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Watering hole attack

Watering Hole Attack: What Is It Exactly?

 By Charles Joseph | Cybersecurity Researcher
 Published on May 31st, 2023
This post was updated on November 25th, 2023

Have you ever wondered how predators in the wild strategize their attacks? It might surprise you, but a similar strategy lurks in the cyber world — the ‘watering hole attack.’

Just like a predator in the wild waits patiently at a watering hole, knowing the prey will eventually show up, hackers, too, lay their traps in the most unsuspecting places on the internet.

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But how exactly does this happen? And how can you protect yourself and your business from falling victim to these attacks?

Let’s take a walk on the wild side of cybersecurity and understand this strategy.

Watering Hole Attack: A Simple Explanation

Imagine you’re a zebra in the wild.

Every now and then, you and the rest of your herd go to your favorite watering hole to quench your thirst.

Now, let’s say there’s a sneaky lion that’s figured out your routine. So, it hides near the watering hole, waiting for the perfect moment to pounce.

That’s essentially a watering hole attack, but instead of a zebra, it’s your computer, and instead of a watering hole, it’s your favorite website.

How Does a Watering Hole Attack Work: The Basics

Now that you’re thinking like a zebra, let’s dig a bit deeper into how a watering hole attack works.

Just like our lion, the cybercriminal first needs to find out where the ‘herd’ likes to hang out online.

They might choose a popular site with a specific group of people, like a local coffee shop’s webpage or a forum for gardening enthusiasts.

Once they’ve chosen their watering hole, they look for weaknesses in the website’s security that they can exploit to inject malicious code.

The next time you visit this website, your computer gets infected without you even realizing it, giving the attacker access to your personal or financial information.

Pretty crafty, right?

Famous Examples of Watering Hole Attacks: Lessons Learned

Let’s travel back in time to 2012, when a watering hole attack made some serious waves. The Council on Foreign Relations website, a think tank with influential members, was compromised.

When visitors accessed the site, their computers were infected with malicious software that allowed cybercriminals to steal their data. It shows that even the big players can get caught up in this.

Another notable incident occurred in 2016 when the iPhone maker, Apple, was targeted.

Several of their software developers were redirected to a compromised website where their computers were infected with malware. This allowed the attackers to access sensitive data and even spy on their activities.

How Cybercriminals Choose Their ‘Watering Holes’

You might be wondering, “How do these cybercriminals even pick which websites to target?” Good question.

The choice is quite strategic. They tend to go after websites that a particular group of users visits regularly.

Say, for instance, they’re targeting employees of a specific company.

They might compromise a website these employees often use for work or leisure, like an industry news site or a local restaurant’s online booking page.

Watering Hole Attacks: Their Impact on Your Online Safety

You’re probably thinking, “So, a website I visit gets hacked. How bad can it really be?”

But think about it this way: any information you’ve entered on that website could potentially end up in the wrong hands.

This could be anything from your email address to your credit card details. Not to mention, once your computer is infected, cybercriminals might gain access to other sensitive data stored on your device.

So, watering hole attacks can seriously threaten your online safety, even if it doesn’t seem that way at first.

Practical Tips: How to Avoid Becoming a Victim of a Watering Hole Attack

We know it can be unsettling, but don’t worry – you can take steps to protect yourself.

First, be cautious of which websites you visit and what information you provide. If a website behaves oddly, it’s best to leave it be.

Safe browsing habits are your first line of defense against watering hole attacks. This includes only visiting trusted websites, not clicking on suspicious links, and keeping a keen eye for signs that a website might have been compromised.

Also, consider setting your web browser to block pop-ups, as these can often be a source of malicious software.

Next, consider using a reputable security tool that can alert you to compromised websites.

Lastly, always ensure your devices are up-to-date with the latest security patches.

Understanding the Role of Antivirus in Thwarting Watering Hole Attacks

You know that antivirus software you’ve been ignoring? It turns out it’s pretty useful.

Antivirus software can help detect and remove malicious software before it can do any real harm.

And some antivirus programs even offer real-time protection, meaning they’re constantly scanning your device and any websites you visit for potential threats.

Why Keeping Software Updated Can Keep Watering Hole Attacks at Bay

We get it, software updates can be annoying. They pop up at the most inconvenient times, and it’s easy to click ‘later.’

But here’s the thing: These updates often include patches for security vulnerabilities – the same vulnerabilities that cybercriminals love to exploit.

So, by keeping your software updated, you’re actually closing the doors that cybercriminals could use to sneak into your device.

Related Questions

1. What is a watering hole attack?

A watering hole attack is a cyber attack strategy in which the attacker seeks to compromise a specific group of end users by infecting websites that members of that group are known to frequent. Instead of targeting the victim directly, the attacker targets the “watering hole” sites.

2. How does a watering hole attack differ from phishing?

While both are forms of cyber attacks, in phishing, attackers typically send malicious links or attachments directly to victims via email or messages. In watering hole attacks, the attacker compromises a website the victim regularly visits, thereby indirectly attacking the victim when they navigate to that site.

3. What is the primary motive behind watering hole attacks?

The primary motive is often targeted espionage. Attackers use watering hole tactics to target specific organizations or industries by compromising websites known to be frequented by employees or members of those groups. Once compromised, the website can serve malicious content to visitors, potentially gaining access to their devices or networks.

4. How can organizations defend against watering hole attacks?

Organizations can:

  • Regularly update and patch software and browsers to fix known vulnerabilities.
  • Implement advanced threat detection and web filtering solutions.
  • Educate employees about the risks of visiting unsecured websites or downloading suspicious content.
  • Monitor network traffic for unusual activity.
  • Use virtual machines or sandboxed environments for web browsing.

5. Have any prominent organizations been victims of watering hole attacks?

Yes, many prominent organizations across various sectors, including government entities, defense contractors, and major corporations, have fallen victim to watering hole attacks. Nation-state actors and sophisticated cybercriminal groups have used these attacks to gather intelligence and gain a foothold in target networks.

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"Amateurs hack systems, professionals hack people."
-- Bruce Schneier, a renown computer security professional
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