What is An Attack Vector?

Attack vector refers to a specific way and/or technique to perform an attack on an IT system. Cybercriminals use attack vectors to compromise or take over foreign computers and systems. Often, the exploitation of one or more attack vectors takes place in multi-step manual or automated procedures.

What is an attack vector?

In the IT environment, the attack vector is the term for a specific path and/or technique for attacks on IT infrastructures or IT systems such as computers or network devices. If an IT system offers one or more attack vectors, it is also referred to as the system’s attack surface.

The more attack vectors are known, the more vulnerable the system is to attacks by cybercriminals. Exploiting one or more attack vectors, they can compromise the system, manipulate, delete or steal data, or take complete control.

Often, the exploitation of one or more attack vectors takes place in multi-step manual or automated processes. For example, a typical attack vector is the introduction of malware via email. In this case, the email represents the attack vector. The attack technique is the installation of malware, for example, by opening and executing a manipulated file attachment.

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Attack vectors are not limited to technical vulnerabilities of IT systems, but also include the human component such as social engineering or deceiving users. To protect against the exploitation of attack vectors, technical measures such as firewalling or virus scanners are possible. Measures such as sensitization or training of employees also minimize the risk of becoming a victim of a cyber attack by exploiting an attack vector.

Typical attack vectors

A variety of possible attack vectors existed. Typical attack vectors include:

  • Execution or installation of malware via a manipulated web page (link sent via email, messenger or SMS).
  • Execution or installation of malware via a manipulated e-mail attachment or Internet download
  • Unauthorized use of access data obtained by phishing, for example
  • Installation of unwanted or malicious software via compromised software update procedures (supply chain attack)
  • Creation of memory overflows and execution of unauthorized program code
  • Unauthorized access to a system via a zero-day exploit (previously unknown vulnerability)
  • Mass guessing of usernames and passwords (brute force attacks)
  • Injection of malicious or unwanted software via manipulated storage devices (for example, via USB sticks)
  • Exploiting flaws and vulnerabilities in network or authentication protocols to gain unauthorized access to a system
  • Gaining unauthorized physical access to an IT system
  • Spying on credentials and other exploitable information via social engineering
  • Redirecting web browser traffic, for example via cross-site scripting (XSS)
  • Protecting IT systems and IT infrastructures from attacks by exploiting attack vectors
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Various technical and organizational measures can be taken to protect against the exploitation of attack vectors by cybercriminals, for example. Technical measures include closing security gaps by applying the latest software updates and patches, using virus scanners and firewalls, or using secure authentication procedures (for example, multifactor authentication).

Organizational measures include training employees and managers, raising awareness among employees and managers, or adhering to a consistent concept for assigning rights, for example, according to the least privilege principle. However, one hundred percent security cannot be achieved with the various measures. Zero-day attacks and attack vectors such as the exploitation of previously unknown vulnerabilities always pose a certain risk.