Attack surface management refers to the never-ending process of detecting and monitoring digital assets for flaws that could serve as attack vectors or entry points. An attack surface comprises all weaknesses and vulnerabilities that adversaries could exploit to gain access to a network or system. The more attack vectors an organization has, the larger its attack surface.

With entities across most industries ramping up their digital transformation with artificial intelligence (AI), interconnected devices, and cloud migration, attack surfaces are continuously growing. Attack surface management aims to mitigate attack vectors to ultimately reduce an organization’s attack surface.

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What Is Internal Attack Surface Management Versus External Attack Surface Management

Digital attack surfaces can be internal or external. When discussing attack surface management, people often refer to internal attack surfaces, primarily encompassing vulnerabilities in assets accessible from within the organization’s trusted network. These assets could include: 

  • Internal servers
  • On-premise data storage systems
  • Workstations
  • User accounts and privileges

Internal attack surface management identifies, monitors, and mitigates vulnerabilities affecting these internal assets. 

However, the number of assets accessible through the Internet is also increasing, contributing to the growing external attack surface. Examples of external assets include:

  • Domain names
  • Subdomains
  • Cloud infrastructure
  • Email addresses
  • Open ports

These assets are mostly external-facing since they are typically visible to the general public, and any vulnerabilities in them can pave the way for severe cyber attacks. External attack surface management (EASM) tackles these Internet-facing assets and vulnerabilities before adversaries reach them. 

What Are the Benefits of Internal and External Attack Surface Management?

The increasing adoption of Internet-facing digital technology has made EASM crucial for organizations. By implementing EASM along with the more traditional internal attack surface management, entities will benefit from the following.

  • Increased visibility: When added to internal attack surface management, EASM has the potential to widen the scope of your asset discovery and monitoring capabilities to include unknown assets, shadow IT, and other potential sources of security flaws.
  • Reduced cyber risk: Organizations can significantly reduce their risk of being attacked by identifying and remediating vulnerabilities in their internal and external attack surfaces.
  • Enhanced threat detection: Attack surface management can help security teams detect and respond to threats more quickly and effectively through continuous attack surface monitoring. 
  • Improved compliance: Both internal and external attack surface management can help organizations comply with data privacy regulations and other industry standards requiring them to monitor and protect their digital infrastructure.

How Does Attack Surface Management Work?

Whether internal or external, attack surface management typically follows a four-part process comprising these steps:

Attack surface management
  1. Asset discovery and attribution: The first step in the process is cataloging all assets. For external assets, it is vital to ensure they belong to the organization. Hence, most EASM platforms employ advanced asset discovery and attribution techniques.
  1. Vulnerability scanning: The discovered assets are then checked for misconfigurations, weaknesses, and security issues. Vulnerabilities found at this stage make up the organization’s attack surface.
  1. Issue prioritization and remediation: Since not all vulnerabilities pose the same level of threat, ranking them based on severity, impact, and relevance is a crucial step. This way, security teams can address the most critical issues first.
  1. Attack surface monitoring: As new assets get added and new vulnerabilities emerge, continuous attack surface monitoring is necessary. 

Most internal attack surface management and EASM solutions embed these four major steps within their processes. They can perform asset discovery and attribution, detect and rank vulnerabilities based on industry standards or custom settings, and monitor the attack surface. 

What Is the Difference between Attack Surface Management and Vulnerability Management?

Many people may confuse vulnerability management with attack surface management since there is an overlap. While both are essential cybersecurity processes, they have different scopes.

Attack surface management is a broader strategy focusing on identifying, classifying, and prioritizing all known and unknown assets. On the other hand, vulnerability management is mainly concerned with discovering, prioritizing, and mitigating vulnerabilities in known assets. In effect, vulnerability management is a crucial part of attack surface management.

Traditionally, attack surface management referred to internal attack surfaces. However, EASM has become equally urgent with the advent of digital transformation and the increasing threat to external-facing assets