What is an Attack Surface?

What is an Attack Surface?

Last Updated on 19 August 2022 by admin

Organizations are growing more worried about the expanding attack surface and how to safeguard it as digital perimeters constantly grow and change. CISOs, security teams, and IT leaders are striving to secure the evolving attack surface while avoiding emerging threats at the same time.

Attackers are continuously attempting to find a weakness or entry point in one of the many pieces that make up your internet-facing perimeter. Any one of those digital assets may have vulnerabilities that a threat actor can exploit which could lead to a damaging breach of sensitive data. 

What is an attack surface?

The attack surface refers to the sum of all possible security exposures that an attacker could use as an entry point to penetrate a system or network. They are hyper-dimensional, constantly changing, and can grow rapidly, making them notoriously difficult to manage. 

Due to the cumbersome nature of the attack surface, the role of CISOs has become one of the toughest and most demanding in the business world. In fact, nearly 80% of senior security and IT leaders lack confidence in their cyber security posture. 

What are the types of attack surfaces?

Any systems or networks that hold and/or have access to sensitive and/or privileged information need to be thoroughly inspected for security weaknesses. Below are the three types of attack surfaces.

Digital Attack Surface

This refers to the total vulnerabilities on the hardware and software – everything outside of the firewall where internet-facing assets such as websites, code, ports, email servers, and mobile applications are located. External digital assets can be known or unknown to you, and a common issue is the presence of shadow IT which can pose considerable risk to your security posture. 

Physical Attack Surface

This refers to endpoint devices like mobiles, desktop systems, or USB ports for example. As we move towards an increasingly digital future, businesses are using a wider variety of devices and in higher volume, providing more opportunities for an attacker to gain access to sensitive data and cause a ransomware attack. 

Human Attack Surface

People can also be included in the attack surface too; this is called the human attack surface. Employees must understand how their IT environments work and be aware of potential dangers. Human error is one of the most common causes of data breaches today, with social engineering attacks like phishing being one of the most prevalent.

What is an attack vector?

Attack vectors are the individual exposures or vulnerabilities that make up the external attack surface. Using these exposures as pathways (or methods of attack), malicious actors can access, exploit, and steal data from a privileged digital environment. 

What are examples of common attack vectors?

  • Weak passwords
  • Compromised (weak or stolen) credentials
  • Phishing emails
  • Malware
  • Ransomware
  • Misconfiguration
  • Insider threats
  • Missing or poor encryption
  • Third-party vendors 

Attack Surface Analysis

The goal of attack surface analysis is to identify the assets in your digital perimeter that need to be examined and tested for security vulnerabilities. Mapping your attack surface using attack surface discovery visualizes the assets that comprise your digital perimeter. This involved using asset discovery tools to identify your known and unknown internet-facing assets to create an accurate asset inventory.

Attack surface analysis helps IT and security teams to identify immediate and potential future security weaknesses. Once the initial mapping and visualization phase is completed, steps can be put in place to mitigate identified vulnerabilities. Typically this requires a risk assessment which can be prioritized by asset criticality. Using penetration testing or vulnerability scanning will provide a more granular list of areas to remediate.

How to reduce your attack surface

Attack surface analysis consists of identifying, tracking, and managing assets. This has become a universal concern for many CISOs and IT leaders – irrespective of their size or sector. Real-time end-to-end visibility of the evolving external attack surface provides a birds-eye view of your digital ecosystem, allowing for better risk-detection and response – so it is fast becoming a necessity to help reduce your attack surfaces. 

After all, you can’t remediate security flaws that you aren’t aware of, so visibility is key.

What is External Attack Surface Management and why is it important?

External attack surface management (EASM) tools provide continuous security monitoring and management of your attack surface and the vulnerabilities that contain, transmit, or process your data. 

It enables organizations to map, track, understand and analyze their threat landscape – empowering them to think like an attacker. EASM provides optimum security coverage, providing insights on:

  • What the components of your attack surface are
  • Where the attack vectors and exposures are located
  • How to secure your organization from future data breaches and cyber attacks

Visibility (and analysis) of your threat landscape is not only important but necessary for resilience against today’s threats. The internet is everywhere now, and so is the threat of attack. Security strategies become meaningless if you aren’t aware of your precise vulnerabilities making EASM one of the best security practices across the board. 


Understanding your attack surfaces is key to cyber resilience and avoiding a data breach. A solution like EASM will empower you to take the reins and reform your cyber security strategy, all the while helping you achieve compliance with new and changing data security stands.