentials are used.
2. Malicious insiders
A malicious insider is someone who has access to an organization's systems, but who uses that access to harm the organization. This might involve stealing or leaking confidential information, sabotaging systems or data, or even blackmailing the organization.
There are four main types of malicious insiders in the context of cybersecurity: disgruntled employees, malicious contractors, accidental insiders, and compromised insiders.
- Disgruntled employees: These are employees who have a personal grudge against the company. They may want to harm the company by stealing or damaging data, or simply by shutting down critical systems.
- Malicious contractors: These are employees of third-party companies who have been hired to work on sensitive projects. They may have access to confidential information that they can use to harm the company.
- Accidental insiders: These are people who inadvertently leak sensitive data or inadvertently activate malware on their devices.
- Compromised insiders: These are employees whose computers have been infected with malware, which gives attackers access to their systems and data.
Misconfiguration can happen when setting up new systems or making changes to existing ones. Misconfiguration can also occur when devices are not properly set up for use in a network. For example, printers that are not password-protected and accessible by anyone on the network can be a security risk.
Because misconfiguration is often an overlooked issue, it can be a relatively easy way for attackers to gain access to your networks. To help prevent misconfigurations from being exploited, it is important to regularly review and test system configurations. Cyber security professionals can also help to identify and correct misconfigurations before they are exploited.
4. Cross-Site Scripting (XSS)
Cross-Site Scripting (XSS) involves malicious code being injected into a web page or application. This code can then be executed by unsuspecting users, resulting in stolen data, infected devices, or even full account takeovers.
There are three main types of cross site scripting attacks:
- Reflected cross-site scripting occurs when a user is directed to a malicious website or web page that contains a script that is executed by the user's browser. This type of attack is typically delivered in an emailor through a hyperlink.
- Stored cross-site scripting exploits vulnerabilities in web applications. The attacker injects malicious code into a web application, and the code is stored on the server. When another user visits the application, the malicious code is executed.
- DOM-based cross-site scripting is a more insidious type of attack that exploits system vulnerabilities in client-side scripts. The attacker injects malicious code into a web page, and the code is executed by the browser when the page is loaded.
5. Vendors-based vectors
You may or may not be aware of the massive Target data breach that occurred some time back. It was one of the biggest cyber attacks in history, and affected millions of customers. Target was later required to pay US$18.5 million in settlements. What you may not know is that the Target data breach was executed via a third-party vendor. The hackers were able to gain access to the retailer's network through its HVAC vendor.
Third-party vendors can become attack vectors in a number of ways, but the most common is by being compromised themselves. For example, a hacker might gain access to the vendor's systems and steal data or plant malware or ransomware that can be used to attack their customers.
There are a few key industries that are most vulnerable to vendor-based cyber attack vectors. One is the healthcare industry, as hospitals and clinics rely heavily on third-party vendors to manage their electronic health records (EHRs) and other critical systems.
Another industry that's at a high risk of vendor based attack vectors is the banking sector. This is likely due to the sensitive information that banking institutions store, such as customers' social security numbers, credit cards and account numbers.
6. Poor encryption
Data encryption is a security tool that obscures the contents of a message and converts digital data into ciphertext or code in order to protect it. This is to ensure that unauthorized parties and cybercriminals do not read the data within a message. However, when attackers discover that your IT forgot to encrypt sensitive information, they strike.
Let's imagine that you're a company that stores sensitive data like credit card numbers or social security information. If a hacker manages to get their hands on your poor-quality encryption key, they can easily decrypt all of your files and steal the information.
7. Unpatched applications or servers
According to the SANS Institute, unpatched applications on web servers are currently the primary initial infection vector used to compromise computers with internet access.
Here, attackers strike by sending waves of targeted email attacks (spear phishing attacks) in commonly used programs such as Adobe PDF Reader, QuickTime, and Microsoft Office, amongst others.
Because of the trust users have in these sites, they feel safe downloading and opening documents not knowing the dangers. Sometimes the attackers do not even need the victims to open the documents, all that they need is just a simple visit to the unpatched resource from where they can easily proceed to exploit various loopholes such as reading credentials.
8. Remote workforce
As the number of remote workers grows, so does the opportunity for cyber criminals to use this industry as an easy attack vector. Remote workers are often seen as an easier target, because they're less likely to be monitored. Additionally, many remote workers use their own devices and unsecured networks to access company data, which makes them even more suitable as an attack vector.
And it's not just large corporations that are at risk. Even small businesses can be targeted by cyber criminals, who often see their remote workers as an easier target than larger organizations. There is already a growing trend where attackers hijack VPN connections, even those protected with multi-factor authentication. This trend is likely to explode thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic that is now having a huge shift to remote work
9. Open ports
Ports are connection points for incoming and outgoing network traffic. In simple terms, it is a communication pathway that can be used to send or receive data. By definition, an open port is one that is listening for incoming traffic. So when a port is open, it means that there is an active connection. This can provide opportunities for cyber criminals to exploit.
The most common open ports are Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) port 80 (HTTP) and User Datagram Protocol (UDP) port 53 (DNS). When a cyber criminal scans for open ports, they are looking for opportunities to exploit. For example, they may attempt to inject malicious code into a web server via port 80 or perform a denial of service attack by flooding port 53 with DNS requests.
Open ports can also be used to gain access to a network or steal information. For this reason, it is important to ensure that all unnecessary ports are closed and that proper security measures are in place to protect open ports from being exploited. You can use a port scanner to identify which ports are open on your system, and then take appropriate steps to close them.
Eavesdropping is the act of secretly listening in on a conversation or electronic communication. In the context of cybersecurity, it's the act of gaining unauthorized access to a business' network with the aim of “listening in”
Eavesdropping can be carried out by anyone from a skilled hacker to a casual cyber criminal. Essentially, an attacker will listen in on your conversations in order to gain sensitive information. This might be passwords, credit card numbers, or even business secrets.
But perhaps even more concerning is the fact that eavesdropping can be used to manipulate or influence individuals. By listening in on private conversations, attackers can learn about your employees personal vulnerabilities and use this information to blackmail them or exert control over them.
There are two popular ways that attackers can eavesdrop on your company:
- Wiretapping: this is the traditional way of eavesdropping, where an attacker physically taps into a phone line or computer cable to listen.
- Social engineering: the attacker uses deception to get access to confidential information. For example, they might call a company and pose as an authorized representative, then ask for sensitive information.
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Strategies to minimize cyber attack vectors
Take these steps to minimize attack vectors within your organization;
- Establish a comprehensive security strategy: This means implementing measures to protect your entire system from all manner of attacks that could exploit any of these attack vectors.
- Educate your employees: Many cyber attack vectors exist because employees aren’t aware of how they can be exploited. Empower them through cyber security awareness training.
- Harden your systems and networks: Make sure that your systems are up-to-date with the latest security patches, firewalls, strong password, authentication methods, and restricting access to sensitive data.
- Regular audits: Audit your systems regularly to find and seal the vectors that pose the most risk.
- Use security services: One of the best ways to safeguard your company is by using cyber security providers. They have solid solutions that can help to detect and prevent cyber attacks, as well as keep your systems and data safe.
- Implement security incident response: If an attack does occur, you'll need to be prepared to respond quickly. This means having a team of experts who can help you contain and eradicate the threat, as well as minimize the damage.
- Business continuity plans: A business continuity plan will outline how you will continue to operate your business in the event of a major outage or security breach. This way you'll be able to keep your business up and running, even in the face of adversity.
You've heard the horror stories: companies that have had their systems breached, customer data stolen, and confidential information compromised. But as we have seen, there are steps you can take to minimize these vectors and protect your business.
It's important to keep in mind though that no security strategy is 100% foolproof, so your goal is to consistently push for reducing the chances that your business will fall victim to these attack vectors. The more you minimize the vectors, the less you are vulnerable. And finally, it might interest you to know that attackers mostly don't bother with highly guarded systems. They go for the weak ones. So whatever you do, don't run on weak systems.