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Attack Surface Mapping for Proactive Cybersecurity

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Attack Surface Mapping is both a proactive cybersecurity activity and a fundamental step for managing vulnerabilities within an organization's IT infrastructure. The term Attack Surface refers to all potential entry points, such as physical infrastructure, human elements, organizational processes, and various technological components like networks, operating systems, and exposed services.

Reducing the exposed  Attack Surface by using an accept-list (or whitelist) approach to ensure only required systems and applications are active and hardening the security configuration of all remaining components is considered a fundamental principle in cybersecurity risk management and threat mitigation.

To accomplish this critical security posture, organizations must understand the types of  Attack Surfaces that attackers can exploit, and follow a standardized process like the NIST Cybersecurity Framework to ensure proper Attack Surface management.

Today, we explain the concept of Attack Surface, why it matters, and describe the process of Attack Surface Mapping and mitigation. 

Why Does Attack Surface Matter?

The term Attack Surface refers to the collection of all possible entry points to a particular IT environment or an organization's IT infrastructure; all its digital assets, systems, and data. Although environmental disasters and human error are not considered part of the  Attack Surface per se, they are often combined with Attack Surface and considered part of the broader "threat landscape" in the science of risk management.

Attack Surface Mapping is crucial to strong and comprehensive cybersecurity posture because it enables the proactive identification of all potential weaknesses so they can be addressed before attackers can exploit them. Attack Surface Mapping is critical to IT risk management because organizations need to be sure they have considered all potential access points for strong risk assurances. Thus, by reducing the  Attack Surface, organizations can significantly reduce the risk of data breaches, ransomware, Denial of Service (DoS) attacks, and other potential types of cyberattacks.

What Are the Different Types Of Attack Surface?

In order to create a comprehensive list of all potential weaknesses that attackers could exploit, a broad set of Attack Surface classifications serves as a helpful checklist for managers.

The broad classifications of  Attack Surface include:

  • Physical: This includes physical access points to all devices such as workstations, servers, routers, switches, and other IT appliances such as access control systems, firewalls, switches, and intrusion detection and prevention systems.

  • People: Includes any human elements within an organization that attackers can exploit. This includes employees, contractors, and anyone with access to the organization's resources. Social engineering attacks and insider threats are both examples of the potential risks associated with this classification of attack the surface.

  • Processes: The process's  Attack Surface refers to organizational procedures, policies, workflows, and practices that may be vulnerable to exploitation. Attackers may target weaknesses in business processes, such as supply chain vulnerabilities or inadequate Incident Response Plans (IRP).

  • Technology: This  Attack Surface includes weaknesses in authentication and authorization mechanisms such as improperly configured systems or known vulnerabilities that can allow attackers to gain unauthorized access to sensitive systems or data.

How to Mitigate Attack Surface

In general,  Attack Surface mitigation involves two critical components:  Attack Surface reduction, and security hardening. Reduction means removing any systems and applications not required for normal business operations. At the same time, hardening is the process of ensuring that all required systems and applications are configured according to IT security best practices, regularly scanned for vulnerabilities, and audited to ensure the secure configuration is persistent. 

Achieving mitigation across an entire organization requires identifying and analyzing all the points that could be exploited for entry into an organization's IT infrastructure, and vulnerabilities that could be exploited by attackers should they gain initial access.

The process of Attack Surface mitigation includes the following steps:

  1. Identification of Assets: The first step in the mitigation process is Attack Surface Mapping; identifying all the assets, components, and entry points within a system. This includes all hardware, software, wired and wireless network services, VPNs, cloud infrastructure, workstations, peripherals, IoT devices, and more.

  2. Enumeration of Interfaces: Attack Surface Mapping involves listing all the interfaces and services through which an attacker could interact with the system. This includes network ports, web services, network services, APIs, third-party and managed services, user interfaces, APIs, and more.

  3. Analysis of Attack Vectors: Security professionals analyze each interface and entry point to determine potential attack vectors. They asses how an attack may exploit these vectors to gain unauthorized access or compromise the system's security.

  4. Prioritization of Vulnerabilities: Not all attack vectors are equally critical. Security teams prioritize vulnerabilities based on their severity and potential impact. High-priority vulnerabilities are addressed first.

  5. Mitigation and Reduction: Once vulnerabilities are identified and prioritized, steps are taken to mitigate or reduce the  Attack Surface. This may involve applying security patches, reconfiguring services, segmenting networks, or implementing access controls.

  6. Continuous Monitoring: Attack Surface Mapping is not a one-time activity. It is an ongoing process because systems change over time. Continuous monitoring and regular updates are essential to ensure that new vulnerabilities are promptly identified and mitigated.

  7. Security Testing: Security testing techniques, such as penetration testing and vulnerability scanning are often used to validate the effectiveness of Attack Surface reduction efforts and to identify any new vulnerabilities that may have emerged.

  8. Documentation: A record of the  Attack Surface and its changes should be maintained for reference and auditing purposes. This documentation helps security teams track progress and make informed decisions.

Conclusion

The main types of  Attack Surfaces include physical, people, processes, and technology. Every kind of  Attack Surface offers adversaries a potential entry point to an organization's sensitive resources, network, and data. Therefore, comprehensive Attack Surface Mapping and mitigation are critical for IT risk management.  Organizations must identify all assets, enumerate interfaces and services, and analyze  Attack Surfaces for potential attack vectors. 

After a complete inventory has been created, the two major approaches to mitigating  Attack Surface are to reduce potential attack points by removing unnecessary systems and applications and hardening the security configuration of all remaining components. Hardening IT security includes several activities such as vulnerability and patch management, penetration testing, and continuous monitoring. Finally, documenting findings such that the process can be audited and improved ensures the long-term viability of a cybersecurity program.

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