An attack surface analysis is a systematic process of identifying, classifying, and evaluating vulnerabilities in an organization’s IT infrastructure. The goal of an attack surface analysis is to help security teams thoroughly examine their attack surface and prioritize security efforts to mitigate the most critical risks first.

Security teams conduct attack surface analyses on both external and internal systems to get a complete picture of their attack surface. External attack surface analysis focuses on discovering vulnerabilities that attackers can exploit from outside the organization. In contrast, internal attack surface analysis identifies weaknesses that threat actors can exploit if they already have access to the organization’s network.

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What Are the Ways to Conduct an Attack Surface Analysis?

Security teams typically combine automated and manual methods to conduct an attack surface analysis. Automated analysis entails the use of a wide variety of tools, ranging from open-source and free options to commercial and enterprise-level solutions.

Below are some tool categories typically used for an attack surface analysis.

  • Attack surface management platforms
  • Cloud security solutions
  • Network scanners
  • Social engineering tools
  • Vulnerability scanners
  • Web application scanners

The choice of tools depends on the IT infrastructure’s complexity and size, the organization’s specific needs and requirements, and the available budget.

On the other hand, manual attack surface analysis can include social engineering, penetration testing, and other techniques that require security teams to test an organization’s defenses thoroughly.

How Can You Perform an Attack Surface Analysis?

Whether automated, manual, or a combination of both, attack surface analysis usually involves these steps:

how to perform an attack surface analysis
  1. Define the scope: Since an attack surface analysis can be internal or external, the scope should be clearly defined to focus the analysis and still be comprehensive. This step involves identifying the specific systems, networks, applications, and data that will be included in the analysis.
  1. Identify assets and attack entry points: Inventory all assets within the defined scope, including hardware, software, networks, and cloud services. Map out all potential entry points, such as external interfaces and user access points.
  1. Analyze assets: Collect relevant information about the assets identified, including their configuration details, software versions, and patch levels. Analyze this data to identify potential vulnerabilities and misconfigurations that attackers can exploit.
  1. Prioritize risks: Assess the severity of each vulnerability and likelihood that they may get exploited. Rank risks based on their potential impact on an organization’s critical assets and sensitive data.
  1. Document and communicate findings: Document the results of the analysis, including the vulnerabilities identified, risk assessments, and remediation plans. Communicate these findings to relevant stakeholders within the organization so everyone is aware of the risks and mitigation strategies.

What Are the Most Common Vulnerabilities That an Attack Surface Analysis Can Uncover?

An attack surface analysis can uncover a wide range of vulnerabilities, but some of the most common include:

  • Open ports and services: Exposed ports and unnecessary services on an organization’s network can provide attackers with direct access to systems and applications, increasing the risk of intrusion and exploitation.
  • Improper cloud configurations: Cloud configurations can be complex and difficult to manage. Insecure cloud configurations can leave organizations vulnerable to data breaches, denial-of-service (DoS) attacks, and other cybercrime.
  • Misconfigured firewalls and security devices: Improperly configured firewalls and other security solutions, such as intrusion detection systems (IDSs) and intrusion prevention systems (IPSs), can leave gaps in an organization’s defenses, allowing attackers to bypass security controls.
  • Outdated software and operating systems (OSs): Outdated software often contains known vulnerabilities that have not been patched, making it easier for attackers to leverage exploit tools. Regularly updating systems is critical, especially since old vulnerabilities can still be exploited.
  • Poorly secured application programming interfaces (APIs): APIs allow different applications to communicate with each other. When not properly secured,  attackers can use them to gain unauthorized access to systems.

Conducting an attack surface analysis enables security teams to detect and secure potential attack entry points before threat actors can get to them. It is a continuous and crucial cybersecurity process that requires security teams to identify all assets and test them for vulnerabilities.