Attack surface management is the continuous process of discovering, classifying and assessing the security of all of an organization’s assets. With the rush to digital transformation, your attack surface has both grown exponentially and become immeasurably harder to define and defend. Add to that the rise in cyberattacks and breaches, and it’s no wonder that there is a spotlight on attack surface management.
What is an Attack Surface?
First, it’s important to understand what we mean when we talk about the attack surface. An attack surface is the sum of an organization’s attacker-exposed IT assets, whether these digital assets are secure or vulnerable, known or unknown, in active use or not, and regardless of IT or security team awareness of them. An organization’s attack surface changes continuously over time, and includes digital assets that are on-premises, in the cloud, and in subsidiary networks, as well as those in third-party vendors' environments.
"CyCognito provides our company with cutting-edge technology enabling my team to have global visibility into all our web-facing assets in an easy-to-use interface, and it does so better than other attack surface management tools we've used."
Chief Information Security Officer
What is Attack Surface Management?
Now that we’ve defined what attack surface means, what does it mean to say you are engaging in attack surface management? It’s a process that enables you to continuously discover, classify and assess the security of your IT ecosystem. The process can be broadly divided into two categories:
- Activities performed in managing internet-exposed assets (a process called external attack surface management, or EASM)
- Management activities on assets accessible only from within an organization
Why Attack Surface Management Matters
Business, IT, and security managers that say that cyber-risk is greater than it was two years ago
Organizations that have experienced a cyber attack that began from an unknown, unmanaged, or poorly-managed company asset
Believe that they will experience this type of cyber attack again
Why Is Attack Surface Management Important?
You don’t have to look far to find stories about the danger of ever-growing attack surfaces. Take the SolarWinds attacks in which malware was introduced via organizations’ supply chains, routes that are often overlooked on the assumption that they are implicitly secure. This exploit continues to turn up victims, including the email systems of government and international aid agencies that have been critical of the alleged perpetrators.
Another oft-forgotten attack vector is out-of-date software and hardware that is still in use, such as the exploited remote code execution vulnerabilities that have existed on Microsoft Exchange servers as far back as 2010. Remote code execution vulnerabilities were also exploited in attacks against Accellion customers using the company’s legacy File Transfer Appliance (FTA).
Ransomware, as demonstrated by the recent Colonial Pipeline attack, is another example. The attack targeted remote services such as Citrix, Remote Desktop Web (RDWeb), or remote desktop protocol (RDP) to initially gain unauthorized access. Because organizations are working with largely-remote workforces due to the pandemic, the timing couldn’t have been worse.
In each of these breaches, attackers made their way in through a route that was either unknown by security or considered unimportant. Given the vast number of devices and services spanning your enterprise, it is easy to see how something could be overlooked, especially if you are examining your attack surface from the perspective of most security teams– that is to say, the inside out.
But that’s not how attackers think.
Today’s sophisticated attacks involve extensive, automated reconnaissance efforts that analyze your attack surface from the outside in. This perspective often reveals a completely different picture of the only attack surface that matters – the one attackers can exploit.
The only way to effectively defend against attacks is to take an attack surface management approach that provides the same continuous visibility into your security gaps as attackers have – outside in – so you can remediate issues before they become exploited.
How does attack surface management protect from cyberattacks?
Effective attack surface management is a continuous, five-step process used to keep your organization up-to-date with the most important attack vectors.
You can’t manage an asset if you don’t know it exists. Most enterprises have a surprising variety of “unknown unknowns,” such as assets housed on partner or third-party sites, workloads running in public cloud environments, IoT devices, abandoned or deprecated IP addresses and credentials, services enabled by Shadow IT, and more. Legacy tools and processes can easily miss these attack surface assets, but they can be found quickly by a modern attack surface management program and solution using the same sophisticated reconnaissance techniques as attackers.
You can’t just superficially test your cyber attack surface once. Every day it continues to grow as you add new devices, users, workloads and services. As it grows the security risk grows too. Not just the risk of new vulnerabilities, but also misconfigurations, data exposures or other security gaps. It’s important to test for all possible attack vectors, and it’s important to do it continuously to prevent your understanding from becoming outdated.
Because not all attack vectors are created equal, business context and ownership are vital parts of attack surface management. However, legacy tools and processes don’t typically provide context in a consistent way, making it difficult to prioritize fixes. An effective attack surface management approach requires information such as IP address, device type, whether it is in current use, its purpose, its owner, its connections to other assets, and possible vulnerabilities contained within it. This can help your security team prioritize the cyber risk and determine if the asset should be taken down or deleted, patched, or simply monitored.
The list of potential attack vectors you discover is almost certain to be more than your security team can validate and your IT team can possibly remediate. That’s why it’s important that you’ve collected all of that context so you can use it to determine where to focus the remediation teams’ efforts. Use of criteria such as ease of exploitation, discoverability, attacker priority and remediation complexity, in addition to business context help ensure you prioritize the most urgent risks.
Once your attack surface is thoroughly mapped and contextualized, you can then begin the work of remediation in order of priority. To make your remediation as effective as possible, it’s a best practice to find ways to facilitate (and even automate) information handoff from the tools and teams that understand the risks and their priorities (typically security operations teams) and those teams responsible for doing the work of eliminating them (IT operations teams). Sharing business context and how-to-fix information streamlines the process and helps establish trust.
Attack Surface Protection with CyCognito
When you are ready to go beyond legacy systems to manage your cybersecurity risks, the CyCognito attack surface management platform can help elevate your continuous discovery, testing and vulnerability management. It preempts cyber attacks like ransomware and others and helps satisfy key elements of most common security frameworks and many regulatory compliance standards. The platform achieves this by discovering and testing your entire digital attack surface, prioritizing what needs to be fixed first, integrating with and orchestrating existing workflows, and automatically validating remediation.
See How We Do It
CyCognito is solving one of the most fundamental business problems in cybersecurity: the need to understand how attackers view your organization, where they are most likely to break in, and how you can efficiently analyze, monitor and eliminate that risk.