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The Role of Watering Hole Attacks


Each stage in a cyber-attack plays a crucial role in the success or failure of an attacker's mission. To develop defences against the complex threat landscape, cybersecurity professionals rely on various frameworks, such as MITRE ATT&CK and the Cyber Kill Chain, which serve as roadmaps for mapping and countering the tactics employed by malicious threat actors.

This article aims to shed light on the role of watering hole attacks within the broader context of the cyber-attack lifecycle since breaking the cyberattack lifecycle is key to preventing successful breaches. From initial reconnaissance and initial access to lateral movement and data exfiltration, each stage serves a specific purpose, and a successful attacker must navigate this lifecycle with precision.

What Are Watering Hole Attacks?

Watering hole attacks exploit the trust and familiarity associated with a particular place; be it physical location or online to distribute malware and gain unauthorized access to valuable network resources. The key component of a watering hole attack is that the attacker chooses the venue or location of the attack such that the potential victim feels inherent comfort with the surroundings. Therefore, watering hole attacks stand out as a particularly cunning and effective covert social engineering tactic.

Watering hole attacks are associated with a wide range of attack techniques such as:

  • USB key drops: Placing trojanized USB thumb drives in physical locations where unsuspecting victims may be enticed to take them, plug them into a computer, and potentially execute malware files stored on the drive.

  • Drive-by-downloads: Pirated commercial software or novel applications making big promises such as productivity or entertainment are used to entice victims into unknowingly installing malware.

  • Fake websites: Spoofed websites that imitate genuine popular websites are used for phishing credentials or distributing malware with drive-by-downloads. Spoofed domains are typically crafted to closely resemble the legitimate domain, using slight variations or misspellings to deceive users. 

  • Outright device theft or modification: In a watering hole attack at a physical location, attackers may take the opportunity to steal a device, or install malware on it directly if left unattended by its owner. 

Types of Venues Exploited in Watering Hole Attacks

Watering hole attacks can manifest in various forms with attackers targeting a range of locations or "watering holes" drawing an analogy to a predatory behavior observed in the animal kingdom. In nature, wild animals often gather around a watering hole to drink water, while predators use this fact to their advantage. Knowing these different types of locations is crucial for understanding the range of potential techniques that targets may encounter

Watering hole attacks leverage trust with either a physical or digital location:

  • Physical Watering Holes: Attackers may compromise places or events that their targets are known to frequent. For instance, cybercriminals may infect USB drives distributed at conferences or conventions attended by professionals in a specific industry. In other cases, certain restaurants, bars, or types of social event may be frequented by members of a specific industry or organization. Also, attackers could even throw their own events and use targeted ads or marketing campaigns to entice potential victims into the realm where they can be attacked with social engineering campaigns geared towards gaining network access.

  • Digital Watering Holes: The digital landscape provides a vast array of potential targets for watering hole attacks. Attackers may compromise websites, forums, blogs, or even social media platforms such as networking or online-dating apps that cater to the interests and demographics of their intended victims. Another common tactic is to offer trojanized software binaries or helpful install scripts that can infect the user's system. Attackers may also offer third-party services such as web-development or IT support services frequently used by their targets.

The Role of Watering Hole Attacks in the Cyberattack Lifecycle

Watering hole attacks serve as a means to an end for malicious actors. They are a stepping stone in the cyberattack lifecycle, typically occurring in the early stages. Watering hole attacks fall under initial access tactics and seek to install malware on a victim's device. Unlike other attack vectors that target specific individuals or organizations, watering hole attacks take a different approach. They focus on infiltrating websites or online venues frequently visited by their intended victims.

The choice of targets in watering hole attacks is strategic and often linked to the attacker's objectives. The target of watering hole attacks may be highly targeted or seek to infect anyone and everyone. This approach is especially prevalent when attackers seek to breach specific individuals, industries, organizations, or government entities. After a successful initial breach, the attackers will move on to subsequent stages of the attack such as gaining persistence, identifying high-value targets on the network, moving laterally through a network, and executing ransomware or stealing data.  Cyber criminals known as "initial access brokers" may offer access to the compromised network for sale on the black market.

How Can Organizations Protect Themselves Against Watering Hole Attacks?

Next, we will explore how organizations can defend against watering hole attacks, including strategies for detection, prevention, and mitigation.

Understanding the nature of these attacks and their role in the cyber-attack lifecycle is the first step toward building effective defences. Safeguarding your organization requires a multi-faceted approach encompassing education, testing, policy implementation, monitoring, and layered security controls.

1. Educate Staff about the Practice and Potential Vectors

One of the most critical steps an organization can take is to educate its staff about the existence and tactics of watering hole attacks. Awareness training should include:

  • Recognizing Suspicious Websites: Employees should be trained to identify suspicious websites, even if they appear legitimate. They should exercise caution when visiting unfamiliar sites and refrain from downloading content from untrusted sources.

  • Phishing Awareness: Emphasize recognizing phishing attempts that may lead to watering hole attacks. Encourage staff to scrutinize emails, links, and attachments for signs of phishing.

  • Security Hygiene: Promote good cybersecurity hygiene, including keeping software and systems up to date, using strong passwords, and enabling two-factor authentication.

  • Educating about physical device security: Users should be educated on the breadth of potential attack vectors including the dangers of rogue USB drives, and in the modern threat landscape, even charging cables or sharing other peripherals may allow attackers to compromise a device. Users must know the importance of enabling screen locks and otherwise protecting their device from direct physical access.

  • Social engineering attacks: While social engineering attacks may take many forms, with respect to watering hole attacks in physical scenarios, covert individuals may try to entice victims into sharing access to their device, or installing a rouge app.

2. Conduct Red Team Penetration Testing

Regular Red Team penetration testing is invaluable for evaluating an organization's staff and their resilience to social engineering attacks, including watering hole tactics. A Red Team assesses an organization's security posture by mimicking real-world attack scenarios.

This testing helps identify weaknesses and areas for improvement in the organization's defences. The insights gained from Red Team exercises can support targeted security training and awareness campaigns.

3. Employ a Defensive In-Depth Approach

Organizations should establish and enforce policies that reduce the potential impact of successful social engineering or watering hole attacks:

  • Access Control: Limit user privileges to the minimum necessary for their roles. Implement the principle of least privilege (PoLP) to ensure that even if an attacker gains access, they have limited capabilities.

  • Web Filtering and Content Control: Employ web filtering solutions to block or restrict access to potentially harmful websites. Implement content control policies to prevent the download and execution of suspicious files.

  • Patch Management: Maintain a robust patch management process to promptly address vulnerabilities in software and systems. Attackers often exploit unpatched software to deliver malware.

  • Firewalls and Intrusion Detection/Prevention Systems: Use firewalls and IDS tools to filter traffic, block known malicious IPs, and detect unusual network activity.

  • Network Segmentation: Segment your network to contain potential breaches and prevent lateral movement by attackers.

  • Zero Trust Architecture: Adopt a zero-trust approach, where trust is never assumed, and verification is required from anyone trying to access resources.

  • Implement Security Information and Event Management (SIEM): SIEM solutions help aggregate and correlate security event data, enabling timely detection of suspicious activities.

  • User and Entity Behavior Analytics (UEBA): UEBA tools analyze user and entity behavior to identify anomalies that may indicate a compromise.

  • Threat Intelligence Feeds: Subscribe to threat intelligence feeds to stay informed about emerging watering hole attacks and indicators of compromise (IoCs).

  • Endpoint Security: Deploy robust anti-virus and endpoint detection and response (EDR) solutions to protect individual devices.


Watering hole attacks, strategically positioned within the cyber-attack lifecycle, pose a formidable threat to organizations and individuals. In this article, we have explored the ins and outs of these deceptive tactics and discussed how organizations can bolster their defences. Watering hole attacks leverage trusted online or physical venues to compromise unsuspecting victims. They operate within the early stages of the attack lifecycle, allowing attackers to gain a foothold and progress towards their goals.

To safeguard against these threats, organizations must take a multi-pronged approach. Education and training are paramount, equipping staff to recognize and resist potential attacks. Red Team testing provides a realistic assessment of an organization's readiness. Finally, an in-depth approach to endpoint and network security,  good overall cyber hygiene, and advanced threat detection technologies can support a robust cybersecurity posture and protect an organization's operations. 

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