Attack Surface: Definition, Management and Reduction Best Practices

What is an attack surface?

In an IT environment, an attack surface is referred to as the sum of all potential points or attack vectors from which an unauthorized user/attacker can gain unauthorized access to a system and extract data from within.

In other words, an attack surface consists of all endpoints and vulnerabilities an attacker could exploit to carry out a security breach. As such, it is a security best practice to keep the attack surface as small as possible to reduce the risk of unauthorized access or data theft.

What is the difference between attack surface and attack vector?

As previously mentioned, an attack surface represents all the touchpoints on your network through which a perpetrator can attempt to gain unauthorized access to your software, hardware, network and cloud components. 

On the other hand, an attack vector is the actual method the perpetrator employs to infiltrate or breach a system or network. Some common examples of attack vectors include compromised credentials, ransomware, malicious insiders, man-in-the-middle attacks, and poor or missing encryption.

What is an example of an attack surface?

Now that you know what an attack surface is, let’s take a look at some common examples. Common examples of attack surfaces include software, web applications, operating systems, data centers, mobile and IoT devices, web servers and even physical controls such as locks.

Types of attack surfaces

Attack surfaces may be categorized as digital and physical. Both digital and physical attack surfaces should be restricted in size to protect the surfaces from anonymous, unauthorized public access.

What is a digital attack surface?

As the name suggests, a digital attack surface represents any digital touchpoints that might act as an entry point for unauthorized access to your systems and network. These include codes, servers, applications, ports, websites and unauthorized system access points. Any vulnerabilities arising from weak passwords, exposed application programming interfaces, ill-maintained software or poor coding are part of the digital attack surface.

Anything that lives outside the firewall and is accessible through the internet is part of a digital attack surface. Cybercriminals often find it easier to gain unauthorized access to your systems by exploiting weak cybersecurity as compared to physical attack surfaces.

Digital attack surfaces may include three different types of assets:

Unknown assets – Often termed as orphaned IT or shadow IT, these assets lie outside the purview of your IT security team and include anything from employee-installed software to marketing sites and forgotten websites.

Known assets – These include managed and inventoried assets such as corporate servers, websites and the dependencies that run on them.

Rogue assets – Any malicious infrastructure created by threat actors, such as a typo-squatted domain, mobile app or website that impersonates your company or is malware, falls under the category of rogue digital assets.

What is a physical attack surface?

In contrast to a digital attack surface, a physical attack surface represents all hardware and physical endpoint devices such as desktops, tablets, notebooks, printers, switches, routers, surveillance cameras, USB ports and mobile phones. In other words, a physical attack surface is a security vulnerability within a system that is physically accessible to an attacker to launch a security attack and gain access to your systems and networks.

As opposed to a digital attack surface, a physical attack surface can be leveraged even when a device is not connected to the internet. Physical attack surfaces are usually exploited by insider threats with easy access, such as intruders posing as service workers, BYOD or untrustworthy devices on secure networks, social engineering ploys or rogue employees.

Attack surface management

Attack surface management (ASM) is defined as the process that enables continuous discovery, classification, inventory, security monitoring and prioritization of all external digital assets within your IT environment that contains, processes and transmits sensitive data. Attack surface management covers everything outside the firewall that cybercriminals can/will discover and exploit to launch an attack.

Important things to consider while implementing attack surface management include:
• The complexity, breadth and scope of your attack surface
• Your asset inventory
• Your attack vectors and potential exposures
• Ways to protect your network from cyberattacks and breaches

Why is attack surface management important? 

Given the fast-paced evolution of cyberattacks, it is becoming increasingly easy for hackers to launch comprehensive, automated reconnaissance to analyze the target attack surface inside out. Attack surface management is an effective strategy to defend your digital and physical attack surfaces against potential cyberattacks through continuous visibility into your security vulnerabilities and quick remediation before they can be exploited by the attacker.

Attack surface management helps mitigate the risk of potential cyberattacks stemming from unknown open-source software, outdated and vulnerable software, human errors, vendor-managed assets, IoT, legacy and shadow IT assets, intellectual property infringement and more. Attack surface management is imperative for the following:

Detection of misconfigurations

Attack surface management is required to detect misconfigurations in the operating system, website settings or firewall. It is also useful for discovering viruses, outdated software/hardware, weak passwords and ransomware that might act as entry points for perpetrators.

Protecting intellectual property and sensitive data

Attack surface management helps secure intellectual property and sensitive data and mitigates risks associated with shadow IT assets. It helps detect and deny any efforts to gain unauthorized access.

How do you manage an attack surface?

The steps or stages of attack surface management are cyclical and ongoing. They may vary from organization to organization. However, the basic steps that are usually standard across all organizations are:

  1. Discovery: Discovery is the first step of any attack surface management solution. In this step, you discover or gain comprehensive visibility to all internet-facing digital assets that process or contain your business-critical data such as trade secrets, PHI and PII.
  2. Inventory: Discovery is typically followed by digital asset inventory or IT asset inventory that involves labeling and dispatching assets based on their business criticality, technical properties and characteristics, type, owner or compliance requirements.
  3. Classification: Classification is the process of categorizing/aggregating assets and vulnerabilities based on their level of priority.
  4. Monitoring: One of the most important steps of attack management, monitoring enables you to keep track of your assets 24/7 for any newly discovered compliance issues, misconfiguration, weaknesses and security vulnerabilities. 

Attack surface reduction

Attack surface reduction is one of the fundamental goals of all IT professionals. Attack surface reduction entails regular assessment of vulnerabilities, monitoring anomalies and securing weak points.

Why is attack surface reduction important?

Minimizing your attack surface can help you significantly reduce the potential entry points for cybercriminals to launch an attack. While attack surface management is imperative for identifying any current and future risks, attack surface reduction is crucial for minimizing the number of entry points and reducing the security gaps that a cybercriminal might leverage to launch an attack.

What are attack surface reduction best practices?

Let’s take a look at some of the most important best practices that will help you implement efficient attack surface reduction.

Embrace zero trust 

Zero trust implies that no user should be permitted access to critical business resources until their identity and the security of their device has been proven. This reduces the number of entry points by ensuring that only authorized users have access to business systems and networks.

Minimize complexity

Minimize complexity around your IT environment by disabling unnecessary/unused devices and software, and reducing the number of endpoints to simplify your network.

Scan regularly

Running regular network scans is an effective way to quickly identify potential vulnerabilities and security gaps. Full attack surface visibility is crucial to prevent issues with on-prem and cloud networks and to also make sure they can be accessed only by approved users.

Manage access

People move in and out of organizations. It is imperative to remove all access to the network as soon as a user parts with the organization.

Harden authentication protocols

Security-hardening your authentication policies is a critical component of attack surface reduction. In addition to using a strong authentication layering on top of access protocols, you must also leverage role-based or attribute-based access controls to make sure that the data is accessible only to authorized users.

Segment your network

Another effective attack surface reduction best practice is to segment your network by building more firewalls and making it tougher for hackers to gain entry to your systems quickly. With the right segmenting, you can successfully drive security controls down to a single user or machine.

Manage and reduce attack surfaces with Kaseya

With Kaseya’s comprehensive range of solutions, you can security-harden your IT infrastructure by reducing and managing your attack surfaces. Kaseya’s robust endpoint management tool, VSA, enables you to monitor, manage and secure all your on- and off-network devices from a single pane of glass, thus reducing your attack surfaces and bridging any security gaps in your IT environment. Want to know how? Request a free demo today!

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