How Are Attack Vectors And Attack Surfaces Related

How Are Attack Vectors And Attack Surfaces Related
9 minute read

The current cyber landscape makes it integral for organizations to find effective, efficient ways to protect themselves from cybercriminals and mitigate cyber risks. Effective risk mitigation involves having a strong comprehension of areas of your organization's network that are prone to cyberattacks and vulnerabilities that can pose a security risk.

Identifying vulnerabilities before attackers have the chance to exploit them can help improve your organization's security posture and prevent cyber incidents. To accomplish this, it is critical to understand the relationship between attack surfaces and attack vectors. 

The post will examine how attack vectors and attack surfaces are related and how understanding the intricacies of both categories can improve your company's response to cybersecurity threats.

What Is An External Attack Surface?

An external attack surface refers to a combination of internet-facing assets within an organization which are prone to cyberattacks. This includes brand assets, intellectual property (IP), Customer Account Compromise (CAC), Bank Identification Numbers (BINs), executives, employees, VIPs, domains, third-parties, social media platforms, and presence on the deep/dark web. 

Unlike the internal infrastructure, which comprises servers, networks, endpoints, and cloud services, the external attack surface focuses on assets and individuals that are publicly accessible and can become targets for cyber threats. Any vulnerability in these external elements presents a potential risk to your organization’s external attack surface.

Components That Make Up Your Organization's Attack Surface

Let’s examine each element of your organization’s external attack surface in more detail:


Software components like web applications, firmware, databases and mobile applications are commonly targeted by cybercriminals. These components are essential in providing functionality to the organization, but they also pose a significant security risk.

Cybercriminals can target firmware in hardware devices, or databases that have the organization's core information. Some mobile and web applications can have some flaws in coding, which is a vulnerability that can be exploited by cybercriminals.

Supply Chain

Third-party vendors are part of your organization's attack surface as well, which is why it is critical to work with a managed threat intelligence provider that is able to identify and disrupt potential threats outside of your business’s internal networks. Software from third-party vendors like plugins and APIs can have some vulnerabilities that can easily be exploited by cybercriminals attempting to access sensitive data.

Open-source software and outsourced services like cloud providers can also bring risk to your organization. It is essential to examine your organization's cybersecurity measures to find better ways of detecting these risks early and communicating with your partners about the security responsibilities of each party.


This includes assets that are managed and inventoried, like servers and corporate websites. Cybercriminals can exploit vulnerabilities in VPNs, IP addresses, wireless networks, intrusion detection or prevention systems, switches and firewalls. 

The inherent nature of the wireless networks makes them more vulnerable to cyberattacks. Many have weak encryption, and this exposes them to unauthorized access by cybercriminals. Domain protection services can help prevent unauthorized access to your networks and websites.


One key aspect of your organization's attack surface is your people. Developers, employees, vendors and users can be targeted by cybercriminals looking to access your company's vital data. 

People can introduce some vulnerability to your cybersecurity system through social engineering attacks, negligence and human error. Cybercriminals can take advantage of these vulnerabilities to gain access to your company's data via insider threats and phishing.


Your organization's infrastructure includes IoT devices, servers, access control systems, network equipment, data centers and surveillance systems. Hardware components like routers can also introduce malware to your security systems if left unguarded. 

If your organization’s system infrastructure is misconfigured or outdated, those weaknesses can be exploited by cyberattackers who can take advantage of these vulnerabilities. 

Cloud Services

Cloud services like cloud-based applications, Software as a Service (SaaS), Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) and Platform as a Service (PaaS) can be essential to your organization's operations. However, a slight misconfiguration and weak encryption can lead to data loss through cyberattacks. 

Hackers can utilize vulnerabilities in your cloud services like weak authentication protocols to target your systems and access vital information.

Importance Of Managing Attack Surfaces

Attack surface management is a crucial intervention that helps to prevent and mitigate cyberattack risks. It can help address any vulnerabilities that can be exploited by cybercriminals to prevent the loss of sensitive data and maintain your business' reputation.

What Are Attack Vectors?

An attack vector refers to a technique that can be used to gain unauthorized access to a computer system or network. Cybercriminals utilize attack vectors to gain access to your company's external assets through vectors such as domain phishing, executive impersonations, third-party vulnerabilities, etc.

Types Of Attack Vectors

Below is a list of some of the common types of attack vectors that attackers use when targeting companies and individuals.

Domain Phishing

Domain phishing involves attackers creating fake websites or email domains that closely resemble legitimate ones. Their objective is to deceive users into entering login credentials or sensitive information, thinking they're interacting with a trusted entity. Due to the high resemblance to genuine domains, these phishing attacks can be particularly deceptive and damaging.

Brand/Executive Impersonations

Impersonation attacks occur when cybercriminals pretend to be a trusted brand, executive, or employee to manipulate individuals into performing specific actions or revealing confidential information. By leveraging the trust associated with the impersonated identity, attackers can deceive victims into engaging with malicious content or disclosing sensitive data.

Compromised Account Credentials

Attackers often seek to obtain legitimate user credentials to access systems without triggering security alarms. Once these credentials are compromised, cybercriminals can operate as genuine users, making it challenging to detect their malicious activities.

Account Takeovers

In account takeover attacks, cybercriminals gain unauthorized access to user accounts, either through phishing, credential stuffing, or exploiting third-party vulnerabilities. Once in control, they can misuse these accounts for fraudulent transactions, data theft, or further malicious activities.

Third-Party Vulnerabilities

Cybercriminals often target vulnerabilities within third-party vendors or services connected to an organization. Exploiting these vulnerabilities can provide a backdoor into the primary organization's systems or data, bypassing direct security measures.

Insider Threats

Though not a primary focus for external defense, insider threats arise when employees or associates misuse their access rights, either intentionally or unintentionally. Disgruntled employees, accidental data leaks, or simple negligence can lead to significant security breaches. Regular monitoring and communication can mitigate such risks.

Attack Vector Vs Attack Surface

As we have covered above, an attack vector is a technique which cybercriminals use to gain access to your sensitive information, while an attack surface refers to the combined vulnerabilities that are created by all of the internet-enabled systems, devices and individuals that make up your organization.

Techniques For Managing Your External Attack Surface

Managing attack surfaces involves regularly monitoring each internet-facing asset to understand potential vulnerabilities that pose a risk for attack. Below are some of the techniques that can be used to manage attack surfaces.

Regular Vulnerability Assessments

Regular assessment of vulnerabilities is a key aspect of attack surface management. Vulnerabilities grow every time that a new user or device is added to your network, increasing your risk of cyberattacks. Organizations should conduct regular vulnerability assessments to ensure that they have constant visibility and intelligence of the attack surface's evolving vulnerabilities.

Implement Strong Access Controls

Most data breaches are due to human errors. Development of strong policies and controls can help minimize human errors. This means having strong authentication and password management policies, using multi factor authentication, using virtual private networks and implementation of secure and strong remote access protocols.

Incident Response And Recovery Plans

Understanding existing and potential vulnerabilities can help in developing a clear incident response plan for any potential security issues. Developing an incident response plan involves the development of a clear outline explaining measures that the organization will take to reduce the duration and response to potential cybersecurity incidents and improve threat intelligence.

Continuous Monitoring And Threat Intelligence

Ongoing external attack surface monitoring can help in providing better visibility of the security vulnerabilities and improve threat intelligence. It also aids in the implementation of better security protocols tailored to the threats and in digital risk protection. Monitoring helps direct security teams to key vulnerabilities, minimizing time and cost wastage.

Best Practices For Securing Attack Surfaces

To effectively safeguard your organization's external attack surface, it's essential to adopt a strategic approach that encompasses visibility, intelligence, and readiness. Here are some best practices tailored to securing external attack surfaces:

Complete External Attack Surface Visibility & Asset Inventory

Ensuring comprehensive visibility into all external-facing assets is paramount. By maintaining a detailed and updated inventory of these assets, organizations can quickly identify potential vulnerabilities and take corrective measures. This includes monitoring domains, IP addresses, social media accounts, third-party affiliations, and any other public-facing asset.

Ongoing Cyber Threat Intelligence

Continuous monitoring and intelligence gathering on emerging threats and cybercriminal tactics can help organizations stay one step ahead. By understanding the evolving landscape, companies can anticipate potential attack vectors and proactively defend their assets. Leveraging intelligence platforms and threat feeds can provide real-time insights into potential threats.

Incident Readiness

Being prepared for potential cyber incidents is crucial. This involves having a well-defined incident response plan, regularly testing and updating the plan, and ensuring that the necessary tools and personnel are in place to respond swiftly to threats. Training staff, especially those in critical roles, to recognize and report potential security incidents can greatly enhance an organization's defensive posture.

Advanced Threat Analytics

Employing advanced analytics can help organizations identify patterns, anomalies, and potential threats across the external attack surface. By leveraging machine learning and AI-driven tools, you can automate threat detection and gain deeper insights into emerging risks.

Digital Footprint Monitoring

Regularly monitor and audit your organization's digital footprint across the web, social media platforms, and third-party databases. This proactive approach ensures that unauthorized or rogue assets are detected and handled promptly.

Collaboration with External Security Partners

Establishing relationships with external security organizations and participating in threat-sharing communities can enhance your threat intelligence. Collaborating allows for a broader view of the threat landscape and early warnings of emerging cyber threats.

Employee Training and Awareness

Continuous education and awareness programs for employees can significantly reduce risks. Ensure that they are familiar with the latest phishing techniques, brand impersonation threats, and best practices for maintaining personal and organizational security.

Vulnerability Management

Regularly scan and assess your public-facing assets for vulnerabilities. Prioritize these vulnerabilities based on their severity and potential impact, and ensure they are patched or mitigated promptly.

Third-party Risk Assessment

Since third-party vendors can be a part of your external attack surface, it's vital to assess their security postures. Regular audits and assessments can ensure that they adhere to your organization's security standards.

These best practices can further fortify your organization's defenses against external threats. It's essential to maintain a holistic approach, combining technology, processes, and people to ensure comprehensive security coverage.

Protect Your Organization’s External Attack Surface With ZeroFox

ZeroFox specializes in providing end-to-end techniques to assist organizations in detecting, exposing and thwarting cybersecurity threats . Our leading cybersecurity platform is AI-powered and has the capability to utilize machine learning tools to identify threats before they can breach your organization's attack surface. Book a demo today to understand how our unified cybersecurity platform can aid in the protection of your entire attack surface and most sensitive data.

Tags: Attack Surface ManagementExternal Cybersecurity

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