An attack vector is the means by which a hacker is able to break into a computer system or network to launch an attack. A simple analogy would be that of a mosquito bite that spreads disease by injecting its victims with the virus that it carries.

In computing terms, an attack vector would take the form of malware such as Trojans that hackers use to deliver malicious code to their victims. Other popular examples are infected email attachments, malicious links, and pop-up ads. 

Attack vectors target vulnerabilities in the computer system as well as people’s susceptibility to social manipulation and impersonation.

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attack vector

An attack vector refers to how cybercriminals or threat actors gain a foothold or unauthorized entry or access into victims’ systems or networks.

Once they are in, attackers can perform various types of malicious activities such as installing malware and stealing confidential corporate data, along with employees’ personally identifiable information (PII). As with other threats, the stolen data from compromised systems and networks can be used in more harmful attacks against their owners or sold in underground markets in the Dark Web. In some cases, attackers turn affected computers into bots for use in attacks against other companies, typically those that do business with the victims.

We listed down some of the most common attack vectors that threat actors use to wreak havoc online.

What Are Attack Vectors and an Attack Surface, Do They Differ?

In a nutshell, attack vectors are directly correlated to an organization’s or potential victim’s attack surface. All of the attack vectors or insufficiently protected and thus vulnerable applications, devices, or people that threat actors exploit to get into a target network comprise the victim’s attack surface. Here’s a diagram to illustrate their relationship more clearly:

what is an attack vector
(Adapted from https://whilenetworking.com/2018/07/10/knowledge-attack-surface-attack-vectors/)

In straightforward terms, anything (attack vector) that makes an individual or organization prone to a cyber attack is part of the potential attack surface. Network insecurities due to ports left open and weak security protocols, software bugs, whether in internally produced or commercially available programs, physical security loopholes that include internal threats (e.g., rogue, dissatisfied, or irresponsible employees), and social engineering-prone staff are potential attack vectors that threat actors can take advantage of to compromise a target. All these attack vectors make up the network’s attack surface. The more attack vectors there are or the wider a network’s attack surface is, the greater the risk of becoming a cyber attack victim.

Common Attack Vectors

  • Malware or malicious files that, when installed on your computer or device, can change its settings so attackers can manipulate it with or without your knowledge
  • Spam or harmful email messages that typically carry malicious file attachments (malware in disguise) or have embedded malicious links
  • Malicious links that point to malware hosts or phishing and other harmful websites
  • Exploits for unpatched vulnerabilities in both software and hardware

Attack Motivations

Cybercriminals and other threat actors may have varying motives for launching attacks via the vectors mentioned above. Some of these are listed below.

  • Financial gain: This drives most cybercriminals who launch phishing, spam, ransomware, business email compromise (BEC), and similar attacks. Their primary goal is to obtain as much money from their victims as possible.
  • Espionage: This drives threat actors who infiltrate a victim’s computer to get into his/her organization’s network. Typical examples of espionage-motivated attacks are advanced persistent threats (APTs). These allow attackers to move from one computer to another within the target network to obtain confidential information. Some use the stolen data to gain a competitive edge or take intellectual property. More sinister attacks, meanwhile, aim to destroy the reputation or shut down the operation of the target organization.

Cyber attackers do not discriminate when it comes to choosing targets. Individuals and companies alike are fair game so long as they have money or information that threat actors can use. And so we listed down some ways to stay safe from threats below.

How to Protect Devices from Common Attack Vectors

  1. Install and use security solutions that can detect and block spam, malware, and malicious links so these cannot be compromised.
  2. Regularly download and apply patches to your devices and the applications installed on them, so these will have fewer or even no vulnerabilities that bad guys can exploit.
  3. Stay abreast of the latest cybersecurity news and updates. Anyone can be a victim of a cyber attack, so it is always best to be aware of threats and prepared to protect against them. Keep in mind that prevention is still better than cure.
  4. For organizations, conduct regular security training for employees because attackers often employ very clever social engineering tricks to trick them into getting into your networks.