Attack Path vs Attack Vector: Important Differences You Need To Know

By: Rinat Villeval, Technical Enablement Manager

If you want to solve a problem, defining your terms is essential — and there are few more pressing problems than safeguarding critical assets against cyber-criminals.

With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at how attack vectors and attack paths differ, and why attack path management is the optimal solution for handling the challenges associated with these terms.

Understanding Attack Vectors

An attack vector is a method that cyber-attackers use to compromise a system. Although the terms are sometimes mixed, attack vectors are not to be confused with an attack surface, which is best defined as every possible point where an adversary can attempt to gain entry into your network or system. 

Malware, ransomware or phishing are all examples of common attack vectors. While cloud attack vectors can be used to target a security gap within your network or system, vectors can also be leveraged to exploit human error.

Some of the human errors that help create attack vectors include:

  • Having weak credentials
  • Using suboptimal encryption
  • Failing to address misconfigurations
  • Allowing access to sensitive information via privilege escalation

Adversaries will often take advantage of multiple vectors when conducting an attack. It’s also important to know that attack vectors may exist even when they appear to be mitigated. For example, creating an extremely strong password won’t help much if you don’t realize that password is available on the dark web, just waiting for an attacker to use it against you.

Attack Path vs. Attack Vector — What’s the Difference?

While they sound similar and share some overlap, attack paths and attack vectors are not the same thing. An attack path is a visualization of the chain of events that occurs when attack vectors are exploited. In this sense, an attack vector acts as a doorway, while an attack path is a map that shows how an adversary entered the door and where that adversary went.

By visualizing attack paths, it becomes possible to understand where vulnerabilities exist and the precise steps an attacker can take to exploit those gaps, travel through the environment, and ultimately compromise critical assets.

A simple example of how attack vectors and paths are aligned would be something like this: An adversary gains an entry point into a system by exploiting a weak password. Once they gain initial foothold they will try to harvest credentials (another vector); once inside, the adversary begins moving through the system by exploiting access privileges and network access, eventually moving towards a critical asset, which is then exfiltrated. The attack path is the visual representation of the combination of all of the exploited attack vectors Рin this case privilege escalation and poor IT hygiene. 

One of the most frightening things about this scenario is how utterly routine it is. Perhaps even more alarming is the fact that many such attacks go undetected for weeks or even months, giving the attacker time to target critical assets and escape without notice.

Fortunately, there is a way to help ensure such nightmare scenarios do not occur: Attack path management.

How Attack Path Management Helps Protect Your Most Valuable Assets

Attack path management helps organizations reduce cyber-attack threats through tools featuring attack path analysis — or the modeling of vectors or methods adversaries could employ to compromise a network and steal assets. Using attack path mapping to shine a light on exposures is one of the strongest weapons defenders have in their arsenal, as it illustrates not only where you are vulnerable, but how those exposures could be exploited and the overall level of risk.

Organizations have historically struggled to manage their attack paths because they have lacked the appropriate tools for managing them. XM Cyber technology solves this long standing problem by helping organizations visualize all possible attack paths across their entire attack surface and mitigate these risks through guided remediation.

Modern computing environments are complex and dynamic. This creates continual changes to permissions and applications and has the potential to create new and hidden vulnerabilities. In other words, the connections and behaviors that form attack paths are always in flux. As mentioned above, human error also remains a constant companion.

This combination of factors makes continuous mapping of attack paths an imperative. Without ongoing visibility into how attack paths develop and change, you cannot effectively defend yourself.

XM Cyber’s approach to attack path management provides this visibility, helping organizations understand where they are exposed and how those exposures could be exploited to jeopardize their most critical assets. Our advanced, automated attack simulation identifies choke points — the individual systems many attack paths traverse through. Defenders can identify how exploits can be leveraged to target critical assets.

By resolving the choke points, attackers lose the ability to exploit the most high-risk exposures and critical assets are protected — and defenders can sleep easier at night.

The Takeaway

Understanding attack paths and attack vectors — and how the smart practice of attack path management can minimize risk — should be a key priority for defenders.

We can’t defend effectively against what we can’t see, which means that visualization of attack paths, and the risk they present to business-critical assets, is one of the best tools we have to protect our most valuable assets.