Email Security

    What Is an Attack Vector? Types & Defense Strategies

    Attack vectors enable cybercriminals to deliver a payload or exploit that can be used to gain unauthorized access or control over the targeted system.

    by Giulian Garruba

    Key Points

    • Attack vectors are methods or channels an attacker uses to gain access to a system or network, with the goal of delivering a payload or exploit. 

    • Examples of attack vector types include phishing emails, unpatched software vulnerabilities, insecure network protocols, remote code execution, and more. 

    • To protect from attack vectors, organizations must use antivirus/anti-malware software, firewalls and intrusion detection systems, encryption techniques, and multi-factor authentication, as well as train employees on recognizing threats, have an incident response plan in place if needed, and apply security patches regularly.

    What Is an Attack Vector?

    For any organization, awareness of existing and evolving cybersecurity attack vectors is critical to protecting crucial digital assets, ensuring privacy for clients and customers, and meeting local, national, and international compliance frameworks. Identifying where and how your organization is most vulnerable is a daily challenge that must be understood and addressed to develop cyber resilience. Understanding common attack vectors, then, is an important part of your cybersecurity team’s job.

    The definition of an attack vector is a method or channel an attacker uses to gain access to a system or network. It can be a specific software vulnerability, a weak point in network infrastructure, or even a human action such as clicking on a malicious link in an email. The goal of an attack vector is to allow the attacker to deliver a payload or exploit, which is a piece of code or technique that can be used to gain unauthorized access or control over the targeted system.

    Two Stages of Attack

    There are generally two stages of attack that work in different ways — reconnaissance and an active attack. While active attacks are generally considered more dangerous than the reconnaissance stage, both should be considered as part of any cybersecurity plan. Here, we explore both stages in more detail.


    The reconnaissance stage of an attack involves the attacker monitoring or intercepting communications to gather information about the target system or network. They will attempt to do this without making any changes or causing any disruption. Examples of reconnaissance include eavesdropping on network traffic, analyzing packet headers, and sniffing wireless network traffic. This stage of an attack is difficult to detect because it does not cause any changes to the system or network, and the attacker can gather information without being noticed.

    Active Attack Vector

    An active attack vector refers to a method or channel that an attacker uses to gain access to a target system or network with the goal of actively interacting with the target system or network to cause damage, disrupt operations, or gain unauthorized access. This can include actions such as modifying or corrupting data, stealing sensitive information, gaining elevated access, maintaining access, and more. These types of attacks involve the attacker actively engaging with the target system or network to achieve their objectives, as opposed to passively observing or intercepting communications.

    Cybersecurity Attack Vector Examples

    Cybersecurity attack vectors are extremely broad. As cyberattacks become increasingly sophisticated and cybercriminals search for new ways to access networks and devices, new attack vectors are constantly developed and discovered. This means it’s extremely important to stay up to date with the latest known threats and attacks, as well as ensure your network is regularly checked for vulnerabilities.

    Most Common Cybersecurity Attack Vectors

    Some of the most common cybersecurity attack vector examples currently known and apply to almost all organizations include: 

    • Phishing Emails: These are emails that appear to be from a legitimate source (e.g., a bank or online retailer) but are actually designed to trick the recipient into providing personal information or clicking on a malicious link. Email security is especially important when shoring up common attack vectors.
    • Unpatched Software Vulnerabilities: These are weaknesses in software that can be exploited by attackers to gain access to a system. They may be known to the software vendor but have not yet been patched or fixed.
    • Insecure Network Protocols: These are communication protocols that have weaknesses that can be exploited by attackers. Examples include unsecured Wi-Fi networks and unsecured communication protocols like FTP.
    • Remote Code Execution: This is a type of exploit that allows an attacker to run arbitrary code on a target system. This is a very powerful exploit as it allows an attacker to take control of the target system.
    • Social Engineering: Social engineering is the use of trickery or deception to manipulate individuals into divulging confidential or personal information.
    • Malware: This is any software that can be used to damage or disrupt a system, steal information, or gain unauthorized access.
    • SQL Injection: This is a type of attack that allows an attacker to insert malicious code into an SQL statement, allowing them to gain access to sensitive information or control of a database.
    • Cross-Site Scripting (XSS): This is a type of attack that allows an attacker to inject malicious code into a web page, allowing them to steal information or control a user's browser.
    • Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS): This is a type of attack that uses multiple systems to flood a network or system with traffic, causing it to crash or become unavailable.

    Attack Vector vs. Attack Surface

    As we have already covered, while an attack vector is the path or means by which an attacker can deliver a payload or exploit, it is important to be aware of attack surfaces when building resilient cybersecurity protocols.

    An attack surface refers to the overall set of potential vulnerabilities or weaknesses that an attacker could exploit in a system or network. It represents the sum total of all the different attack vectors that can be used to gain access to a target system or network.

    This means all web pages, forms, scripts, and other site components that an attacker could potentially exploit. It will also include all the different protocols and configurations on a network, as well as devices and other hardware connected to the site or network.

    Crucially, cybersecurity teams must monitor the attack surface and, where possible, reduce it while retaining functionality. This is because the larger the attack surface (i.e. the more devices, protocols, and configurations in a network or system), the larger potential for vulnerabilities to be exposed.

    How to Protect Your Organization from Attack Vectors 

    Protecting your organization and reducing attack vectors and attack surfaces is an ongoing process and one that should take into account the fact that no single method will offer robust protection. In fact, even in combination, these protection methods can never create a 100% secure network. For this reason, it is also important to constantly update and revise your usage of the following tools and habits.

    • Keep Software Up to Date: Regularly apply security patches and updates to all software and systems. This is important because many attack vectors exploit known vulnerabilities in outdated software.
    • Use Antivirus and Anti-Malware Software: These types of software help to detect and remove malware, which can be used as an attack vector.
    • Use Firewalls and Intrusion Detection/Prevention Systems: These types of systems help to protect networks from unauthorized access and malicious traffic.
    • Use Encryption: Encrypting data in transit and at rest can help to protect it from being intercepted or accessed by unauthorized parties.
    • Implement Security Policies and Procedures: Organizations should have security policies and procedures in place to ensure that employees are aware of the risks and know how to protect against them.
    • Train Employees: Regularly train employees on the importance of cybersecurity and email security and resilience, as well as how to recognize and avoid phishing attempts and other social engineering tactics.
    • Conduct Regular Security Assessments: Regularly assess the organization's systems and networks to identify and address vulnerabilities.
    • Implement Multi-Factor Authentication: Use multi-factor authentication to protect against unauthorized access to systems and networks.
    • Limit Access to Sensitive Data: Limit access to sensitive data to only those who need it to perform their job functions.
    • Have an Incident Response Plan: It is important to have an incident response plan in place in case of any security breach. This plan should include procedures for identifying, containing, and mitigating the impact of a security incident.

    The Bottom Line

    Knowing both the most common attack vectors and those specific to your organization is a fundamental stepping stone in any cybersecurity plan, and it’s your team’s job to identify vulnerabilities and work towards eliminating them. Of course, this also means educating other staff on potential threats and staying ahead of the curve when it comes to newly devised attacks.

    For more information on attack vectors and how Mimecast can help your organization build resilient cybersecurity practices, contact us today and explore our blog for insights into today’s cybersecurity landscape.

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