Cyber Attack - The Anatomy of an Average Hack and The Most Common Entry Points

Today's threat actors have become so sophisticated that they use a systemized modus operandi to target their next victim. This article discusses the anatomy of an average hack and the most common entry points threat actors exploit to execute the attack.

Cyber Attack - The Anatomy of an Average Hack and The Most Common Entry Points
Photo by Alexander Sinn / Unsplash

A cyberattack or hack can be perpetrated by individuals or a group of individuals for financial gain, espionage, or simply mischief. Threat actors use many methodologies and vectors to hack or infiltrate computers or network systems to compromise underlying information systems' confidentiality, integrity, or availability. For instance, they exploit weak passwords and software vulnerabilities and use social engineering tactics as the most common entry points to barge into an organization's network periphery. Let's see how an average cyber hack occurs – the motivation behind a cyberattack, the steps involved, and the most common entry points for a cyber adversary.

What is a Cyberattack?

A cyberattack attempts to disrupt or disable a computer system for various purposes, from accessing confidential information such as Intellectual Property or Trade Secrets to bringing the organization to a standstill. Cyberattacks are of multiple types, such as distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, malware infections, phishing attacks, MitM (Man-in-the-middle) attacks, etc.

The Motivation Behind Cyberattacks

Understanding the purposes and motivations behind cyberattacks can help security professionals and individuals implement effective preventive control measures around information systems. There can be many motives behind a cyber attack, such as:

  • Financial: Some attackers might be motivated by financial gain. They might try to steal money or sensitive information they can sell on the dark web.
  • Political: Other attackers might be motivated by political reasons. They might want to harm a company or organization because of their beliefs or views.
  • Revenge: Some attackers might be motivated by revenge. There is a possibility that the organization might have wronged them that they are attacking and want to get back at them.
  • Curiosity: Finally, some attackers might be motivated by curiosity. They might be interested in seeing what they can do or how they can disrupt a system.

Anatomy of an Average Cyberattack: How Does it Work?

Skilled malicious actors generally carry out a cyberattack with repeated attempts and stages. Cyberattacks can take many forms, and understanding the stages involved can help organizations better protect themselves. Typically, a cyberattack involves the following steps:

  1. The Recon Phase

The first stage is surveillance or reconnaissance. In this stage, the hacker tries to find as much information about the target, including what software and security measures are in place. This information can be used to plan a more successful attack or is sold to other threat actors who may not have the time or resources to gather the information themselves. There are many different ways to collect information about a target. The most common methods are:

  • Scanning for security vulnerabilities in various operating systems and applications
  • Probing for information about the network architecture, IP addresses, etc.
  • Gaining information about the people who use these information systems and the processes they follow.

2. The Control Phase

Next is the stage where the hackers take control of the network. They need a base from which an attack can be well-planned and executed. This can be done in several ways, such as:

  • The information gathered in the previous phase creates ways to get into the target system or network.
  • Crafting enticing spear-phishing emails that seem to be coming from an authentic source or contact
  • Creating identical but fake web pages captures sensitive information such as usernames and passwords.
  • Exploiting vulnerabilities in the system or using social engineering techniques to trick users into giving up their login credentials.

3. The Attack Phase

Once the cyber adversaries have gained access to the system, they can execute the attack. It may involve installing malware, stealing data, or simply vandalizing the system.

  • Attackers in this phase may install backdoors and programs that can help them remain undetected in the system.
  • As the attackers have unrestricted access to the enterprise network and admin accounts, they start executing the commands and program code to wreak havoc on the system.
  • This step involves delivering the attack and stealing, modifying, or destroying information.

4. Post Attack Phase

Once the attack objective is achieved, the attackers could

  • Start to disrupt the operations of the target organizations
  • Shutdown equipment or completely disable the systems
  • Steal confidential and sensitive data and share data in the public domain or sell it on the dark web
  • And finally, a skilled hacker always tries to cover his tracks once he has achieved his objective, called exfiltration

In the aftermath of a cyberattack, businesses must take remedial steps to mitigate the damage. This may include conducting a forensic analysis to determine the extent of the breach and identify the perpetrators, notifying customers and employees about the attack, securing the network, and protecting against future attacks.

The Most Common Entry Points for Cyber Adversaries

Cyber adversaries use a variety of entry points to compromise organizations. Knowing where these entry points are and how they are used can help you better protect your organization from a cyberattack. Some of the most common entry points are:

  • Phishing

Phishing is a social engineering tactic used by cybercriminals to lure the end-user into divulging PII (Personally Identifiable Information) or other confidential information. For instance, these malicious actors use fraudulent emails purporting to be from a trusted organization or individual to steal information such as passwords or credit card numbers. The emails may contain links to malicious websites or attachments that can download malware onto the recipient's computer.

  • Injection Attacks

Injection attacks occur when user input is not sanitized correctly, allowing malicious code or commands to be executed. This can allow an attacker to gain access to sensitive data or take control of the system. Several different ways an injection attack can occur, for example, SQL injection, Cross-site scripting, etc.

  • Rogue Access Points

One of the most common ways cyber adversaries gain access to organizations is by exploiting rogue access points. These are unauthorized wireless access points set up by cybercriminals to allow them to gain access to networks quickly. They can be challenging to detect, as they look like legitimate access points.

  • Cross-Site Scripting

Cross-Site Scripting (XSS) is a vulnerability that allows an attacker to inject malicious code into a web page, resulting in the execution of the code by unsuspecting users who visit the page. The code can steal user data, execute commands on the user's computer, or perform other malicious activities. XSS can be exploited by sending a specially crafted payload to a user logged in to a vulnerable website. The payload can be delivered in an email, URL, or attachment. Attackers can also exploit XSS vulnerabilities to inject malicious code into third-party websites that users of the vulnerable website visit.

Preventive Measures And Safeguards Against Most Common Cyberattacks

Business leaders need to realize that there is no "one-size-fits-all" solution or strategy to counter cyber threats. However, there are a few points that can help organizations prevent cyberattacks to a significant extent, such as:

  • Using comprehensive email security solutions for protection against phishing attacks.
  • Training employees to be aware of phishing attacks and other social engineering techniques to ensure they don't end up disclosing any information they are not supposed to.
  • Using web filters to block access to malicious websites and third-party applications that could be used to launch attacks.
  • Improving the overall cybersecurity posture by implementing firewalls, intrusion detection/prevention systems (IDS/IPS), and anti-malware solutions.
  • Implementing robust authentication methods, such as strong passwords, two-factor authentication (2FA), multi-factor authentication (MFA), etc.

Final Words

In summation, while the threat vectors could slightly vary from industry to industry, the anatomy of an average hack remains the same, and it goes through the four stages as discussed above. The primary takeaway is that one can proactively protect information assets from malicious actors by understanding how threat actors operate. Knowing common entry points and how they are exploited can go a long way in helping you become more aware of the modus operandi of malicious actors so that you can take preventive security measures accordingly and improve your organization's cybersecurity posture.