Glossary Glossary

Attack Path

An attack path is a sequence of steps attackers can take to infiltrate systems and achieve their goals. It typically begins with reconnaissance, during which attackers gather intelligence about target systems in an effort to find potential attack vectors or entry points.

Say, for instance, that an attacker found an orphaned subdomain (i.e., a subdomain that continues to resolve to external services the organization may no longer manage) after performing a subdomain enumeration.

With potentially hundreds of active subdomains per root domain to manage, orphaned subdomains may no longer be on the organization’s radar. This blindspot may allow an attacker to spoof DNS entries and redirect visitors to malicious servers and malware-laden pages. Upon download, the malware can then trigger malicious activities inside a victim’s system, effectively allowing the attacker to exfiltrate data.

attack path example

Understanding every possible attack path helps strengthen an organization’s security posture, an inherent use case of external attack surface management (EASM).

Table of Contents

Attack Path: A Deep Dive

What Stages Do Threat Actors Go through in an Attack Path?

Attackers typically take five steps to infiltrate systems.

  • Reconnaissance: Attackers gather intelligence about an organization, its systems, and its vulnerabilities. That may involve footprinting to discover exposed assets and scanning them for open ports, misconfigurations, and vulnerabilities.
  • Initial access: At this point, threat actors use the information gathered to gain initial access to target systems. That could involve various attack vectors, such as exploiting unpatched software vulnerabilities, brute-forcing weak passwords, using stolen credentials, or tricking users into downloading malware through phishing emails.
  • Lateral movement:  Once inside, attackers usually attempt to move laterally throughout a network, compromising additional systems and expanding their reach. They may exploit misconfigurations, leverage stolen credentials to access other accounts, or pivot through connected devices to reach their target.
  • Exploitation: Having reached their target, attackers exploit weaknesses to achieve their goals, such as data exfiltration, system disruption, ransomware deployment, or cyber espionage.
  • Post-exploitation: Attackers often implement persistence mechanisms to maintain access even after detection and removal attempts. They may also cover their tracks by erasing logs and hiding malware deep within systems, making it harder to trace their activities.

Knowing these stages enables security teams to think like attackers to effectively analyze possible attack paths and implement security measures to prevent threat actors from taking them.

Why Is It Important to Understand Attack Paths?

Unveiling and analyzing possible attack paths enables organizations to anticipate threat actor movements. That helps security teams address potential attack vectors by, for example, patching relevant vulnerabilities and strengthening the configurations of affected assets to prevent exploitation.

In addition, focusing on the most likely attack paths allows organizations to allocate limited security resources efficiently, maximizing their impact and preventing resource drain on less probable scenarios.

To better understand and manage attack paths threat actors are likely to take, security teams must discover, analyze, map, and prioritize them. We’ll talk more about this continuous process below.

What Is Attack Path Discovery?

Attack path discovery involves visualizing the different paths an attacker can follow to infiltrate target systems. It brings security weaknesses and vulnerabilities to light through these steps:

  • Identifying all valuable assets within the IT infrastructure, including data, applications, domains, and servers
  • Scanning the assets to discover misconfigurations, vulnerabilities, and other security issues attackers can exploit

What Is Attack Path Mapping?

After identifying vulnerabilities affecting an organization’s digital assets, security teams should map potential attack paths. They can use algorithms and attack simulation models to connect the dots and figure out:

  • How attackers can exploit the vulnerabilities to gain initial access
  • How attackers can move laterally within the network
  • What the attackers objectives or target assets may be

Security teams must get into the attackers’ mindset to determine these things. They need to understand the motivation behind a potential vulnerability exploitation, anticipate the next steps, and ask “What’s in it for the attackers if they pick a specific vulnerability?”

How Security Teams Do Attack Path Analysis

Security teams can use several techniques to perform an attack path analysis, including:

  • Attack graph generation: This automated process creates a visual representation of possible attack paths. Attack graphs help security teams understand the connections and dependencies between vulnerabilities and affected assets so they can see how attackers can move laterally through a network.
  • Dynamic analysis: Teams can use penetration testing techniques to simulate real-world attacks. Penetration testing takes advantage of any weakness in a target system to identify vulnerabilities and attack paths.
  • Red teaming: Cybersecurity teams can test the effectiveness of identified attack paths by allowing a group of ethical hackers to exploit the identified vulnerabilities and follow the paths using techniques and tools that attackers would use.
  • Static analysis: This attack path analysis method typically uses vulnerability scanners to identify vulnerabilities. It also gleans data from exploit databases to detect known attack paths that may be present in a target system.
attack path analysis techniques

What Is Attack Path Management?

Attack path management (APM) is a comprehensive cybersecurity approach that enables organizations to identify, map, prioritize, and mitigate attack paths within their IT infrastructure.

We tackled attack path discovery and mapping earlier. These processes within APM are where security teams identify assets and vulnerabilities and map their connections, considering attacker motivations and likely objectives.

But attack paths do not pose equal levels of cyber risk, which is why security teams need to rank them based on:

  • Likelihood: How probable is it for attackers to exploit the path?
  • Exploitability: How easy is it for attackers to follow the path?
  • Impact: What data and systems are at risk if attackers succeed?

The most critical attack paths should be addressed first. That may involve patching vulnerabilities, enforcing more stringent security and access controls, and raising user awareness about cyber risks.

What Role Does External Attack Surface Management Play in Attack Path Analysis?

Discovering and analyzing attack paths require leveraging EASM reconnaissance techniques to uncover all exposed assets, exploitable vulnerabilities, and asset-to-asset connections.

EASM allows security teams to gain an attacker’s perspective of their IT infrastructure, making it essential in attack path analysis and management.

For example, the discovery graph tracing the path to an open port can become part of an actual attack path. In this case, attackers may start by scanning the root domains for subdomains and their associated services. After that, they can obtain the IP host of the subdomain and scan it for open ports.

open port discovery graph

With EASM, security teams can discover and secure the assets in an attack path before attackers can exploit their vulnerabilities. By cataloging assets, scanning them for vulnerabilities, and mapping their connections to other assets, security teams can detect and block possible pathways that threat actors can otherwise follow.

How Do Attack Path, Attack Vector, and Attack Surface Differ?

Attack path, attack vector, and attack surface are different but related cybersecurity concepts.

Attack paths are sequences of potential steps attackers can take to infiltrate target systems. They include the assets the attackers can pass through from reconnaissance to post-exploitation.

Attack vectors are the methods that threat actors use to exploit vulnerabilities in a system. An attack path always contains an attack vector that attackers can use to gain initial access. Typical examples of attack vectors include phishing, malware infections, and exploiting unpatched vulnerabilities and cloud misconfigurations.

An attack surface is the sum of all vulnerable digital assets and their associated attack vectors. Attack vectors are part of an organization’s overall attack surface, while attack paths can go beyond and into the complete journey an attacker can take to compromise a system.

Key Takeaways

  • An attack path outlines the steps attackers can take and the assets they can exploit to infiltrate target systems.
  • Following an attack path is usually done in five stages—reconnaissance, initial access, lateral movement, exploitation, and post-exploitation.
  • Understanding attack paths helps security teams think like attackers, enabling them to protect affected assets and strengthen their security posture.
  • Attack path management begins with attack path discovery, mapping, prioritizing, and mitigation.
  • EASM helps trace possible attack paths by identifying exposed assets and exploitable weaknesses.
  • While attack paths differ from attack vectors and surfaces, the three concepts overlap.

Ready to see how Attaxion can increase your understanding of possible attack paths and attack vectors? Schedule a free demo tailored to your organization now.

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