Attack Surface Management: What It Is & Why It’s Important

Diana Ipacs

August 25, 2023

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What is attack surface management and why should you make it an integral part of your cybersecurity strategy? Read more:


When it comes to cybersecurity, proactivity is a must. Being proactive in your defense requires you to be aware of all potential sources of cyber threats. This is where attack surface management (ASM) comes into the picture.

What is attack surface management?

ASM is a proactive approach to identifying, evaluating, and mitigating potential vulnerabilities within an organization's digital environment. It encompasses the vast array of hardware, software, networks, and digital touchpoints that attackers might exploit. At its core, attack surface management is about understanding and reducing the risks associated with these exposed areas to ensure a more robust cybersecurity defense.

Why is attack surface management important?

There’s no denying it, we’re right in the middle of a technological revolution. That means organizations are embracing numerous tools, platforms, and technologies to stay competitive and efficient. However, each new device, application, or network connection also adds potential entry points for cyber adversaries.

In short: The larger the attack surface, the more opportunities malicious actors have to infiltrate (and with that, to disrupt, spy on, or steal from) an organization.

Attack surface management

Elements of Attack Surface Management: Potentials for Cyberattacks

1. Assessing software applications

Every application, from enterprise tools like ERP (enterprise resource planning) systems to simple productivity apps, is a potential vulnerability.

Effective attack surface management includes assessing applications for vulnerabilities and ensuring timely patches. For example, if an organization uses open-source software like Apache or WordPress, they should be vigilant about patch updates that fix vulnerabilities.

2. Monitoring hardware and physical infrastructure

Some examples include servers, workstations, networking devices, and IoT devices like smart thermostats or connected cameras in company premises.

Consistently monitoring and updating hardware is a crucial element of attack surface management. For example, network switches or routers might have vulnerabilities that, when left unpatched, could allow unauthorized access.

3. Fortifying network architecture

This encompasses internal networks, VPN connections, Wi-Fi access points, and even IoT device networks.

Countless measures exist to fortify network defenses. These include monitoring for open ports using tools like Nmap (“Network mapper”), using firewalls and intrusion detection/prevention systems (IDS/IPS), or ensuring only necessary protocols are running.

4. Monitoring cloud services and vendors

Cloud services are everywhere. Apart from storage or computation, think of platform services, analytics tools, or even collaboration suites hosted in the cloud.

Regular audits, such as checking an Azure Blob storage for public accessibility or ensuring Google Workspace documents aren't shared externally without proper authorization, are part of effective attack surface management.

5. Training employees and addressing insider threats

Like it or not, every individual within an organization, whether they're in leadership or in an entry-level position, could be a potential security risk. Insider threats come in various forms, including malicious intent on the part of a disgruntled or dishonest employee and inadvertent victims. (Just think of a CEO or department head falling for a whaling or executive phishing attempt).

When it comes to employees and attack surface management, you should also consider physical security. An employee might leave a workstation unlocked or lose a company phone or laptop during a commute. Using tools that require device encryption or auto-locking after periods of inactivity can be a good idea.

Some measures that can play a role in managing this internal element of the attack surface:

  1. 1
    Regular security awareness training,
  2. 2
    Strong access controls (implementing least-privilege access),
  3. 3
    Continuous monitoring for suspicious activities.

6. Securing remote work environments

The popularity and prevalence of hybrid and remote work has skyrocketed, and companies need to be aware of the security implications of this. For example, remote employees might be using personal devices, shared family computers, or unsecured home networks to access company data.

Implementing mobile device management solutions or issuing guidelines on setting up secure home Wi-Fi networks can make a difference. For example, guidelines might include changing default router passwords and enabling WPA3 encryption.

7. Securing external interfaces and public-facing assets

These include APIs that integrate with vendors or partners, public FTP servers for file exchange, and even marketing platforms with customer data.

Regular penetration testing can uncover vulnerabilities. For instance, APIs might be susceptible to attacks if rate limiting isn't implemented, leading to potential data breaches or denial of service.

Attack surface management: Covering the basics

An expansive attack surface equates to more opportunities for adversaries to penetrate your defenses, so it’s key to reduce it where possible and manage the rest. Let's see some useful tips on how to do this:

1. Understand the ecosystem

“You can't manage what you can't measure”, people often say. In the same vein: You can only manage what you know of, so start by understanding your entire digital and physical ecosystem. This involves mapping out all assets, software, hardware, networks, cloud services, and even subscriptions and human interactions.

Without a comprehensive understanding, blind spots occur. These oversights are where vulnerabilities often hide and where attackers can exploit. Awareness is the first step towards robust protection.

2. Prioritize reducing the attack surface

Attack surface management involves minimizing the number of tools, software, and platforms if they aren’t necessary. The leaner your digital footprint, the easier it is to manage.

As we emphasized early on in this article, every additional tool or software is another potential point of entry for attackers. By keeping only what’s truly necessary, you also reduce the number of potential vulnerabilities.

3. Embrace a culture of cybersecurity

This is important for all organizations, big and small. Make cybersecurity an integral part of your organizational culture. Everyone, from the CEO to the newest intern, should be educated and invested in security best practices.

Attackers often exploit the weakest link. Sometimes, that’s humans and human error. Cultivate a culture where every member is security-aware, and the human element of the attack surface becomes smaller.

4. Focus on continuous monitoring and assessment

Cybersecurity is not a one-off task. Invest in continuous monitoring tools and conduct regular assessments to keep pace with the threat landscape.

New vulnerabilities emerge daily, and old ones can reappear in different guises. Constant vigilance makes it much more likely you can detect threats in real-time and address vulnerabilities before they are exploited.

5. Stay updated

Ensure all systems, applications, and devices are regularly updated. Outdated software often has known vulnerabilities that can be easily exploited.

Staying updated is a proactive defense mechanism. Each update or patch can mean a closed door for potential attackers, reducing the risk of breaches.

It’s also worth mentioning that in a sense, cybersecurity is a collective endeavor. Attackers share tools and strategies, so it's logical for defenders to do the same. They can do that by engaging with platforms like the Cyber Threat Alliance or attending conferences and events like the RSA Conference or Black Hat.

Attack surface management tools

Fortunately, organizations don’t have to go it alone when it comes to ASM. Attack surface management tools are specialized software solutions that help organizations discover, monitor, and analyze their external digital exposure. In general, these tools help with identifying unknown or unmonitored assets, finding misconfigurations, and understanding the organization's digital footprint from an attacker's perspective.

Let’s see some common capabilities of attack surface management tools:

  1. 1
    Asset Discovery: scanning the internet to identify digital assets associated with an organization, such as domains, subdomains, IP addresses, cloud services, and more.
  2. 2
    Vulnerability Assessment: identifying known vulnerabilities in the discovered assets, allowing organizations to patch or mitigate them proactively.
  3. 3
    Data Leak Detection: detecting if sensitive data (like credentials or confidential documents) is exposed on the public internet.
  4. 4
    Change Monitoring: monitoring the attack surface continuously and notify the organization of any changes or new potential risks.
  5. 5
    Visualizations and Reporting: Most ASM tools provide a visual dashboard and detailed reports to aid decision-making and risk management.

Given the increasing complexity of IT environments and the rapid adoption of cloud services, the adaptation of attack surface management tools has grown significantly. Many organizations realize that traditional vulnerability management tools, which often focus on known, internal assets, can be insufficient. Among others, some well-known attack surface management tools include Censys, Cycognito, and BitSight (which focuses on external ASM).

So which one to choose? As with so many other factors in cybersecurity, the selection and effectiveness of an ASM (or any other cybersecurity) tool largely depend on an organization's specific requirements and the complexity of its digital ecosystem. Creating the organization’s overall cybersecurity strategy, part of which is choosing the right attack surface management tool, should always be done by highly qualified and experienced cybersecurity experts.

In essence, a comprehensive and holistic cybersecurity approach is vital for organizations.

The more you reduce your attack surface and the more aware you are of its components, the better your defenses become. Cyber threats can have far-reaching implications (financial, reputational, and operational, to name a few), so managing your organization's attack surface is not just smart, it's a must.

We hope you enjoyed our article on attack surface management. If your company is looking for IT professionals and you are interested in IT recruitment or IT staff augmentation, please contact us and we will be happy to help you find the right person for the job.

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