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What is an Attack Surface?

What is an Attack Surface?

Harold Bell
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Key Takeaway

Attack surface management refers to the process of identifying, assessing, and managing the potential vulnerabilities in an organization’s technology infrastructure. It involves analyzing and understanding all possible entry points that attackers could exploit, such as network devices, applications, APIs, and user access points.

With cyberattacks becoming more potentially catastrophic by the week, it is essential for organizations to take proactive steps in order to minimize their attack surfaces and bolster the security of their systems. This article explores the nature and definition of attack surfaces and attack vectors, along with how security teams can define and assess their organizations’ attack surfaces. It offers steps to reduce the risks exposed by attack surfaces.

What is an attack surface? An organization’s attack surface comprises various vulnerabilities, pathways, and methods malicious actors use to execute a cyberattack or gain unauthorized access to the network or sensitive data. As organizations increasingly move their operations to the cloud and adopt hybrid work models, networks become larger and more complex, resulting in an expanded attack surface.

Organizations must remain vigilant in monitoring their attack surfaces to identify and thwart any potential threats quickly. Reducing the attack surface area becomes more challenging as businesses increase their digital presence and adopt new technologies. Yet, it is an essential task required to minimize the chance of a successful cyberattack.

What is a physical attack surface?

Unprotected physical touchpoints are vulnerable as they potentially grant authorized access to sensitive data and other crucial information. Think of computers, laptops, mobile devices, IoT gadgets, or operational hardware—any of these can be targeted by malicious actors if left unguarded. For instance, if obsolete hardware is not disposed of correctly, confidential user data stored within it can be easily accessed by criminals.

Further, malicious company insiders with authorized access can exploit their position to steal sensitive information or install malware on endpoint devices. In addition, malicious actors may unlawfully trespass and physically enter a company’s premises to access devices and gain unauthorized control of confidential information. Baiting attacks are another type of physical attack involving malicious software-infested USB drives being left in public areas to coax users to connect them to computers, unwittingly downloading malware.

What is a digital attack surface?

A company’s digital attack surface area includes all applications, programs, ports, code, servers and websites that are connected to its network. Each piece of hardware or software contributes to this overall risk profile. Malware and malicious actors often seek to breach digital attack surfaces to infiltrate confidential information or disrupt a business’s everyday operations.

Cybercriminals often take advantage of outdated applications, unsecured operating systems, or vulnerabilities in software to target digital attack surfaces. Furthermore, they may launch brute-force attacks on passwords and exploit login weaknesses to gain illicit access to confidential data.

Attack vector vs attack surface

The attack vector and the attack surface are related, but they are not the same. The attack vector is the means by which a cybercriminal launches an attack. This could be through phishing emails, malicious websites, APIs, or compromised software.

The attack surface, on the other hand, refers to all the points of entry within an organization. This includes physical and digital components, such as hardware, applications, websites and networks that attackers can use to gain unauthorized access to confidential data or disrupt operations.

Defining your attack surface

Establishing and mapping the attack surface is an essential first step. To evaluate potential security risks, organizations must identify all physical and virtual devices that make up their attack surface, including corporate firewalls and switches, network file servers, computers and laptops, mobile phones and tablets, and printers.

Further, it is critical to identify the data and resources stored within the cloud, on end-user devices, and in on-premises systems. Additionally, evaluating which users can access this information will allow organizations to gain insights into user behaviors and departmental risks.

Reducing your attack surface

With infrastructures ever-growing in complexity and malicious cybercriminals continuing to search for new vulnerabilities within the user and organizational networks, companies must take proactive measures to limit the threat of such attacks. These five steps will help organizations do just that:

1. Streamline the process

Organizations must practice sound security management and policy decisions to thwart cybercriminals from gaining access to corporate data. This means disabling all unused software and devices and minimizing the number of endpoints utilized in the network. Businesses can ensure a secure environment for sensitive information by simplifying IT infrastructure.

2. Implement a zero-trust framework

The zero-trust security model creates a robust, fool-proof infrastructure by ensuring that only approved personnel can access the correct resources. This increases security and minimizes potential entry points into networks while safeguarding against unauthorized intrusions.

3. Segment the network

With network segmentation, businesses can minimize their attack risk by introducing barriers such as firewalls and micro-segmenting networks into smaller segments. This practice makes it harder for potential attackers to access sensitive data or systems through lateral movement.

4. Uncover security flaws

To ensure maximum security, organizations should pursue full visibility as you cannot secure what you cannot see. This entails conducting network scans and analyses routinely. This practice will enable them to detect potential issues immediately and protect their cloud-based and on-premises systems from unauthorized access. A successful scan should uncover vulnerabilities and reveal how malicious actors may exploit endpoints.

5. Invest in employee education

Employees are a primary component in thwarting cyberattacks. Regular cybersecurity awareness training will empower them to recognize the red flags of an attack, such as phishing emails.


Following the above mentioned steps, organizations can drastically reduce their attack surfaces and protect themselves from cyber attackers and their expanding arsenal of threat vectors. Not only will this help to safeguard valuable data, but it will also provide peace of mind in knowing that all essential security protocols are being adhered to. Companies can ensure a secure environment and mitigate potential risks with proactive measures.

Harold Bell

Harold Bell was the Director of Content Marketing at Noname Security. He has over a decade of experience in the IT industry with leading organizations such as Cisco, Nutanix, and Rubrik, and has been featured as an executive ghostwriter in Forbes Technology Council and Hacker News.

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