Attack Vector vs Attack Surface: The Subtle Difference

Cybersecurity discussions about “attack vectors” and “attack surfaces” sometimes use these two terms interchangeably. However, their underlying concepts are actually different, and understanding these differences can provide a better understanding of security nuances, allowing you to improve your organization’s security by differentiating between these terms.

This article guides you through the distinctions between attack vectors and attack surfaces to help you better understand the two concepts and establish a more mature security posture.

Attack vector vs. attack surface

Most simply, an attack vector is any means by which an attacker can infiltrate your environment, whereas attack surface refers to the collective vulnerability that these vectors create. Any point that allows data to pass into your application or network represents a potential attack vector. Identities, networks, email, supply chains, and external data sources such as removable media and cloud systems, are all exploitable channels that a malicious actor may use to compromise your sensitive data or personal information. This also means that any system update or release could create new attack vectors.  

Common attack vectors

Rapid technological change means that some of these attack vectors will fall out of favor with hackers and become less common. Nonetheless, some choices have been consistently common and will likely remain so.

Social engineering via email
Email attachments remain one of the most common vectors of the last 30 years. 

Consider a situation in which you receive an email with the subject: “Please correct your tax form to receive your next paycheck.” This sender’s address seems to be from your boss or HR department, and the email contains an attachment called W2.pdf. 

This type of email originates from an attacker using a spoofed return address to appear legitimate and trustworthy. However, what appears to be a PDF file may in fact be an executable file (W2.pdf.exe) containing a Trojan horse virus. If you open the file using an insecure PDF reader, you might execute the Trojan, infecting your system. 

An attack like this is an example of a social engineering attack, which…