What Is a Cyber Attack Vector?

Learn how hackers identify weaknesses and gain access to your computer systems and networks.

Dusan Vasic Image
Updated:

November 16,2022

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An attack vector is the path or means by which a hacker gains access to a computer system or network. There are numerous ways to launch a cyber attack, and hackers often use multiple vectors to increase their chances of success. In this blog post, we'll look at some of the most common cyber attack vectors and how you can protect your systems from them.

Attack Vector Costs and Risks

An attack vector can be anything from exploit code to malware to phishing emails. They can be used to launch various types of attacks, such as denial-of-service attacks and data breaches. In order to protect yourself against these threats, it's important to have a strong understanding of common attack vectors and how malicious parties can use them to harm your systems.

Keep in mind that attackers are constantly developing new ways to exploit vulnerabilities. According to IBM, the average cost of a cyberattack in 2022 was $4.35 million, a significant increase of 12.7% when compared with 2020.

To prevent cyber attacks, organizations must put in place multiple layers of security controls. These include firewalls, intrusion detection/prevention systems (IDS/IPS), trusted platform modules (TPMs), and encryption. Organizations can significantly reduce their risk of being compromised by identifying and securing the most common attack vectors.

The Difference Between Attack Vector, Attack Surface, and Threat Vector

When discussing cybersecurity, you may encounter the terms "attack vector," "threat vector," and "attack surface" often used interchangeably. Let’s explain why’s that at least partially correct. 

What Is a Threat Vector?

A threat vector is another expression for an attack vector. Both refer to a method through which a hacker can exploit vulnerabilities to cause harm to a computer network. 

What Is Attack Surface?

An attack surface is the total sum of different points that a hacker can use to break into a computer network. The larger the organization and its computer infrastructure, the larger the attack surface and the more vulnerable a system is to attacks. As a result, it’s easier for bad actors to exploit system vulnerabilities. Consequently, reducing the attack surface is one of the most important goals of cybersecurity.

Why are Attack Vectors Exploited by Attackers?

While the motives of hackers vary, there is one common goal: to gain access to sensitive information or systems. For most, it's relatively easy to do, and it can be quite profitable. After all, if a hacker can gain network access, they can potentially steal sensitive data, launch ransomware attacks, and spy on organizations or individuals. 

Attack Vectors by Methods of Exploitation

Depending on the method used to exploit a vulnerable system, there are two types of attack vectors experts differentiate. These are passive and active attacks.

Passive Attack

A passive attack involves monitoring a system for information-gathering purposes. This attack does not entail interacting with the system or its components. A passive attack aims to gain access to information, such as passwords, finances, and more. While they can be challenging to detect, these attacks can cause significant damage. 

Active Attack

An active attack is disruptive. It damages or disables systems and disrupts operations. Denial-of-service (DoS) is a common type of active attack. In a DoS attack, an attacker sends so much traffic to a server that it becomes overwhelmed and unable to process legitimate requests. This can cause considerable damage to a company, as it can result in lost productivity and revenue.

Active attacks also target weak passwords through social engineering, malware, and phishing in order to gain sufficient information for a wider attack against an organization's network infrastructure. 

Common Attack Vector Examples

The variety of attack vectors shows us how many options cybercriminals have when they want to target an individual or an organization. Almost all attacks can be scaled to a large or small company and organization, not to mention individuals or a specific group of people. Below are just some of the most common attack vectors hackers use.

Insider Threats

While hackers' attacks are often seen as an outside force, it's essential not to forget about insider threats. Employees, contractors, and third-party vendors have access to a company's network and systems, making them a potential risk. In fact, a study by Proofpoint found that insider threats have risen 44% in the last two years.

Malicious or disgruntled employees with access can intentionally leave the company vulnerable to attack. They may do this by downloading malware, making a data breach, sabotaging systems, or simply publishing sensitive company information online.

While it's impossible to eliminate insider threats completely, companies can take steps to mitigate them by increasing the security of vectors used for attack. These include implementing proper security measures, such as access control and activity monitoring.

Phishing Attack

Phishing is a type of social engineering attack in which hackers attempt to trick users into clicking on malicious links or attachments sent through emails, SMS, or another source. These links and attachments often lead to malware, which can then be used to gain access to a company's network.

Phishing attacks are often difficult to detect, as they can appear to come from a legitimate source. That's why companies need to train their employees on the dangers of phishing and how to spot these attacks. The best course of action is to be suspicious of each correspondence you receive and to verify the sender before taking any action, which can significantly diminish the threat from this cyber-attack vector.

Other layers of protection include the use of spam filters, using multi-factor authentication, and blocking potentially malicious websites

Unpatched Software and Servers

Zero-day attacks exploit vulnerabilities in operating systems and software solutions before their security issues are addressed. They are difficult to defend against, as frequently, there's no solution for them until an attack occurs and the software developer releases a patch.

That's why it's crucial for companies to keep their software and servers up-to-date. Remember, having the latest version can save you trouble down the line.

Malware

The attack vector, in cyber security terms, uses malware to accomplish its goal. Malware is a broad term that includes various kinds of malicious software. It can be used to steal information, take control of systems, or damage data. The most common types of malware are viruses, ransomware, spyware, worms, and Trojans.

Computer viruses usually spread between devices and damage data and software. They disrupt the use of a computer, which can be extremely costly for businesses as they easily spread through networks, emails, and drives.

Ransomware is a type of malware that encrypts data and demands a ransom to decrypt it. This can be done by locking the system or by threatening to delete or publish the victim's data. For larger organizations and companies, ransomware can be devastating as it can prevent them from accessing critical data and systems.

Spyware is software that gathers information about a person or organization without their knowledge. It can be used to steal passwords, credit card information, and other sensitive data. Moreover, it can be utilized to gain access to systems and networks by stealing credentials.

Worms are malware that can spread without interaction from the user. They often take advantage of security vulnerabilities to replicate and spread, which can quickly cause damage as they can delete files, fill up hard drives, or use up bandwidth.

Another attack vector example is a Trojan, which, as the name suggests, is malware that disguises itself as a legitimate program or file. Once it's executed, it can install other malware, such as viruses, ransomware, and spyware.

Malware can be difficult to detect and remove, which is why it's important for companies to have a comprehensive security solution in place. This should include anti-malware software, as well as intrusion detection and prevention systems.

Having Weak or No Encryption 

Companies use encryption to add another layer of security, making it more difficult for hackers to access data. Only parties that have keys to decipher data can access it. If you are sending data without encryption, it's possible for hackers to intercept it and read it

Weak encryption is susceptible to a brute force attack, where hackers attempt to use various combinations of characters until they find the right one. This is why it's important to use strong encryption, as well as to keep the keys safe.

Encryption methods that are usually recommended for transmitting data and for keeping it stored safely are AES (Advanced Encryption Standard) and RSA (Rivest-Shamir-Adleman).

Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) 

An attack vector that, by definition, can cause the greatest damage to server infrastructure is a Distributed Denial of Service attack. A DDoS attack can interrupt services, crash servers, and make websites unavailable. 

Attackers can overload a server's internet traffic by using a botnet, a large group of infected machines which are controlled remotely. These attacks can cost companies substantial sums of money, as they often have to pay for more bandwidth and resources to keep their systems running.

DDoS attacks can be difficult to defend against, as the attacker can use a large number of devices to generate traffic. However, there are some methods to help mitigate these attacks, such as rate-limiting, which limits the amount of traffic that can be sent to a server, and using a content delivery network (CDN), which spreads traffic across multiple servers.

SQL Injections

Structured query language is a programming language used to manipulate databases. Most servers rely on SQL to manage and access data stored on them, which include account information, payment details, and other PII (personally identifiable information). These databases can represent vulnerable cybersecurity vectors for malicious parties.

SQL injections occur when an attacker enters malicious code into an input field, such as a login form, that is then executed by the server. This can give the attacker access to the database and allow them to modify or delete data. The way to prevent SQL injections is by using parameterized queries, which limit what input can be entered into fields, and by using input validation.

XSS (Cross-Site Scripting)

An XSS attack works by having malicious code injected into a website. Even though the website isn't directly attacked, the users who visit the site are. The code typically executes malicious JavaScript, which can steal cookies, session tokens, or other sensitive information. It can also be used to redirect users to another website or to display a popup with advertising.

Man-in-the-Middle Attack

A man-in-the-middle (MitM) attack is where an attacker inserts themselves between two parties that are communicating with each other, leading to compromised credentials. The attacker can intercept, modify, and relay messages between the two parties without either of them knowing. 

This type of attack can be used to steal information, such as passwords or credit card numbers. It can also be used to inject malicious code into a website.

Such vectors of attack can be prevented by using encryption like SSL/TLS, which makes it difficult for an attacker to intercept and read data. 

Weak Passwords

Weak credentials and passwords used for more than one account are among the main reasons cyber attacks are successful. It is important to have strong and unique passwords for each account, as well as to enable two-factor authentication (2FA) where possible. 2FA adds an extra layer of security by requiring a second factor, such as a code from a mobile app or email, in addition to the password.

Using a password manager to generate and store strong passwords can also help improve cybersecurity. Password managers work by generating random and unique passwords that are difficult to guess, as well as store them in an encrypted format. This means that even if the password manager is compromised, the attacker would still need the encryption key to access the passwords.

FAQ
What is meant by an attack vector?

Attack vector meaning is often confused with that of attack surface, which refers to the sum of all points of entry a hacker can use to attack a computer network. In general, an attack vector is a pathway that can be used to exploit a vulnerability to gain access to sensitive data or systems. An attacker will often use multiple vectors to increase their chances of success.

What are some attack vectors in cyber security?

There are many attack vectors in cybersecurity, but some of the most common include phishing, SQL injection, XSS, and man-in-the-middle attacks.

Is an attack vector a vulnerability?

No, an attack vector is not a vulnerability. A vulnerability is a flaw or weakness in a system that an attacker can exploit. For example, a vulnerable website may have an input field that does not correctly validate user input, allowing an attacker to inject malicious code. In cybersecurity, attack vectors are a way to exploit that vulnerability to gain access to sensitive data or systems.

Why is it called an attack vector?

The term vector is used in mathematics and physics to describe a quantity with both magnitude and direction. So, what is a cyber attack vector? In cybersecurity, the magnitude is the amount of damage that can be caused by an attack, while the direction indicates how the attack is carried out. 

For example, a phishing email would be a vector with a low magnitude (the email itself is not harmful) but an upward direction (it can lead to the loss of sensitive data).

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