Understanding Attack Surface Mapping for Secure Systems

Written by Hatice Ozsahan and David Worthington on November 17, 2022

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Attackers have many ways to try and break into your network, but with the attack surface mapping technique, you can identify all risky entry points and then take steps to close them off or make them more secure.

The goal of attack surface mapping is to determine which parts of a system need to be tested for security vulnerabilities or where a hacker could attack your network or application. It is important to understand that this does not mean you need to secure everything on your list, but it does help you prioritize what needs more attention. Let’s put it into some perspective.

Attack Surface Meaning

An attack surface is defined as a total of external-facing entry points for unauthorized access to break into your system. Hackers could creep into your system through your attack surface, containing all possible attack vectors, a.k.a vulnerabilities.

A malicious actor could exploit your attack surface and breach past your firewalls to access, for example, your:

  • Product development data: Your hard work on product launch could go down the drain before it even starts if your competitors find out about your competitive advantage in advance.
  • Employee records: like human resources folders, social security numbers, and home addresses could be exposed. 
  • Financial records: Vendor contracts, private salary data, rental agreements, and other financially sensitive data could fall into the wrong hands.
  • Patented data: Your Krabby patty secret formula or patent-protected innovative idea is hard to safeguard if you have an expanded attack surface.

Unattended attack surfaces are like ticking time bombs awaiting a threat actor to exploit and explode. Once past your firewalls, hackers could expose sensitive corporate data, ask for ransom, and place malware into your network, among many other destructive actions. Hacks like these are costly and corrosive for companies of all sizes.

As per a study, the global average cost of a data breach in 2022 has increased to $4.35 million. What’s alarming is that another study examining 500 firms across 13 countries has shown that the average time to spot a data breach is around 206 days.

What are the Types of Attack Surface?

Cybersecurity experts divide attack surfaces into three categories: digital attack surfaces, physical attack surfaces, and social engineering attack surfaces.

Digital Attack Surface

The digital attack surface encompasses the entire set of vulnerabilities and potential entry points within an organization’s digital infrastructure, which malicious actors might exploit. This includes both sanctioned and unsanctioned assets, ranging from servers, network ports, and software applications to websites, code, and the often covert realm of “shadow IT,” where employees might use unauthorized devices or applications.

Download a free eBook: An MSP’s Guide to Combating Shadow IT

Physical Attack Surface

The physical attack surface refers to all the vulnerabilities, access points, and exposure areas in an organization’s physical environment that can be exploited by malicious actors. This includes not just the tangible infrastructure such as buildings, access doors, and communication hardware, but also the people who can be targeted for social engineering or coercion.

Factors like building access control mechanisms, surveillance systems, hardware disposal processes, and even employee awareness programs can influence the size and security of the physical attack surface.

Social Engineering Attack Surfaces

The social engineering attack surface refers to the vulnerabilities introduced by people’s susceptibility to manipulation and deception within an organization. It’s about how easily individuals can be tricked into revealing information or taking actions that compromise security. Examples include falling for phishing emails or letting unauthorized people into secure areas.

What is Attack Surface Mapping?

Attack surface mapping or attack surface analysis is about an analyzing system in place to see the vulnerable areas in an application. The primary goal of attack surface mapping is understanding the weak spots in your infrastructure, letting cybersecurity experts know about them, and finding ways to reduce the attack surface.

In other words, attack surface analysis is a process that can be used to identify and prioritize the attack surface of an application. It is a technique for understanding the attack vectors available to an attacker, and it can be used to spot vulnerabilities in the system.

Some attack points include the following:

  • Databases
  • Files
  • APIs
  • Other local storage
  • Emails
  • User interface forms and fields

Attack surface mapping helps organizations:

  • Understand their risk exposure
  • Make informed decisions about how they want to mitigate those risks
  • Understand what they need to protect and prioritize when it comes to designing security controls
  • Identify risky areas of code that require in-depth protection

Attack surface analysis is typically conducted by security architects and pen testers. However, developers should also understand and monitor attack surfaces as they build, design, and change a system. The process can be undertaken manually or using automated tools for attack surface management.

Why does internal attack surface analysis matter?

‍1. Managing Complex and Growing Attack Surfaces

The need for managing a growing attack surface has become inevitable as the technological environments grew complex and dispersed. From on-premises to SaaS applications, cloud, and supply chain touch points, companies face new attack vectors every day.

Think about all the possible risky areas in your company’s internal systems, like cloud usage and SaaS applications. Even something seemingly trivial as a Google Doc file can present an attack surface, let alone popular day-to-day SaaS applications like Slack, Jira, and GitHub.

2. Establishing a Strong Security Posture

It’s fundamental for every organization to establish and maintain a strong security posture. That requires your weak spots of security hygiene to be internally visible so that you can map and address them before they are exploited. Regardless, most organizations fail to validate control coverage and identify cyber risks effectively and on time. 

3. Need for New Ways of Visualizing Dispersed IT Assets

As mentioned earlier, with the increase in digital assets sprawled across various cloud infrastructures and SaaS applications, enterprise IT requires new methods of visualizing and prioritizing management of a company’s attack surface. 

The trending method for asset visibility is using Cyber Asset Attack Surface Management (CAASM) to aggregate assets and understand risk context. CAASM can help you better analyze your attack surface and tie a knot on attack vectors.

How to Define the Attack Surface of Your Organization

Defining the attack surface of your organization involves identifying all the potential points where unauthorized access or data breaches could occur, either digitally or physically. Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you define your organization’s attack surface:

1. Inventory Assets

Digital Assets: List all software applications, operating systems, databases, networks, cloud services, APIs, web portals, and connected devices.
Physical Assets: Note all office locations, data centers, server rooms, communication hardware, and employee devices.
Human Assets: Identify key personnel with privileged access, contractors, partners, or others with access to company information.

2. Map Data Flows

Examine how data traverses your organization. Understand not just where it resides but also how it moves between departments, systems, or third parties. Recognize that data in transit can be vulnerable, just like stationary data.

3. Identify Access Points

Digital: Review every digital doorway into your systems, from open network ports to user interfaces. Each represents a potential vulnerability if not properly secured.

Physical: Consider every physical entrance, including doors, windows, and access gates. A single unsecured point can compromise an otherwise fortified establishment.

4. Review User Access

  • Understand who has access to which resources. This includes reviewing roles, permissions, and account types, especially those with elevated privileges.
  • Establish processes to grant, review, and revoke access. This ensures that only current, authorized individuals can access resources.
  • Review access logs periodically to detect unusual behavior or unauthorized access attempts.

5. Check for Shadow IT

  • Detect unauthorized software, applications, or devices in use. These unsanctioned tools can introduce security risks.
  • Foster open communication so employees report or request necessary tools rather than finding workarounds.
  • Use monitoring tools to detect and manage unauthorized software and devices.

6. Analyze Previous Incidents

  • Examine past security breaches or near misses for insights. Learning from past mistakes can prevent future vulnerabilities.
  • Document each incident, outlining causes, responses, and outcomes to foster organizational learning.
  • Implement proactive measures to prevent the recurrence of similar incidents.

7. Understand Threat Landscape

  • Be aware of emerging threats and vulnerabilities, especially those specific to your industry.
  • Regularly attend cybersecurity workshops, seminars, or webinars to stay updated.
  • Subscribe to relevant threat intelligence feeds or services to receive timely information.

8. Regularly Audit and Assess

  • Implement tools like vulnerability scanners to automatically identify weak points in your digital landscape.
  • Schedule regular penetration tests to simulate real-world attacks and assess your defenses.
  • For human vulnerabilities, hold periodic security training sessions, and consider running simulated phishing tests to gauge employee awareness.

9. Document and Update

  • Maintain a dynamic, comprehensive record of your organization’s attack surface. This document should evolve as new assets are acquired or threats emerge.
  • Schedule regular reviews of this document, ensuring it reflects the current state of your organization.
  • Foster a culture of open communication where employees report potential security concerns, ensuring the document remains current.

10. Engage External Expertise (Optional)

  • An external perspective can provide invaluable insights, revealing vulnerabilities that may be missed internally.
  • Engage with reputable cybersecurity consultants or firms for periodic audits or assessments.
  • Collaborate with these experts to implement their recommendations, ensuring a robust security posture.

How to Reduce Your Internal Attack Surface

1. Implement a Zero Trust Policy

Zero trust policy requires all users, inside or outside an organization’s network, to be authorized, authenticated, and continuously validated for security purposes. In other words, no user should have access to your assets until they have proven their identity. This model revolves around a mindset that puts security over convenience to minimize attack surfaces.

2. Safeguard Your Backups

Backups of data and code are widespread attack surfaces that hackers exploit. Applying strict protection protocols like immutability is a good rule of thumb to protect your backups. These protocols may include access restrictions and evaluating the vendor’s security measures.

For example, many companies of all sizes around the world rely on Amazon S3 buckets for cloud storage, while most are negligent of their access and security configurations. 

3. Maintain the Principle of Least Privilege

Organizations should restrict access to their resources and sensitive data, both internally and externally. In an average company, people continuously move in and out of work. Access permissions should be revoked as soon as a person leaves your organization. 

You should always check your access control protocols as a part of your attack surface mapping operations. Best practices for access controls to avoid unauthorized access include the following:

4. Regularly Scan Your Digital Assets

Digital assets, like repositories, credentials, API keys, and users, present vulnerability risks. As your company’s resources increase, so does your attack surface. You must automate your asset scanning and maintain it regularly to keep things working. Configurations drift, assets grow, and things break; you must be able to identify them before it’s too late.

5. Leverage Tools and Surfaces for Visibility

Complexity elimination in terms of attack surface analysis can be a huge time-saver and productivity boost for your security and development teams. CAASM tools can uncover your threat vectors and automate the vulnerability scanning process. As one popular cybersecurity saying goes: you can’t secure what you can’t see.

6. Secure SaaS Apps in Your Organization

Securing the authorized and unauthorized SaaS applications used in your organization is also critical in minimizing the attack points hackers can exploit. A SaaS security tool can help you discover all the apps employees login, identify, and help you remediate the security risks in those applications.

Bottom line

Attack surface mapping is a cybersecurity technique that helps identify an organization’s attack surface. It is a process that spots the different points of vulnerability in a system and provides recommendations for reducing the attack surface.

Attack surface mapping can be done manually or with automated tools. Manual mapping is done by finding all security gaps in a given system and assigning them to one of three categories: low, medium, or high risk. Automated tools, on the other hand, are used to pinpoint vulnerabilities and provide recommendations for eliminating risk, but they automate the process and minimize oversight.

Our customers tell us that asset management is also important for security and IT operations. JumpCloud is enhancing its platform to unify SaaS, IT security, and asset management.

Hatice Ozsahan
David Worthington

I'm the JumpCloud Champion for Product, Security. JumpCloud and Microsoft certified, security analyst, a one-time tech journalist, and former IT director.

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