Attack Surface: Digital vs. Physical Attack Surfaces and How to Protect Them

An attack surface refers to the points of entry and potential vulnerabilities in a system or network that can be exploited by attackers.

February 26, 2023

What Is an Attack Surface? 

An attack surface refers to the points of entry and potential vulnerabilities in a system or network that can be exploited by attackers. The attack surface encompasses both digital and physical assets and technologies, including software, hardware, and data. Essentially, it represents the sum total of all the possible ways in which an attacker can gain access to a system or network and cause harm. 

The attack surface is an important concept in cybersecurity, as it helps organizations to understand the scope of their potential vulnerabilities and to take proactive measures to reduce the risk of cyber attacks. The larger and more complex the attack surface, the greater the risk of a successful attack, so reducing the attack surface is a key goal of cybersecurity efforts.

This is part of a series of articles about vulnerability management

In this article:

What Is Attack Surface Analysis?

Attack surface analysis is the process of identifying and mapping all the potential entry points (attack vectors) in a system or network, as well as evaluating their associated risk, to prioritize and manage security risks. The analysis results can be used to implement countermeasures and mitigate the attack surface.

The goal of attack surface analysis is to understand the overall security posture of the system and identify areas that need improvement. It involves examining network topology, software applications, protocols, and hardware components to identify vulnerabilities that could be exploited by an attacker. 

Attack Surface vs. Attack Vector: What Is the Difference?

Attack surface and attack vector are related terms in the field of cybersecurity, but they refer to different concepts:

  • Attack surface: The sum of all potential entry points into a system or network where an attacker can access and exploit vulnerabilities. It represents the total area of exposure for an organization.
  • Attack vector: A specific method or path that an attacker can use to gain unauthorized access to a system or network. It represents a specific attack scenario and is a subset of the attack surface.

The attack surface represents the entire playing field for attackers, while the attack vector represents a specific move an attacker can make within that field. Effective security management involves reducing the attack surface by identifying and mitigating the highest-risk attack vectors.

How to Manage Digital and Physical Attack Surfaces 

The attack surface is categorized into a digital surface and a physical surface to help organizations understand and manage the different types of security risks they face. The digital attack surface refers to the points of entry and potential vulnerabilities in a digital system or network, while the physical attack surface refers to the tangible and vulnerable points of access that an attacker can physically manipulate.

Digital Attack Surface

The digital attack surface refers to the points of entry and potential vulnerabilities in a digital system or network that can be exploited by cyber attackers. This can include software components, such as web applications, network protocols, and APIs, as well as hardware, such as servers, routers, and IoT devices. The digital attack surface can be vast and complex, as it may encompass a wide range of technologies, systems, and data. 

Common attack vectors on the digital attack surface include:

  • Phishing: tricking individuals into revealing sensitive information through fake emails or websites.
  • Malware: infecting systems with viruses, worms, or Trojans to gain unauthorized access.
  • Supply chain risks: an organization is vulnerable to security weaknesses in systems owned by third parties, such as consultants and software vendors.
  • Exploiting vulnerabilities: taking advantage of software or hardware weaknesses to compromise a system.
  • SQL injection: injecting malicious code into a database to steal or manipulate data.
  • Man-in-the-middle attacks: intercepting communications between two parties to steal information.
  • Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks: overwhelming a system or network with traffic to make it unavailable.
  • Ransomware: encrypting data and demanding payment for the decryption key.
  • Remote code execution: executing malicious code on a system through a vulnerability.

To mitigate these risks, organizations implement security measures such as firewalls, encryption, access controls, regular security updates and patches, user awareness training, and monitoring for suspicious activity.

Physical Attack Surface

The physical attack surface refers to the tangible and vulnerable points of access that an attacker can physically manipulate in order to compromise a system or network. This can include hardware components, such as hard drives, USB ports, and network cables, as well as the physical facilities that house the systems, like data centers and server rooms. 

Some common attack vectors on the physical attack surface are:

  • Tailgating/piggybacking: unauthorized individuals following authorized personnel into restricted areas
  • Tampering with hardware: altering or damaging hardware components to gain unauthorized access
  • Eavesdropping: listening in on conversations or intercepting signals from devices, such as through the use of a wireless sniffer.
  • Dumpster diving: searching through the trash for sensitive information.
  • Theft of equipment: physically removing devices such as laptops or hard drives.
  • Physical force: breaking into a facility or using brute force to gain access to a device.
  • Power disruption: tampering with the power supply to disrupt system operation.

To mitigate these risks, physical security measures such as locks, cameras, and access control systems are typically employed, alongside regular hardware inspections and proper disposal of sensitive materials.

How Does Attack Surface Management Protect From Cyber Attacks? 

Attack Surface Management (ASM) is a proactive and holistic approach to reducing the risk of cyber attacks by reducing the attack surface. It involves the following steps:

Discover Assets

Identifying all the assets that make up a system or network, including hardware, software, and data, is the first step in reducing the attack surface. This helps organizations to understand the scope of their digital and physical attack surfaces and the potential vulnerabilities they may face.

Get Context

Understanding the context of each asset and how it fits into the overall system or network is crucial to identifying potential attack vectors and determining the level of risk they pose. This includes analyzing the data that is processed, stored, and transmitted by each asset, as well as the configuration of the system or network as a whole.


After identifying the assets and understanding the context, organizations can prioritize their security efforts by focusing on the most critical assets and attack vectors first. This helps to ensure that limited resources are used effectively to reduce the risk of cyber attacks.


Once the priorities have been set, organizations can begin to remediate the vulnerabilities in their systems and networks. This can involve implementing security measures such as firewalls, encryption, and access controls, as well as applying software updates and patches.

Test Continuously

Cyber attacks are constantly evolving, so it is important to continuously test and assess the security of a system or network. Regular vulnerability scans, penetration testing, and security audits can help organizations to stay ahead of potential threats and to identify and remediate new vulnerabilities as they emerge.

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