Attack surface discovery is the process of identifying and understanding the various points through which unauthorized users or malicious entities can potentially exploit systems, networks, or applications. An attack surface refers to all the entry points, vulnerabilities, and potential compromise avenues in systems.

Attack surface discovery can be likened to determining how thieves can break into your home. In this case, the entry points can be unlocked doors, faulty locks, open windows, and practically anything that makes your house easy to enter.

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In this day and age, when cybercriminals and other cyber attackers abound, attack surface discovery has become crucial.

What Are the Elements of Attack Surface Discovery?

Attack surface discovery has several elements, which we named below.

  • Asset enumeration: This process Identifies and lists all assets within a system, including hardware, applications, databases, network components, and any other element that attackers can target.
  • Network topology mapping: Understanding the layout and structure of a network is crucial in identifying potential vulnerabilities and attacker entry points. This process includes identifying routers, switches, firewalls, and other network devices.
  • Software and service identification: Enumerating the software and services running on a system is vital in understanding potential vulnerabilities. These assets include web servers, databases, operating systems (OSs), and other running applications.
  • Web application analysis: For systems with web interfaces, analyzing the attack surface involves assessing web applications for potential vulnerabilities, such as input validation issues, injection attacks, and other web-related security concerns.
  • External and internal perspective formation: Attack surface discovery should consider external and internal perspectives. Your external attack surface covers all Internet-accessible entry points, while the internal attack surface encompasses potential risks within your organization’s internal network.
  • Open-source intelligence (OSINT) gathering: This process refers to utilizing publicly available information to gather details about an organization’s infrastructure, employees, and other relevant data that may contribute to understanding your attack surface. The company you are gathering intel for can include partners, service providers, and other third parties accessing your network.
  • Vulnerability assessment: This process refers to performing vulnerability assessments to identify and evaluate system weaknesses. It includes identifying outdated software, misconfigurations, and other issues attackers can exploit.
  • Continuous monitoring: Your attack surface is dynamic and changes over time due to system updates, the addition of new applications, or changes in network configurations. Continuous monitoring is essential to keep your attack surface discovery results up-to-date.

What Are the Steps in Attack Surface Discovery?

Attack surface discovery is a systematic process, but specific steps can vary depending on your context. Generally, it involves the following steps:

  1. Identify and list all the assets within a system, including hardware, applications, databases, and other components.
  2. Understand the layout and structure of your network. Identify routers, switches, firewalls, and other network devices to get an overall picture of your network topology.
  3. Enumerate the software and services running on each asset. Also, identify web servers, databases, OSs, and other applications.
  4. Analyze web applications for potential vulnerabilities. Assess input validation, security configurations, and other web-related issues as well.
  5. Assess your attack surface from both external and internal perspectives. Consider Internet-accessible entry points and potential risks within your internal network.
  6. Utilize publicly available information to gather details about third parties’ infrastructure, employees, and other relevant data. This information can help you understand potential attack vectors.
  7. Conduct vulnerability assessments to identify and evaluate weaknesses in systems. Identify outdated software, misconfigurations, and other vulnerabilities that attackers can exploit.
  8. Recognize that your attack surface is dynamic and changes over time. Implement continuous monitoring to keep your findings up-to-date even as your systems evolve.
  9. If applicable, consider involving third-party security assessments or penetration testing to gain an external perspective on your attack surface and potential vulnerabilities.
  10. Document findings and create a comprehensive inventory of assets, identified vulnerabilities, and potential risks. This documentation can serve as a basis for developing strategies to mitigate risks.
  11. Prioritize identified risks based on severity and potential impact to focus your efforts on first addressing the most critical vulnerabilities.
  12. Develop and implement strategies to mitigate or remediate the identified vulnerabilities. That may involve applying security patches, reconfiguring systems, or implementing additional security controls.
  13. Keep your attack surface discovery process up-to-date by regularly reassessing systems, especially after changes or updates. That ensures you remain vigilant against emerging threats.
Attack Surface Discovery Steps

Conducting thorough attack surface discovery helps organizations proactively identify and mitigate potential security risks, reducing the likelihood of successful cyber attacks. This process is integral to overall cybersecurity efforts and helps organizations enhance their security posture.

Key Takeaways