What is an Attack Vector? 17 Common Examples in 2024

Written by Hatice Ozsahan and David Worthington on July 24, 2023

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In the complex realm of cybersecurity, understanding various components is crucial, and one such fundamental element is the ‘attack vector’. Simply put, an attack vector is a method or pathway used by cybercriminals to gain unauthorized access to a network or computer system. The intention behind exploiting these vectors is to initiate a cyber attack, often with far-reaching and costly consequences.

What is an Attack Vector?

An attack vector in the context of cybersecurity refers to the method or pathway that a cybercriminal uses to breach a network or computer system’s security. This could be via malicious emails (phishing), infected software applications (malware), deceptive user interfaces (clickjacking), or even social engineering tactics. Essentially, it’s the route or technique an attacker uses to deliver a cyber attack.

Attack vectors exploit system vulnerabilities, providing an avenue for cybercriminals to access sensitive personal information (“SPI”), personally identifiable information (“PII”), and other valuable data. During a data breach, critical information can be severely compromised.

Preventing data breaches is of the utmost importance, considering that the average cost of a breach, according to IBM’s Cost of Data Breach Report 2022, stands at a staggering $4.35 million. This context underscores the importance of proactive prevention strategies in cybersecurity, as reactive measures such as digital forensics and IP attribution are mostly used to mitigate a breach’s aftermath.

Attack Vector vs. Attack Surface

While the terms attack vector and attack surface are often used interchangeably, it is important to recognize the clear differences between them. An attack vector refers to a specific method employed by malicious actors to gain unauthorized access to a network or computer system. It represents the technique or approach utilized in a cyberattack.

On the other hand, an attack surface encompasses the collective set of all potential attack vectors available to an attacker. It represents the total number of entry points or vulnerabilities that an attacker can exploit to manipulate a network or computer system and extract data.

For medium to large-sized enterprises, the attack surface can be significant, comprising numerous assets multiplied by various attack vectors. This large attack surface increases the potential avenues through which an adversary can compromise your organization’s data.

Your organization’s attack surface encompasses all the vulnerable points within your enterprise network where an attacker can attempt unauthorized access to your information systems.

Essentially, it includes the different techniques and methods that adversaries can utilize to gain unauthorized access to your company’s data, utilizing any of your assets. This includes vulnerabilities or security issues present at any of your endpoints that can be exploited to carry out a security attack.

By recognizing the distinctions between attack vectors and attack surfaces, your organization can effectively prioritize security measures, allocate resources, and establish a stronger defense against potential attacks.

Exploitation of Attack Vectors

The process of exploiting attack vectors typically follows a similar methodology:

  • Target Identification: Hackers select a specific system as their target for penetration or exploitation.
  • Data Collection: Hackers employ various tools, such as sniffing, email analysis, malware, or social engineering, to gather additional information about the target.
  • Attack Vector Analysis: Using the gathered information, hackers identify the most suitable attack vector and develop specialized tools to exploit it.
  • Security Breach: Hackers utilize their created tools to bypass the security measures in place and gain unauthorized access to the target system.
  • Malicious Activities: Once inside the system, hackers can engage in various activities, such as monitoring the network, stealing personal and financial data, or infecting computers and other endpoint devices with malware bots.

Robust security policies and procedures are critical to safeguarding against such threats. These measures serve as barriers against hackers attempting to exploit IT security vulnerabilities. While policies and procedures may vanish into thin air over time, organizations must continually monitor them to ensure they are in place and functioning smoothly to prevent hackers from exploiting potential attack vectors.

Common Attack Vector Examples

Because attack vectors serve as cybercriminals’ entry point into your computer systems or networks, it’s important to understand different vectors so you can protect against them. Let’s investigate the most common attack vector types to build your defenses.

1. Compromised Credentials

The most common type of access credential is a username and password, which are exposed in data leaks, phishing scams, and malware attacks. Credentials give attackers unfettered access when lost, stolen, or exposed. In order to prevent data leaks and the exposure of credentials, organizations must invest in tools that continuously monitor them. Password managers, multi-factor authentication (MFA), and biometrics can also reduce the risk of credentials being leaked and leading to a security incident.

2. Weak Credentials

One data breach can result in many more due to weak and reused passwords. Educate your staff about the benefits of password managers and single sign-on (SSO) tools, and teach them how to create a secure password.

Additional reading: Password security best practices

3. Insider Threats

Insider threats refer to security risks originating from within an organization, often involving current or former employees or business associates with access to sensitive information or privileged accounts. Private information or company-specific vulnerabilities can be exposed by these threats. While traditional security measures primarily focus on external threats, they may not effectively identify internal threats arising from within the organization. Types of insider threats include:

  • Malicious insider: Also known as a “turncloak,” this individual intentionally and maliciously abuses legitimate credentials for personal or financial gain. Malicious insiders have an advantage as they possess knowledge of the organization’s security policies, procedures, and vulnerabilities.
  • Careless insider: This type of insider threat involves an unwitting individual who unknowingly exposes the system to external threats. Usually, breaches driven by a careless insider occur by mistake, such as leaving devices unsecured or falling victim to scams.
  • Mole: Although technically an outsider, a mole has successfully gained insider access to a privileged network. These imposters may pose as employees or partners, exploiting their fraudulent position to carry out malicious activities.

To mitigate the risks associated with insider threats, organizations need to implement comprehensive security measures that encompass not only external threats but also internal vulnerabilities. This includes monitoring employee activities, implementing access controls and restrictions, conducting regular security awareness training, and establishing incident response protocols.

4. Missing or Poor Encryption

Using data encryption methods like SSL certificates and DNSSEC can protect data being transmitted against man-in-the-middle attacks. In the event of a data breach or leak, sensitive data or credentials could be exposed due to poor encryption or missing encryption. To prevent data losses and to fill any security gaps caused by unencrypted data, businesses should use data-loss prevention (DLP) tools such as email encryption tools.

5. Misconfigurations

The use of default credentials or misconfiguration of cloud services such as Google Cloud Platform, Microsoft Azure, or AWS can lead to data breaches and data leaks, so be sure to check your S3 bucket permissions or someone else will do it for you. Configuration management should be automated to prevent configuration drift, as unknown or unfixed misconfigurations can expose an organization to an array of outside and internal threats.

6. Malware

‍Ransomware is a form of extortion where data is deleted or encrypted unless a ransom is paid, such as WannaCry. WannaCry is a ransomware worm that spread quickly throughout a number of computer networks in May of 2017. As soon as it infects a Windows computer, its encryption algorithm makes files on the hard drive inaccessible, forcing users to pay a ransom in bitcoin to unlock them. Maintain a defense plan, including patching your systems and backing up important data, to minimize the impact of ransomware attacks.

7. Phishing Attacks

A phishing attack is a type of social engineering attack in which a victim is tricked into providing sensitive data, credentials, or personally identifiable information (PII) by posing as a legitimate colleague or institution by email, telephone, or text message. Users can be directed to malicious websites hosting viruses or malware payloads with fake messages. Google blocked over 231 billion spam and phishing messages in the last two weeks of November 2022 alone. In light of the exponential increase in phishing attacks, users must make every effort to avoid being fooled by them.

8. Security Vulnerabilities

Security vulnerabilities are significant attack vectors for malicious entities. New software flaws join the Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVE) list daily. Many more of them go unknown or unnoticed until they’re exploited in a zero-day attack, in which developers have zero days to patch the vulnerability.

Cybercriminals tirelessly probe software and servers for exploitable weaknesses, transforming these vulnerabilities into primary attack vectors. Therefore, maintaining a solid line of defense becomes paramount. A cornerstone of this defense is patch management: prompt application of updates or code modifications designed to fix known vulnerabilities.

Automatic software updates are critical, as they ensure immediate application of patches once released, transforming vulnerabilities from potential attack vectors into closed avenues. Through such diligent measures, organizations can mitigate the risk of cyberattacks and fortify their defenses against the constant threat of security vulnerabilities.

9. Brute Force Attacks

Brute force attacks are a hacking method that uses trial and error to crack passwords, login credentials, and encryption keys. Attackers employ this technique by continuously attempting to gain access to your organization until they succeed. They exploit various vulnerabilities, such as weak passwords or encryption, phishing emails, and infected email attachments containing malware. The hacker employs a computer to test a wide range of combinations, trying multiple usernames and passwords until they find the correct login information.

Despite being an old cyberattack method, brute force attacks have proven to be reliable and continue to be popular among hackers.

10. Distributed Denial of Service (“DDoS”)

DDoS attacks represent a severe cybersecurity threat to networked resources, including data centers, servers, web applications, and websites. Attackers can cause significant slowdowns, crashes, or complete unavailability by bombarding these resources with overwhelming messages. Various potential solutions, such as Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) and proxies, can mitigate these attacks.

A prevalent attack vector within this realm is the DNS DDoS attack, which blurs the boundaries between volumetric and application DDoS attacks. In this scenario, cybercriminals generate a high volume of legitimate or spoof IP requests. These requests target open DNS servers, eliciting a flood of DNS replies directed toward spoofed IPs. This influx of traffic overloads the target system, inhibiting legitimate traffic from reaching its destination and causing system unavailability.

A clear example of the increasing threat posed by this attack vector comes from Radware’s Full Year 2022 Report. According to this report, global DDoS attacks increased by 150% in 2022 compared to the previous year. The Americas faced an even steeper rise, with a 212% increase in attacks relative to 2021. This escalating trend underscores the critical importance of understanding and addressing DDoS attack vectors to ensure system availability and security.

11. SQL Injections

SQL injection, also called SQLI, is a prevalent example of an attack vector that employs malicious SQL code to manipulate backend databases. This is done to gain unauthorized access to unintended information. This unauthorized access may encompass sensitive company data, user lists, or confidential customer details.

SQL injection attacks can have extensive consequences. A successful breach could lead to the unauthorized viewing of user lists, the deletion of entire database tables, and, in certain scenarios, granting the attacker administrative privileges to the database. All of these outcomes can cause significant harm to a business.

When estimating the potential costs associated with an SQL injection incident, it is crucial to consider the erosion of customer trust. This erosion may occur if personal information such as phone numbers, addresses, and credit card details are compromised.

Although SQL injection can target any SQL database, websites are the most commonly targeted entities.

12. Trojans

The story of the Trojan Horse is an old but familiar one: Odysseus defeats the city of Troy not through force, but through trickery. He feigns defeat and offers the city of Troy a giant wooden horse as a token of surrender. Once the Trojans bring the horse inside, they realize Odysseus and his men were hidden inside the whole time.

Computing also has its own version of Trojan horses. These are malware that mislead users by pretending to be legitimate programs and are often spread via infected email attachments or fake malicious software. Like their namesake, Trojan horse attacks, commonly referred to as “Trojans,” use deception and social engineering to trick unsuspecting users into running seemingly benign computer programs that hide malicious ulterior motives.

It is important to note that Trojan horses are not technically computer viruses but rather a separate form of malware. However, the term “Trojan horse virus” has become a common way to refer to them.

13. Cross-Site Scripting (“XSS”)

Cross-Site Scripting (XSS) attacks are a form of injection where malicious scripts are inserted into trusted websites. These attacks occur when an attacker uses a web application to send harmful code, usually in the form of a script, to unsuspecting users. The goal of XSS attacks is to impact the visitors of a website rather than directly attacking the website itself. One common method attackers use is injecting malicious code into comments. For example, they could embed a link to malicious JavaScript in a blog post’s comment section. According to Edgescan’s 2023 Vulnerability Statistics Report, XSS accounted for about 16% of high-risk security vulnerabilities in application security in 2023.

14. Session Hijacking

Normally, a service provides users’ computers with a session key or cookie that allows them to log in without having to do so again. However, this mechanism can be hijacked by an attacker to gain access to sensitive information. In other words, the Session Hijacking attack exploits the web session control mechanism, which is normally managed for a session token.

Because HTTP communication uses many different TCP connections, the web server needs a method to recognize every user’s connections. The most useful method depends on a token that the Web Server sends to the client browser after successful client authentication. A session token is normally composed of a string of variable width and it could be used in different ways, like in the URL, in the header of the HTTP requisition as a cookie, in other parts of the header of the HTTP request, or yet in the body of the HTTP requisition.

The Session Hijacking attack compromises the session token by stealing or predicting a valid session token to gain unauthorized access to the Web Server.

15. Man-in-the-Middle Attacks

A man-in-the-middle (“MitM”) attack is a cyberattack where communication between two parties is intercepted to steal credentials or personal information, spy on victims, sabotage communications, or corrupt data. These attacks can occur on public Wi-Fi networks, exploiting them to intercept traffic intended for other destinations, such as secure systems. If a client device is compromised, attacker possibilities become unlimited. Protecting device integrity is crucial for effective mitigation.

MitM attacks have existed since the 1980s, as one of the earliest forms of cyber attacks sparked efforts to prevent communication tampering.

Prioritizing encryption and proper certificates is crucial to enhancing security. Security can be improved by implementing restrictive corporate or user policies on operating systems and web browsers. The users, however, bear a significant responsibility regardless of policy limitations. Preventing MitM attacks is most effective when users are educated about safe networking practices.‍

16. Third and Fourth-Party Vendors

As outsourcing increases, your vendors pose a great cybersecurity risk to your customers and your proprietary information. Third parties were responsible for some of the biggest data breaches. According to a report released by SecurityScorecard and the Cyentia Institute, 98% of organizations worldwide integrate with at least one third-party vendor that has been breached in the last two years.

The report found that third-party vendors are five times more likely to exhibit poor security. Organizations must be aware of the risks posed by third-party vendors and take steps to mitigate them. This includes conducting due diligence on vendors and implementing robust security controls. Establishing clear policies and procedures for working with vendors is also important.

17. Spoofing

An impersonation attack is a type of spoofing that involves assuming another person’s identity to obtain sensitive information and carry out malicious activities. Impersonation attacks merit an entire chapter in the cybercriminals’ handbook. These attacks employ a range of techniques to camouflage, deceive and manipulate unsuspecting victims.

Black hat hackers can forge various elements to succeed. This can include spoofing an IP address, a phone number, a web page, a login form, an email address, a text message, a GPS location, or even impersonating someone’s face. These deceptive tactics target human trust and capitalize on vulnerabilities in hardware or software.

One such type is an impersonation attack, where the attacker assumes another person’s identity to obtain sensitive information and engage in malicious actions. Spoofing email addresses and network addresses are common tactics used in these attacks. Impersonation attacks can enable various forms of cybercrime, including identity theft, by falsifying identity.


What is an example of an attack vector?

Phishing emails are a common example of an attack vector. In this case, an attacker sends an email pretending to be from a trustworthy source to trick the recipient into revealing sensitive information like usernames, passwords, or credit card details, or to install malware on their system.

What is the difference between an attack and an attack vector?

An ‘attack’ refers to a malicious action taken to compromise, sabotage, or gain unauthorized access to a system or network. An ‘attack vector’, on the other hand, is the method or pathway used by the attacker to execute the attack. The attack vector might be a phishing email, session hijacking, or poor encryption, for instance.

What is an attack surface vector?

The term ‘attack surface vector’ isn’t commonly used. However, it might refer to a specific component of the overall attack surface, which is the collection of all possible points (hardware, software, networks) where an attacker might attempt to enter or extract data. Each of these points can be thought of as a vector or pathway that an attacker could use.

What is an attack vector as it relates to network security?

In the context of network security, an attack vector refers to the method or path that a cybercriminal uses to infiltrate a network. This could be through unsecured wireless networks, exploiting network protocols, injecting malicious code into network traffic, or gaining access to network devices by exploiting vulnerabilities in their firmware or software.

Learn About JumpCloud

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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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