What is an Attack Surface?

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An attack surface can be defined as anywhere and everywhere an organization is vulnerable to cyber-attacks. This includes all possible attack vectors where an adversary can penetrate a system and steal assets. Organizations seeking to improve their security posture must work to reduce their attack surface.

Generally speaking, it is easier to defend a small and well-mapped space than it is to defend a large space with visibility gaps. This idea can be applied to the cybersecurity concept of the “attack surface” — or the sum of all possible exposures that an organization faces.

Understanding what attack surfaces are and how to best manage them is a core mandate for today’s cyber-security professionals.

The Principles of Attack Surface Management

User devices, network infrastructure cloud-based applications and other assets all represent part of an attack surface, while things like weak passwords, misconfigurations and unpatched software represent attack vectors. While many organizations may believe they have relatively few (or even zero) attack vectors, research has shown that it is more likely that they have dozens — or even hundreds. This means that immediate steps to manage the attack surface is an imperative.

Developing the right program for doing so is important, given the enormous complexity of modern digital systems. Attack surfaces are becoming ever-larger and more dynamic, fueled in part by migration to the cloud, which means that risk levels are growing in parallel. Defenders may become overwhelmed without a detailed framework for ongoing management of these risks.

Creating a comprehensive attack surface management strategy can help organizations understand the scope of their attack surface, identify the attack paths that exist and discover the most effective way to protect their most critical assets.

Reducing the Attack Surface

To effectively control risk, organizations must take steps to make their attack surfaces smaller. Some of the most impactful of these steps include:

  • Network segmentation
  • Better endpoint control and password management
  • Eliminating unauthorized or unnecessary access/permissions
  • Elimination of outdated or redundant code
  • Reduction of complexity
  • The use of cyber attack surface analysis

Implementing the Zero Trust model, and making a firm commitment to rigorous employee training, can also make a significant impact in helping organizations improve their overall cyber attack surface management capabilities.

Gaining Visibility

Organizations also require attack surface visibility to identify security gaps and prevent successful attacks.  This attack surface visualization is critical, as organizations cannot defend what they cannot see.

Attack path management tools can help provide that visibility. These tools reduce the risk of cyber-threats through attack path analysis. This analysis uses modeling of attack vectors and adversary tactics to help organizations immediately understand where they are vulnerable, how they can be breached and which critical assets are in jeopardy.

Attack paths are often unseen — and therefore unprotected — by security teams and have historically presented a significant problem, given that few good options existed for their management.

Today, however, sophisticated tools featuring attack path analysis and attack surface visualization (such as those created by XM Cyber) allow organizations to understand their attack surfaces, quickly identify vulnerabilities, remediate risk and manage the risk that exists to their most business-critical assets. The most advanced tools can model attack paths through automated cyber-attack simulation. They can also identify choke points, or the individual systems that attack paths traverse.

This allows defenders to visualize where attack paths exist and how exploits can be leveraged to threaten sensitive assets. By removing the choke points, attackers lose the ability to exploit the most high-risk vulnerabilities and “crown jewel” assets are protected.

As mentioned above, modern attack surfaces are growing larger and more complex by the minute. Without visibility into how attack paths are created and evolve, organizations have no way to understand those paths or the risks they represent.

By combining a comprehensive program to manage and reduce attack surfaces with the right attack path management tools, organizations can take the necessary steps to protect their most sensitive assets.


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