What Is An Attack Vector?

July 30, 2021 in Cyber Attacks, Malware

Cyberattacks are on the rise—and the need for cybersecurity has never been greater.

As an increasing number of organizations maintain flexible or permanent remote work policies, more and more sensitive personal and business information is migrating onto the web—and cybercriminals are taking advantage. Between 2019 and 2020 alone, web application breaches doubled, and all signs point to the trend continuing throughout 2021.

With cyberattacks at an all-time high, it’s critical for individuals and businesses alike to understand how the majority of attacks occur—identifying what lets bad actors into these systems in the first place.

In most cases, the first step in a cyberattack is called reconnaissance. The bad actor surveys a system’s vulnerabilities and identifies the best one to exploit. The vulnerability they ultimately use to break in becomes the attack vector—the pathway of choice into an external software system. But what is an attack vector, and how exactly do bad actors use them? This article will provide an attack vector definition and answer the questions above, helping you understand the concept at the time it matters most.

What is an attack vector?

Put simply, an attack vector is a method of gaining unauthorized access to a network to launch a cyber-attack. Attack vectors are exploited vulnerabilities that enable cybercriminals to gain access to sensitive data—whether that’s personal information, business information, or other valuable information made accessible by the data breach.

Attack vectors can take various forms, including remote access trojans (RATs), infected email attachments, instant messages, text messages, malicious links, web pages, pop-up ads, and viruses. Often leveraging social engineering tactics, cybercriminals take advantage of more than just computer system vulnerabilities when they launch an attack—they target people’s social and emotional susceptibilities as well.

How do bad actors use an attack vector?

Cybercriminals typically launch cyberattacks to retrieve sensitive personal information from a software system. Most often, this is financially motivated. Bad actors can make money through cyberattacks, exploiting a vulnerability—and rendering it their attack vector—to break into a system and steal bank account credentials, credit card numbers, and more.

Beyond directly stealing money through an attack, some attackers opt for more sophisticated strategies. This can include selling stolen data in underground markets on the dark web or infecting a system with malware to gain remote access to a command-and-control server. By expanding their reach, cybercriminals set themselves up to infect more and more computers, using their network as a basis to launch more cyberattacks, steal more data, and potentially even mine cryptocurrency.

While most cyberattacks are financially motivated, some bad actors break into vulnerable systems for alternate purposes—like accessing personally identifiable information (PII) to commit insurance fraud or stealing healthcare information and biometrics to illegally obtain prescription drugs. Both the reason for a cyberattack and the cybercriminal’s attack vector of choice may vary, but all possibilities are dangerous—with the potential to evolve into more harmful attacks.

Understanding attack vectors

Still asking yourself, “what is an attack vector”? Expanding on the attack vector definition above, it may be helpful to break the concept down further. In general, attack vector uses can be split into two types of attacks—passive and active. Here are some examples of both:

  • Passive attack vector uses: Includes attempts to gain system access without affecting system resources. Examples include typosquatting, phishing, and other social engineering-based attacks.
  • Active attack vector uses: Includes attempts to alter a system or affect its operation. This can be achieved through malware, the exploitation of unpatched vulnerabilities, email spoofing, domain hijacking, and ransomware.

Differences aside, most cybercriminals follow a similar pattern when launching an attack. Once an attacker identifies a potential target, they’ll gather information using malware, phishing, and social engineering. From there, they’ll use the intelligence to pinpoint possible attack vectors—then put a plan in place to exploit them. Through this point of entry, they’ll gain unauthorized access to the system they’re targeting and leverage it to complete any of the attack vector uses described in the above section. Though use cases vary, the attack vector’s role remains the same: it’s the stepping stone into a system being targeted for an attack.

Now that you have a better understanding of what attack vectors are, how they’re used by bad actors, and the different forms they can take, you can get started on protecting yourself against these malicious threats. For more information on how SiteLock can help, check out our malware removal product.

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