The Anatomy of a Cyberattack: How Hackers Exploit Network Vulnerabilities

Cybercriminals are becoming increasingly sophisticated and equipped with advanced tools and techniques to penetrate your network infrastructure. They have an idea of how security operations work in an organization. Therefore, they search for common vulnerabilities and intrude into targeted systems, causing devastating damage.

From administrative to individual users, security is a top priority for all. Everyone should know the anatomy of a cyber attack as it allows them to take effective countermeasures. How does a criminal infiltrate your system, what tools do they use, and which vulnerabilities invite lead attacks are common concerns businesses and individuals have. Understanding the anatomy of cyberattacks is essential for preventing and mitigating them.

Cyberattack Kill Chain

Cybercriminals follow a kill chain to identify and exploit network vulnerabilities. The chain contains 5 phases. Companies can take positive steps in each phase of the attack to prevent it from expanding. These phases include:

1. Reconnaissance

A cyberattack begins with a reconnaissance where criminals research the target company’s system. Email addresses, domain names, IP addresses, and network ranges are collected. Then the system is scanned to find potential access points to carry out an attack. Some ways by which criminals can gather information about your system. 

Corporate websites

Your business website is a go-to place for cyber criminals as it can provide a plethora of information. If your website has structural vulnerabilities, a hacker will use it to find other weaknesses in the system. Moreover, this site lists employee information, making it easier for criminals to research the employees’ accounts to find vulnerabilities. 

Social Media Platforms

Another deserving platform to gather sensitive information is the social media footprint of the target company. Cybercriminals can carry out phishing and whaling attacks through social media to further their attack process. 

End-Point Devices 

Criminals assess the strength of your system. If your network has many mobile users, endpoint security is a big issue. It would be easy for criminals to find vulnerabilities in such a system.

2. Initial Access

Attackers who find one or several vulnerabilities within your system try to infiltrate it through different channels. They may use old security holes in poorly configured or unpatched systems or may try to attain credentials via social engineering. Social engineering is highly effective as employees can also share secret information inadvertently via this way of attack.

To access credentials, criminals may exploit social media connections, impersonate executives, or send phishing emails with infected links. Moreover, some advanced cyber criminals also leverage artificial intelligence (AI) to refine their attacks. For instance, AI model theft is a hijacking of AI models. Once an AI model is trained and embedded in a vulnerable cloud solution or hardware chip, attackers will access the AI model and exploit vulnerabilities. 

3. Deployment of Attack

After getting into your system, criminals try to gain access to highly privileged accounts. They intend to go further inside your system and start the lateral movement. To implement further intrusion, they can install infected code or make changes to create a pathway for highly secured information.

For instance, attackers can change firewall settings, create new user accounts, install a backdoor, or take control of remote desktops. malware is deployed in the system to carry out a ransomware attack. In this type of attack, users encrypt the target system making the business unable to operate until they pay a ransom.

Alternatively, they employ a Distributed Denial of Service (DDOS) attack, which blocks the system by sending many fake login requests and stops legitimate users from accessing your resources. The system completely halts until the business pays a ransom.

4. Attack Expansion

At times, attackers take the ransom and provide unlock code to companies to recover the data. Other times, the data is never recovered. Attackers take ransom but sell your data on the black market, worsening the intensity of the attack. 

Moreover, some attackers try to breach third-party networks that are part of the victim company. When an attacker hacks a third-party vendor account, they do not need high access to infiltrate those third-party networks.

5. CleanUp

After collecting data or setting up malware, attackers clean up the traces of their presence. Sophisticated criminals invest sufficient time in removing the evidence of their presence in the victim company’s system.

To do so, they either destroy audit logs or make changes to them to clear out their history, making investigation and mitigation hard for security professionals. This covers their tracks and allows them to reinfiltrate the same system in the future.

How To Prevent A Cyberattack?

It seems attackers are highly skilled, but they do have some vulnerabilities too. By taking your security seriously and employing advanced tools., you can make their jobs harder and even impossible. You can stop criminals from infiltrating your system by following the best practices mentioned below.

1. Train Employees

Training is key to having a secure corporate network. Attacks mostly employ social engineering and phishing attacks, as they assume employees are easy to trap. Therefore, short and regular training modules should be provided to employees, and they must be informed about the latest hacking techniques. Moreover, you can send fake phishing emails to evaluate how your employees will respond.

2. Use Network Security Solutions Secure Access Points

Once attackers get into your network and start lateral movements, they exploit your network resources to fulfill their malicious intent. Therefore, network security is paramount. Network access control, next-generation firewalls, and remote access VPNs are some of the most effective types of network security. Adopting these robust network security solutions can help avoid cyberattacks.

3. Shift To Zero Trust Network Access (ZTNA)

Hackers think they can proceed undetected if they enter your system once. You should falsify their intentions by implementing a Zero Trust Network Access (ZTNA) model. In ZTNA, every connection request is continuously verified and validated. 

4. Use Machine Learning

In the complex network, finding the presence of such malicious actors is an uphill battle. Therefore, you should deploy machine learning to analyze patterns of identity, network, and process behaviour. 

This real-time monitoring helps capture the intrusion of malicious actors before they carry out an attack. Machine learning algorithms coupled with application behaviour profile makes a strong defence against cyber attacks.

5. Hire Ethical Hackers

You should consider engaging ethical hackers to conduct penetration tests to reveal security gaps in your system using the same tools and tactics criminals do. This helps companies close their doors before criminals can target them.

Pen testing covers physical and virtual assets alike, making it complex and multifaceted. You should take time to get to grips with the network penetration testing definition, as well as understand what in-person testing looks like.

Key Takeaways

Protecting your system against cyber attacks is challenging if you are not aware of the process that hackers use to carry out an attack. From reconnaissance to clean-up, attackers are equipped with highly robust tools and tactics to compromise your security. Therefore, understand your system vulnerabilities, ensure high-level data security, and take necessary actions to protect your system against all sorts of cyber attacks.

Do you want to write for us? Read our guest post guidelines here!

Vasilis Bouronikos
Content & Communication Manager