Security Solutions

6 mins

Attack Surface Management: Everything you need to know

Unfortunately, there are a multitude of threats facing your network, with malicious actors developing new ones all the time. Fortunately, there are also many approaches available to help you shore up your cyber defenses. And one is attack surface management.

But even among attack surface management tools, there are plenty of choices. That’s why it’s important to choose one that suits your network. Below, we’ll explain exactly what is meant by attack surface management and why it’s such an important method for safeguarding your critical resources against threats. 


Attack surface management explained

Attack surface management is the continuous identification, analysis, assessment, and monitoring of an organization’s assets for potential vulnerabilities and attack vectors. Due to the widespread embrace of digital transformation in many industries, most organizations have seen their attack surfaces expand substantially in recent times. In fact, research indicates that 67% of organizations have witnessed their attack surfaces grow in the past 12 months.

In order to tackle this broadening array of threats, attack surface management looks at all network-connected assets and views them from the perspective of a hacker - not a defender. This crucial difference means threats are seen through the lens of a threat actor - as potential opportunities to infiltrate digital networks and exploit resources. 

Today, attack surfaces are likely to include on-premise assets, those stored in the cloud, subsidiary assets, as well as those stored in third-party vendor environments. Just take a look at the predicted growth of the Internet of Things (IoT) as a case in point. The number of IoT devices in use globally is expected to total over 29 billion by 2030. Each one of these devices increases an organization’s attack surface and must be protected to prevent a cyberattack.

However, the truth is that every asset represents a potential vulnerability - old or new, internal or external. That’s why 68% of organizations have experienced a cyber attack that began from an unknown, unmanaged, or poorly-managed company asset. It’s extremely difficult to predict where the next threat will emerge. That’s why attack surface management is becoming an increasingly important weapon in an organization’s defensive arsenal. 

Attack surface management vs vulnerability management: What’s the difference?

Aside from attack surface management, vulnerability management is another approach often taken by offensive security professionals to safeguard an organization’s resources. However, there are important differences between the two.

Attack surface management takes a holistic view of all an organization’s assets, as well as how they are connected with one another. This includes both hardware and software and looks at the different paths that an attacker might take when infiltrating an organization’s resources. 

Vulnerability management, on the other hand, is part of a more traditional approach to threat detection that was more popular when corporate networks were smaller and more centralized. Generally, only known assets are checked, leaving a number of attack vectors open for bad actors to exploit. 

Usually, vulnerability management focuses on a specific asset or a network sub-section, and software is often prioritized over hardware vulnerabilities. Although vulnerability management remains useful for detecting a number of threats, including system misconfigurations, unpatched applications, or encrypted data, it is less likely to evaluate connections between assets and how this plays out within the broader threat landscape.  

When an organization is looking at attack surface management vs vulnerability management, the two solutions should not be considered as alternatives. In fact, the solutions are complimentary. Attack surface management broadens the scope of vulnerability management by adding insight into internet-facing assets. This is especially in the online age where threats emerge and evolve at an increasingly rapid pace. 


The main features of attack surface management

Because attack surface management looks to protect a wide variety of assets and defend against a constantly evolving threat landscape, it employs multiple different functionalities. Some of the most common features of an attack surface management strategy include:

  • Continuous scanning. The first phase of attack surface management relies on identifying and mapping all an organization’s digital assets - both internal and external. For complete visibility, attack surface management should also scan for unknown assets too.
  • Testing. Because attack surfaces are constantly evolving, any attack surface management strategy must employ continuous testing to be effective. Assets should be monitored in real-time, with personnel notified of additions or changes to existing configurations. 
  • Understanding context. Organizations can only fully understand the threat landscape if they not only identify risks, but contextualize them in terms of their relation to other resources, as well as an organization’s risk profile, compliance needs, and objectives. Not all risks are created equal. Understanding the context around an exposed asset will help organizations to categorize the level of risk it poses.
  • Prioritizing risks. Good attack surface management should tell an organization more than just the location of cyber risks, but also the severity of each risk. For example, an application vulnerability that would allow a cyberattacker to infiltrate multiple databases of sensitive information is likely to be a higher priority than an unprotected password that leads to a list of employee dietary requirements. Attack surface management should score each vulnerability based on various criteria, such as whether it’s been exploited previously, its vulnerability, and how challenging it would be to fix.
  • Remediation. Attack surface management is not only about identifying threats - but eliminating them too. Remediation can take many forms, including patching software, introducing access controls, configuring firewalls, or removing obsolete assets entirely. Plus, remember that any remediation should be ongoing and validated.

The modern challenges facing attack surface management

With cyber attackers constantly formulating new ways to infiltrate corporate networks, attack surface management must adapt to new trends. In recent times, there have been several developments for security teams to keep an eye on.

One of the major trends that attack surface management strategies must be aware of is the rise of shadow IT. This refers to the use of devices or applications that are not approved by a corporate IT team and is worryingly common. In fact, 97% of cloud apps used by the average enterprise are forms of shadow IT. This means a huge number of additional assets that need monitoring.

Another recent development is the widespread adoption of remote or hybrid working practices. When these practices are implemented in a hurried manner - as many were during the COVID-19 pandemic - it can lead to non-centralized security protocols and a lack of awareness over which assets are connected to the corporate network.

Given the increasing number of digital assets within a single corporate network, it can be difficult for security teams to keep track of everything. Even if attack surface management identifies every threat, individuals may still have to assess each one and decide if it is a priority or not. That’s why over half of all respondents to last year’s Cloud Security Alert Fatigue Report said they spent more than 20% of their time deciding which security alerts should be dealt with first. So, modern attack surface management must not only assess a growing number of assets but in a way that doesn’t increase the likelihood of alert fatigue.

Choosing the right attack surface management platform

Ultimately, attack surface management must carry out a difficult balancing act. It must cover an expanding threat landscape, but it shouldn’t burden IT personnel with notifications about false positives. This is why the best tools employ artificial intelligence to prioritize risk and accelerate remediation. 

Agentless platforms reduce the manual burden on security teams without compromising on defense. Contextual understanding and a hacker mindset can connect vulnerabilities to real-world threats, allowing assets to be monitored continually, only asking security personnel to get involved with the threats that matter most. 

In the ever-expanding world of cyber threats, it’s essential to adopt a hacker’s perspective. Use AI to augment the capabilities of your security teams. Contextualize and prioritize your exposed assets so you have multidimensional visibility as part of a modern, proactive attack surface management strategy.

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