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Visualizing Attack Vectors in Cybersecurity

Written by: University of Tulsa   •  Jul 2, 2024
Close up of a Cybersecurity Attacker Working on Multiple Computers.

Visualizing Attack Vectors in Cybersecurity

In 2023, data breaches cost a global average of $4.45 million per incident. In response, 51% of organizations reported planning to increase security to ensure their users don’t find themselves the victim of a vector attack. Because so much of modern life is conducted online, it’s easier than ever to have data stolen — but, there are also several ways to protect against attacks.

To learn more, check out the infographic created by The University of Tulsa Online Master of Science (MS) in Cyber Security.

What Are Attack Vectors?

Attack vectors are the methods and pathways hackers use to take advantage of an IT system’s weaknesses, steal data, spread malware, and exploit vulnerabilities. To fully understand vector attacks, it’s important to know that data breaches involve an unauthorized, malicious attacker gaining access to private, sensitive, or confidential data. Most attack vectors involve data breaches.

In 2023, 95% of data breaches were motivated by money and 74% included human involvement. These breaches were made through errors, misused access privileges, stolen credentials, and social engineering. 83% of breaches involved external actors — the attackers were not part of the breached organization or were not fraudulent users. 

Attack vectors involve both malware and social engineering. Social engineering includes deception, manipulation, and intimidation that exploits users to gain information. On the other hand, malware is malicious software, script, or code that runs without user permission and alters a system’s state or function.

Attack Vectors vs. Attack Surfaces

Attack vectors differ from attack surfaces. Attack surfaces are the entire network that an attacker has access to. Cybercriminals use the attack surface to launch their attacks. Surfaces include passwords, out-of-date software, and other vulnerabilities.

Industry Breakdown               

A 2023 Verizon report on data security examined 16,312 incidents and found the most attacked industries are professional, scientific, and technical services; manufacturing; financial and insurance; information; and public administration.  

Professional, Scientific, and Technical Services

There were 1,398 incidents in this field. 423 of them had confirmed data disclosure.


There were 1,817 incidents in the manufacturing industry and 262 had confirmed data disclosure.

Financial and Insurance

The financial and insurance fields had 1,832 incidents. 480 of those had confirmed data disclosure.


2,110 happened in the information industry with 384 having confirmed data disclosure.

Public Administration

There were 3,273 incidents in this field. 584 of them had confirmed data disclosure.

Attack Types

Attacks can vary in type, but they all cause damage. There are several different methods cybercriminals can use in attacks.

Passive vs. Active               

Passive attack vectors exploit workers to gain access to a network. They steal information but perform no damaging actions. Active attack vectors change a network or system to further long-term goals. Active attacks include malware, ransomware, and brute force attacks.

Common Attack Types               

Hackers can use many attack types to steal personal and professional data.


A phishing attack involves an attacker obtaining sensitive information from a victim. This includes usernames, passwords, credit card information, and answers to security questions. Attackers may pose as a reputable source, such as a bank or government service.

Brute Force Attack

Brute force attackers crack passwords, encryption keys, API keys, and SSH logins. This attack takes more time than effort but can be just as dangerous. Attackers use trial and error to break into a victim’s protected systems and accounts. Bots or scripts often do most of the work.

Email Attachments

Email attachments are one of the most common types of vector attacks. Attackers send emails with malicious code attached. When the victim opens the email, the code triggers a ransomware attack.

On-Path Attack

On-path attacks intercept information as it travels between two places. They target emails, DNS lookups, e-commerce, and financial apps. They hijack HTTP connections between users and websites to collect information, steal users’ cookies, and impersonate users on different sites.

Insider Threats

Sometimes, the threat comes from within a breached organization. These attackers can include employees, ex-employees, contractors, consultants, and others who work with the organization. Insiders may leak or destroy data, sell company secrets, fall victim to an attacker’s scams, or break IT resources.

Third-Party Weaknesses

Attackers may gain access through a third party instead of directly attacking a user or system. In these instances, cloud providers, payment processors, e-commerce platforms, and other third-party sites may be more vulnerable than a personal system.


Attackers may target point-of-sale devices to collect payment card data. Point-of-sale devices include any machine where users swipe, insert, or tap a payment card.

How Common Is Each Type of Attack?               

In 2023, 50% of security breaches involved social engineering. 49% of security breaches involved credentials. 24% involved ransomware. About 18% of security breaches involved phishing.

Staying Secure

Data breaches can cause legal trouble, financial issues, and long-term operational and reputational damage, so cybersecurity should be a top concern.

Take Proactive Measures              

Organizations and professionals should apply security patches, as new patches and updates may address known risks. They should also update software regularly but only download from reputable sources. They can also configure a system to eliminate risks and create lockout policies that suspend account access after too many failed access attempts or after suspicious activity.

Stay Vigilant       

Professionals should always ensure an email has the correct sender address or domain. Pay attention to misspellings or inconsistencies. They shouldn’t click links from unknown sources, and reach out to the person or organization asking for information through official channels before providing them with anything. If a bank, website, or organization asks for information, they can call to ensure the request is legitimate.

Prioritize Awareness           

Organizations should train employees to mitigate security risks by highlighting social engineering tactics and other manipulation techniques. They should always verify a user’s authenticity and only use official and direct communication channels when possible. Creating different levels of authorization can help ensure security because the fewer people have access to sensitive information, the harder it is for attackers to steal data.

Keep Your Information Secure

Online communication is everywhere in our world, but it’s important to stay safe. Understanding security risks and how to mitigate them can help users and organizations breathe easy. Attack vectors are a real danger, but there are real solutions, too.

Cloudflare, What Is a Phishing Attack?

Cloudflare, What Is a Brute Force Attack?

Cloudflare, What Is an Attack Vector?

Cloudflare, What Is an On-Path Attacker?

Cloudflare, What Is an Insider Threat?

Fortinet, What Is An Attack Vector?

IBM, “Cost of a Data Breach Report 2023”

Norton, “What Is an Attack Vector? 18 Types + Tips to Avoid Becoming a Victim”

Phoenixnap, What Is a Data Breach & How Does It Happen?

Verizon, “2023 Data Breach Investigations Report”

Website Policies, What Is a Third-Party Service Provider? Definition & Guide

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