How Cyberattacks Work

Cyberattacks are run like military attacks, in four main phases: reconnaissance, attack, exfiltration, and maintaining position. Understanding this makes fighting back easier.

Ray Espinoza, Director of Security at

November 20, 2020

6 Min Read

The summer of 2020 was unlike any other. COVID-19 left a mark as people remained at home, isolated from their colleagues and another step (or steps) away from their work systems and protections. As such, cyberattacks rose, and it wasn't always pretty.

Think back to July when Twitter was hacked. The accounts of several high-profile figures — including Barack Obama and Elon Musk — became unwitting parts of a Bitcoin scam.

Just over a week later, Garmin was hit by a WastedLocker ransomware attack that took down many of its systems. Although the company claims user data wasn't compromised, even the prospect that a cybercriminal could gain access to a user's location data and habits was unsettling. The attack also reportedly cost the company $10 million in its decision to pay the ransom.

The same day, the National Security Agency (NSA) and Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) also issued an alert with its recommended "immediate actions to reduce exposure across operational technologies and control systems" in an attempt to protect critical systems from attacks that could cause serious issues for millions of Americans.

Cyberattacks have been increasing in number and complexity over the past several years, but given the prevalence of events, and signals that greater attacks could be on the horizon, it’s a good time to examine what goes into a cyberattack.

Defining a Breach
Breaches can occur when a bad actor hacks into a corporate network to steal private data (think Sony Pictures and the release of embarrassing emails). They also occur when information is seized out of cloud-based infrastructure.

Many people think that security breaches only happen to sizable corporations, but Verizon found that 43% of breaches affect small businesses. In fact, this was the largest cohort measured. And the damage such businesses experience is considerable — 60% go out of business within six months of an attack.

Small businesses make appealing targets because their security is usually not as advanced as that encountered within large enterprises. Systems may be outdated, and bugs often go unpatched for lengthy periods. SMBs also tend to have fewer resources available to manage an attack, limiting their ability to detect, respond, and recover. Additionally, small businesses can serve as testing grounds for hackers to test their nefarious methods before releasing an attack on another, bigger fish.

Understanding an Attack
The best way for any company to protect itself from an attack is to know how one works. Generally speaking, cyberattacks are analogous to real-life military attacks. There are four main phases: reconnaissance, attack, exfiltration, and maintaining position.

Let's break down each phase:

Step 1: Reconnaissance
In this phase, the attacker scopes out options for an attack that will maximize chances of achieving its objectives — be they stealing data or trade secrets, causing service outages, or siphoning off funds. The attacker deploys a number of techniques to find out what kind of defenses an organization has in place and how well they are maintained. For example, is there a big gap between when an update or patch is issued and when it's installed? 

Bad actors want to glean any information they can about the network and its user habits. They co-opt the tools and tricks that were developed to help organizations arm themselves against attack, flipping them to help execute an attack. These include:

  • Shodan: Billed as "the world's first search engine for internet-connected devices," this tool can be used by attackers to learn about an organization's server software.

  • theHarvester: Applied to "gather emails, subdomains, hosts, employee names, open ports and banners from different public sources like search engines, PGP key servers and SHODAN computer database" in Kali Linux. While it was designed to help penetration testers, it can be a great information source for hackers.

  • Recon-ng: Assists in identifying hosts, databases, and more. Similar to theHarvester, it's an automated tool created for pen-testers, and it has the potential to be exploited for malicious intent.

  • Google DorksUsed by hackers to find credentials that provide direct access to systems. They conduct advanced Google searches using strings such as "-intitle:"index of" api_key OR "api key" OR apiKey

Hackers also use tools like OpenVAS, Netsparker, and Nessus to hunt for vulnerabilities.

Step 2: Attack
Using what they learned in the recon phase, bad actors deploy what they determined is the most efficient strategy. But there are common elements of attacks. First, an attacker has to infiltrate the system. Most commonly, they do this by gaining credentials through spear-phishing, elevating their privileges, and delivering malware to cover their tracks.

Once this is done, the attacker is free to roam through the network undetected — often for months, waiting and watching for something of value. Such maneuvering might mean enumerating Amazon Web Services or looking for more target areas in addition to sifting through data sources.

Step 3: Exfiltration
Next up is exfiltration, when the actual theft occurs. To accomplish exfiltration with the least risk of detection, data needs to be compressed so that it can be removed quickly without attracting too much attention. With bandwidth throttling, data can be extracted without setting off alarms. Stolen data is sent to a hacker-controlled server or a cloud-based data source.

Step 4: Maintaining Position
Once the attack is executed and data removed, attackers are need to make sure the organization they're striking doesn't reimage their systems. Otherwise, the attack will not be able to wreak maximum havoc. As such, bad actors will likely install malware on multiple machines so that they have the keys to the kingdom and can get back into the network whenever they want.

On Guard
With an understanding of the basics of cyberattacks, organizations can better defend their position. They can prioritize things like system hygiene so that endpoints remain up-to-date and protected. They can also conduct penetration testing on a regular schedule so that a network of skilled testers pushes on systems and applications to identify potential spots to exploit. Once these points are found, companies can take swift action to remediate them.

Ongoing system management and testing are just two ways companies can stay ahead, finding misconfigurations and vulnerabilities before an attack. In today's environment, vigilance is key, a healthy dose of paranoia is wise, and preventative action is necessary.

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About the Author(s)

Ray Espinoza

Director of Security at

Ray Espinoza is the Head of Security at, driving operational security and risk initiatives to fortify the company's security posture and optimizing security services for customers.  Previous to, Ray was part of the information security teams at Amazon, Cisco, eBay, Atmosera, and Gainsight.

Known for protecting data and assets by embedding robust information security risk and governance for internal/customer environments, Ray is a CISO with 15+ years' experience in information security management having developed programs and strategies for various high-tech organizations including business cloud enablement, cybersecurity, customer success management platform, and software providers.

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