Anatomy of a Cyber Attack - A Step-By-Step Guide

Salomon Kisters

Salomon Kisters

Jun 22, 2023

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In today’s digital age, cyber-attacks have become a real threat to businesses of all sizes. Once an attacker gains access to sensitive data or systems, the consequences can be devastating. From the theft of information to disruptions in operations, the effects can be felt for months and even years to come.

To protect yourself and your business from cyber attacks, it’s important to have a clear understanding of the anatomy of such attacks. This guide will take you through the different steps involved in a typical attack, from the initial reconnaissance to the exploitation of vulnerabilities, and everything in between.

By the end of this guide, you’ll have a better understanding of what goes on behind the scenes of a cyber attack and how you can better protect yourself and your business from falling victim to one.

The First Steps of a Cyber Attack

Before launching an attack, cybercriminals go through a series of well-planned steps, starting with reconnaissance. This step involves collecting as much information as possible about the target system, such as the operating system, applications, and vulnerabilities that can be exploited.

Once the attackers have a clear idea of the system’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities, they progress to the next step: weaponization. In this phase, the attackers start creating their malware or exploit. They may also begin to craft phishing emails or set up fake websites to trick victims into downloading malicious software.

This phase is crucial because it sets the stage for the rest of the attack. The attackers want to ensure that their weapon is perfectly suited to the target, which will increase the likelihood of success.

To accomplish this, they may use techniques like obfuscation, which involves altering the code of the malware to make it hard to detect. They may also use polymorphism, which refers to using different forms of the same malware to avoid detection.

Gaining Access to Your Systems

Once cybercriminals have successfully weaponized their attack, they move to the delivery phase, where they attempt to deliver their exploit to the target system. This can be done in a variety of ways, from using social engineering techniques to tricking users into running a malicious file to exploiting a vulnerability in the target system’s software.

One common method of delivery is through phishing emails. These emails are designed to look like legitimate messages from reputable sources, such as a bank or a reputable company. They may contain links to fake websites, where users are prompted to enter sensitive credentials or download malicious files.

Another delivery method is through the use of exploit kits. These kits contain pre-built exploits that target common software vulnerabilities. The attackers simply need to find a vulnerable system and deliver the kit, which will automatically deploy the exploit and gain access to the system.

Once the exploit is delivered and executed, the attackers gain access to the target system and can begin the exploitation phase. This phase involves taking control of the system and often involves installing backdoors or remote access tools that allow the attackers to maintain control over the system even if the initial exploit is discovered and patched.

During this phase, the attackers will begin to explore the target system, looking for valuable data, passwords, and other sensitive information that can be used for further attacks. They may also move laterally through the network, attempting to gain access to other systems and escalate their privileges.

Taking Control of Your Network

Once the attackers have gained access to the target system, they need to establish a command and control (C&C) channel that allows them to communicate with the compromised system and control it remotely. This is a critical step in the attack, as it enables the attackers to carry out their objectives without being detected.

The C&C channel can take many forms, ranging from a simple remote desktop connection to a more sophisticated command and control infrastructure. The attackers may use a variety of techniques to evade detection, such as using encrypted communication channels or hiding their activities within legitimate network traffic.

One common technique used by attackers is to establish a backdoor on the compromised system that allows them to maintain access and control over the system even if the initial exploit is discovered and patched. The backdoor may be disguised as a legitimate service or application, making it difficult to detect and remove.

Once the C&C channel is established, the attackers can begin to carry out their objectives, which may include stealing data, installing malware, or disrupting business operations. They may also use the compromised system as a jumping-off point to launch further attacks within the network or to target other organizations.

Spreading Across Your Organization

Once the attackers have established a command and control channel, they can begin to escalate their privileges and move laterally across the organization’s network. This involves exploring the compromised system and identifying additional systems or resources that can be targeted.

The attackers may seek to escalate their privileges by exploiting vulnerabilities in the software or operating system, or by using stolen credentials. They can use various techniques to move laterally across the network, such as using remote desktop software, exploiting vulnerabilities in network protocols, or stealing user credentials.

One common technique used by attackers is to use tools such as Mimikatz to steal passwords from memory or to bypass Windows authentication mechanisms. Once they have obtained privileged access, they can move laterally across the network and gain access to additional systems and resources.

The attackers may also seek to evade detection by using techniques such as living off the land, which involves using legitimate tools or processes to move laterally across the network. They may also use techniques such as file-less malware, which leaves little or no trace on the compromised system and can be difficult to detect.

Stealing Your Valuable Information

Once the attackers have gained access to your organization’s systems and resources, their next priority is to exfiltrate valuable data from those systems. This may include sensitive information such as customer data, intellectual property, financial information, or trade secrets.

Data exfiltration can occur in various ways, including using encrypted channels directly from the compromised system. Attackers can use common file formats like PDF and ZIP to transfer data or encrypt data using sophisticated algorithms to avoid detection.

Exfiltrated data can be uploaded to remote servers or sent to command and control servers for further processing and analysis. Attackers often leverage robust encryption methods to maintain data integrity and anonymity, which makes it difficult for organizations to trace the location of data or signs of exfiltration.

To prevent data exfiltration, organizations need to have in place robust data loss prevention (DLP) solutions that incorporate a combination of technical and operational measures. This includes implementing robust access controls, monitoring network traffic, conducting regular security audits, and limiting user permissions based on their roles.


As the frequency and sophistication of cyber attacks continue to increase, it is more critical than ever for organizations to take proactive measures to protect their valuable data and systems. By adopting a multi-layered security approach that includes robust access controls, advanced threat detection and response mechanisms, and regular security audits, organizations can significantly reduce their exposure to potential attacks.

It is also essential to educate employees on best practices for maintaining strong passwords, identifying phishing emails, and avoiding social engineering attacks. Regular training sessions and simulated phishing exercises can help employees become more aware of the risks and better equipped to identify and respond to potential threats.

Furthermore, it is critical to have a well-defined incident response plan in place that outlines the steps to be taken in the event of a security breach. This plan should include a clear escalation path, contact information for key stakeholders, and procedures for investigating and containing the incident.

Overall, protecting your organization from cyber attacks requires a proactive and comprehensive approach to security. By implementing robust security measures, educating employees, and having an effective incident response plan, organizations can significantly reduce their risk of potential data breaches, financial loss, and reputational damage.

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Please note that the Content may have been generated with the Help of AI. The editorial content of OriginStamp AG does not constitute a recommendation for investment or purchase advice. In principle, an investment can also lead to a total loss. Therefore, please seek advice before making an investment decision.


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