7 Best Practices & Strategies for Attack Surface Management To Elevate Security Posture

Imagine a team racing against the clock to locate a fresh inventory of assets, their actions resembling a game of luck rather than a well-coordinated operation. In this chaotic environment, the lines of communication between different business units resembled tangled webs, with unit leaders desperately striving to stay connected.

Despite their best efforts, shadow IT remained a significant concern. Individual users and service managers, operating independently, frequently created new IT assets that went unnoticed by cybersecurity teams. These hidden assets, lurking in the shadows, posed a serious threat and provided cybercriminals with an open invitation to exploit vulnerabilities.

The ever-bothering issue is nothing new (as you read) and no wonder why Gartner suggested Attack Surface Expansion as the #1 trend in their 2022 report.

In May 2023, the realm of internet-connected assets buzzed with tales from a grand survey conducted by SANS. This wasn’t just any ordinary gathering of opinions. Instead, it was a confluence where 450 valiant defenders and cunning attackers shared their stories.

Astonishingly, 94% of these cyber warriors disclosed that they frequently traverse the expansive skies of cloud services, harnessing their power to store, compute, and safeguard their precious data.

The story doesn’t stop there. Almost 90% also admitted to forging connections with third-party services and affiliates, creating a web of partnerships as complex and vast as the constellations in the night sky. The contemporary cyber battlefield underscores the ubiquity of cloud services and the crucial role of third-party alliances in the grand narrative of cyber defense and offense.

The Critical Role of Attack Surface Management in Today’s Hyperconnected Digital World

In a time when corporate networks were simpler and more centralized, traditional approaches to asset discovery, risk assessment, and vulnerability management proved to be effective.

However, these methods (Legacy attack surface mapping, vulnerability scanners, etc.) are now struggling to adapt to the dynamic and fast-paced nature of modern networks.

In today’s rapidly evolving digital landscape, new vulnerabilities and attack vectors are constantly emerging at an alarming rate. This renders traditional security practices inadequate and ineffective. The static and isolated security measures that were once designed for simpler times are now overwhelmed by the relentless onslaught of cyber threats.

So, what exactly is the External Attack Surface that has started becoming a priority for CISOs, CTOs, and CxOs to secure a company’s crown jewels?  

Let’s dig deeper into the subsequent sections to understand.

What Constitutes an External Attack Surface? 

An external attack surface refers to the sum of all the possible entry points, vulnerabilities, or pathways (commonly known as attack vectors) through which unauthorized users, including cyber attackers, can access an organization’s digital assets or systems from outside the organization. In other words, an attack surface includes every touchpoint that a hacker could potentially exploit to gain access to the system or compromise the organization’s network and data.

Key Components that Constitute an External Attack Surface Include:

  • Internet-facing Web Applications and Marketplaces/Websites: Any web service or website that can be accessed by users outside the organization, including online customer portals, informational websites, or e-commerce platforms. 
  • Email Systems: External-facing email servers and services, which can be a target for phishing attacks or other email-based threats. 
  • Cloud Services and Storage: Resources and data hosted on cloud platforms, including Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), Platform as a Service (PaaS), and Software as a Service (SaaS) offerings. 
  • Exposed Network Devices: Devices such as routers, switches, and firewalls that are accessible over the internet. 
  • API Endpoints: External interfaces for software applications that, if not properly secured, can be exploited to gain access to backend systems and data. 
  • DNS and Domain Services: Services that translate domain names to IP addresses, which, if compromised, can redirect users to malicious sites. 
  • Third-party Vendor Services and Interfaces: External services and integrations that can present vulnerabilities if the third party is compromised or if the integration is not secure. 
  • Social Media and Online Presence: Information and interaction points on social media platforms that can be used for social engineering or information gathering.

But Why Is Identifying and Cataloging External Digital Assets Challenging?

Modern organizations face the challenge of maintaining up-to-date asset inventories in complex, dynamic IT environments that include on-premises, cloud, and hybrid systems.

  • Hidden IT Assets: The proliferation of BYOD and shadow IT, including unauthorized devices, software, and services, complicates the process of asset identification and cataloging. According to ESG, a staggering 69% of organizations have fallen victim to an attack aimed at an “unknown, unmanaged, or poorly managed internet-facing asset.” Organizations often have limited or no visibility into the location, ownership, usage, and security status of their external digital assets, especially those that are hosted on third-party platforms or shared with external parties.
  • Pinpointing Most Precious Digital Treasures: Identifying which assets are critical (“crown jewels”) is challenging but essential for prioritizing security measures based on business processes, data criticality, and potential breach impacts.

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  • Staying Ahead in the Tech Evolution: Rapid technological advancements and evolving cyber threats make it challenging to keep asset inventories current and secure. 
  • Aligning Asset Management with Regulatory Mandates: Adhering to regulatory and compliance requirements adds complexity to asset management, demanding alignment of security practices with industry-specific mandates.

Now, let’s transition from theory to action.

7 Best Practices for Effective Attack Surface Management

Unveiling the master strokes of strategy and foresight, this crucial section delves into the best practices of attack surface management. It equips your organization with the key ASM strategies to fortify its digital frontiers against the relentless tides of cyber threats. These practices transcend mere recommendations and are the keystones in constructing a resilient, adaptive, and robust cybersecurity framework.

Best Practice #1: Regular Scanning and Monitoring

Regular scanning and monitoring transform ASM from a static, reactive set of practices into a dynamic, proactive strategy. In today’s rapidly changing digital landscape, it is imperative to undergo this transformation. Staying one step ahead of threats is no longer a mere objective, but an absolute requirement for ensuring strong cybersecurity.

Key Benefits:

  • Holistic Security View: Regular scanning and monitoring offer a comprehensive view of an organization’s security posture, going beyond mere asset vulnerabilities to include critical non-asset information. 
  • Dynamic Response: Automated scans, combined with alerts and API integrations for remediation, ensure that organizations can quickly address vulnerabilities, keeping the attack surface minimal. 
  • Efficient Intelligence Gathering: Gathering and analyzing information from various sources can be complex and time-consuming. Regular scanning and monitoring streamline this process, allowing organizations to focus on the most critical threats and vulnerabilities.

Best Practice #2: Vulnerability Assessment and Prioritization

Vulnerability Assessment and Prioritization are integral to Attack Surface Management (ASM), serving as pivotal practices that steer an organization’s cybersecurity strategy from reactivity to proactivity.

The dual approach not only uncovers the vulnerabilities but also provides a structured method to handle them effectively. Here’s how they operate as a best practice within the ASM framework:

Vulnerability Assessment:

  • Identification: During the identification phase of a Vulnerability Assessment, the organization’s networks, systems, and applications are thoroughly scanned. The objective is to detect vulnerabilities by utilizing a combination of automated tools and manual expertise.
  • Analysis and Contextual Understanding: Post-detection, each vulnerability is analyzed in the context of the organization’s operational landscape. This includes understanding the nature of the vulnerability, the systems affected, and the potential threats they pose, considering the business processes they impact and the data they expose.

Risk Prioritization: 

  • Risk Assessment: Each identified vulnerability is assessed for risk, but not all are created equal. Factors such as the sensitivity of the data involved, the potential impact of a breach, and the likelihood of exploitation are considered to prioritize remediation efforts.
  • Resource Allocation: Resources are allocated for remediation based on prioritization, ensuring that high-risk vulnerabilities receive immediate attention. At the same time, lower-risk issues are scheduled for remediation based on the organization’s capacity and risk management strategy.

Organizations can effectively allocate their resources and efforts by comprehending and prioritizing vulnerabilities. This strategic approach allows them to tackle the most crucial issues upfront. By systematically addressing vulnerabilities, organizations gradually diminish their attack surface, making it more difficult for attackers to identify and exploit weaknesses.

Best Practice #3: Third-Party Risk Management

Third-party risk Management within ASM is about extending the organization’s security perimeter to include the network of third-party relationships.

Accurate visibility in ASM encompasses not just the internal assets but also those entangled with third-party entities. Recognizing and monitoring the digital footprints of external partners ensures that vulnerabilities, often hidden in these collaborations, don’t remain in the shadows.

  • Real-time Monitoring: Implementing continuous surveillance of third-party infrastructures and services is crucial for promptly identifying emerging risks or changes in the security landscape.
  • Thorough Risk Evaluation: Assessing the cybersecurity protocols and measures of third-party vendors ensures they meet or exceed the organization’s own stringent security and compliance benchmarks.
  • Security-centric Contractual Agreements: Embedding precise security expectations and compliance stipulations within contracts with third-party entities fortify the organization’s legal and operational standing.
  • Persistent Compliance Monitoring: Regular verification of third-party adherence to regulatory and industry-specific standards is crucial for mitigating risks associated with non-compliance.

Best Practice #4: Incorporate Threat Intelligence

Incorporating Threat Intelligence into ASM turns static defense into a proactive, intelligent, and adaptive security strategy. It empowers organizations to not just defend against threats but to predict, preempt, and neutralize them, securing their digital infrastructure in an ever-evolving cyber landscape. ASM uses threat intelligence insights to refine and improve security practices continuously:

  • Constant Vigilance: Utilizes feeds and AI-powered historical data to keep the organization informed about the latest threats and attack vectors.
  • Swift Threat Detection: Ensures rapid detection and response to new threats, reducing the attacker’s window of opportunity.
  • Holistic Analysis: It correlates real-time vulnerability data with historical patterns and anomalies for a 360-degree view of the attack surface.
  • Focused Prioritization: Allocates resources effectively by prioritizing threats based on their potential impact and likelihood.
  • Tailored Incident Strategies: Leverages actionable intelligence to customize defense mechanisms and incident response to evolving threats.

Best Practice #5: Implementing a Defense-in-Depth Strategy

Defense in Depth in Attack Surface Management is about constructing a multi-dimensional or layered shield around the organization’s digital assets, constantly evolving, and adapting to counteract the shifting landscape of cyber threats.  Attack Surface Management advocates for viewing security from the attacker’s perspective, as opposed to the traditional company-centric view. This shift encourages proactive identification of vulnerabilities within the network by actively seeking potential security gaps.

How does Defense-in-Depth identify Vulnerabilities and develop Strategies? 

The process involves pinpointing vulnerable areas within the network, followed by the development of a robust Defense-in-depth strategy. This strategy typically incorporates various security elements:

  • Administrative Controls: Implementing strict administrative policies for all endpoints accessing the network.
  • Physical Controls: Ensuring physical security measures are in place to prevent unauthorized access to sensitive information.
  • Zero Trust Security: Applying the principle of ‘never trust, always verify’ for enhanced security, both locally and in cloud environments.

How to implement Defense-in-Depth strategies?

The emphasis is on protecting the network against common cyberattacks through a well-structured implementation of Defense Depth strategies. Key steps include:

  • Security Awareness Training: Educating employees about safe network access practices.
  • Physical Security Measures: Installation of firewalls, video surveillance, or other physical controls for onsite servers.
  • Technical Controls: Implementing data encryption, intrusion detection systems for internal networks, antivirus software, and security certificates for client-facing websites.
  • Administrative Measures: Establishing a comprehensive security policy that outlines protocols and procedures.

How do we evaluate and adapt continuously?

Regular auditing of the security system is crucial to assess its effectiveness. Since this is an ongoing process, patience and flexibility are essential. Being open to new tools and technologies, updating existing systems, and staying vigilant about the latest cybersecurity trends are vital to maintaining a robust Defense in Depth strategy.

Best Practice #6: Deal with Shadow IT Risks

Dealing with Shadow IT is a critical component of the overall risk management framework in Attack Surface Management (ASM) best practice. Its importance in fortifying an organization’s cybersecurity posture and ensuring a comprehensive risk management strategy cannot be overstated.

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Here’s how dealing with Shadow IT significantly contributes to the overall risk management framework:

  • Unveiling Hidden Assets: Shadow IT introduces unknown and unauthorized assets into the organization’s digital environment. Addressing Shadow IT through continuous discovery and assessment illuminates these hidden assets, bringing them under the umbrella of the organization’s risk management framework.
  • Minimizing Undetected Risks: Shadow IT assets are often not subject to standard security measures and may harbor vulnerabilities or misconfigurations. Incorporating Shadow IT into the risk management framework minimizes these blind spots, reducing the organization’s overall exposure to cyber threats.
  • Reinforcement of Policies: Real-time detection and response capabilities enable security teams to enforce policies consistently, ensuring that all parts of the organization, including those that engage in Shadow IT, comply with security protocols.
  • Informed Risk Decisions: Understanding the full spectrum of the attack surface, including Shadow IT, allows organizations to make informed decisions about risk prioritization and resource allocation for vulnerability remediation.
  • Cost Savings: Reducing the attack surface by addressing Shadow IT not only enhances security but also translates into cost savings by avoiding the financial implications of potential breaches and compliance violations.

Best Practice #7: Training and Awareness

Training and Awareness are not just about imparting knowledge; they’re about shaping behaviors and attitudes toward cybersecurity, making them indispensable for a comprehensive and resilient ASM strategy.

  • Reducing Insider Threats: Training helps in minimizing risks associated with accidental insider threats, such as phishing, by educating employees on how to recognize and respond to such threats.
  • Enhancing Incident Response: Well-trained employees are more likely to recognize and report suspicious activities promptly, strengthening the organization’s incident response capabilities. 
  • Policy Awareness: Ensuring that every team member is aware of and understands the organization’s security policies and procedures is crucial for maintaining a consistent security posture.
  • Best Practices Adherence: Training and awareness programs reinforce adherence to best practices and standard procedures, reducing the likelihood of breaches due to negligence or lack of knowledge.

Conclusion:

The path to robust digital defense isn’t linear but multi-dimensional, demanding vigilance, adaptability, and an unyielding commitment to innovation. Each of the abovementioned attack surface management’s best practices helps in safeguarding digital frontiers. By embracing these ASM best practices, organizations can fortify their defenses and navigate the digital landscape with confidence and strategic foresight.

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