Note: This is a guest post written by Tom Allen
You may have heard the term “watering hole attack” on a nature channel like National Geographic, where animals like lions hunt beasts such as gazelles at natural depressions of water. A watering hole attack is easier for predators to execute because they can find large groups of their thirsty prey congregating in one place. Perhaps cybercriminals were watching nature documentaries too because they have their own versions of watering hole attacks.
A recent example of a watering hole attack was the massive SolarWinds hack. State-sponsored agents compromised the technology company to attack federal, intelligence, and cybersecurity targets. Another example of a watering hole attack was when pro-democracy platforms in Hong Kong were corrupted to target activists and journalists on their Apple devices. Of course, businesses like retailers are a frequent watering hole target nowadays.
Watering Hole Attack Process
Watering hole attacks typically hit high-profile targets like executives, diplomats, bankers, lawmakers, and activists. Hackers must plan them meticulously and have the experience, skill, and resources to pull them off. Often, but not always, threat actors that use watering-hole tactics are state-sponsored agents.
- Planning: Hackers observe their target’s online behavior and select a website to use as a watering hole.
- Assessment: After selecting a website, hackers may test it for vulnerabilities they can exploit to deliver a malicious payload.
- Attack: Once the watering hole is ready, the cybercriminals wait for their web-borne exploits to infect their target’s browsers and yield results.
Tools and Methods Cybercriminals Use for Watering Hole Attacks
- Trojan horses: Malware that employs deception like trojan horse viruses can help propagate watering hole attacks by functioning as an infection vector.
- Spyware: Hackers can use spyware to silently observe their targets’ browsing habits.
- Keyloggers: A keylogger that captures the usernames and passwords of a target can assist hackers in the intelligence-gathering phase.
- Website demographic data: Website analytics tools can help hackers with analysis.
- DNS spoofing: Also known as DNS cache poisoning, this process allows bad actors to redirect their victims’ web browsers.
- Malicious websites: When corrupting a legitimate website isn’t possible, the attackers may create an authentic-looking malicious website instead.
- Injection Attacks: Hackers can use injection attacks like cross-site scripting (XSS) or SQL injection to corrupt websites and serve their goals.
- Drive-by downloads: Victims of drive-by downloads download malicious software from websites without their knowledge.
- Malvertising: Attackers may prepare their watering hole by injecting malicious code into advertising that propagates malware.
- Exploits: Hackers utilize unpatched or undiscovered vulnerabilities in websites, browsers, and operating systems to complete watering hole attacks.
How to Stop Watering Hole Attacks
Stopping watering hole attacks isn’t easy, especially when they’re well-planned. Your best bet is to use proactive anti-malware software and browser security extensions that shield you from malware and malicious websites. In addition, it would help if you watched out for deceptive social engineering tactics that hackers can utilize. Using cloud-based browsers instead of local ones can also mitigate your risk.
As the leader of an organization, you should invest in endpoint security tools and cybersecurity training for your employees. Your security team should also regularly monitor your network for warning signs. Finally, use the latest software and download and install the newest security patches to plug exploits.