What is Exploitation in Cyber Kill Chain? Understand The 4th Stage

Written By Sambita Panigrahy  
Anuraag Singh
Approved By Anuraag Singh 
Published On April 25th, 2023
Reading Time 4 Minutes Reading

Previously we’ve discussed the first 3 stages of the cyber kill chain framework. In the Reconnaissance & Weaponization phase, adversaries collected the necessary information about the victim and used the same to develop malicious tools to exploit the weakness, and the tools are placed within the boundaries of the target environment through the Delivery phase. The process – Exploitation in cyber kill chain is then used to trigger the cyberattack. In other words, exploitation is the execution phase for the attackers.

Cyberattacks these days are not limited to only breaking into a system. But, the intention of today’s sophisticated & well-resourced cybercriminals is to compromise and extract data for economic, political, and national security advancement. 

What Exactly Happens in The Exploitation Stage of Cyberattack?

Adversaries plan attacks meticulously and look for the odds to make them in their favor. So, in the 4th stage of their attack phase, the cybercriminals activate the malicious code that was delivered to exploit the vulnerabilities. 

Basically, in the exploitation step, hackers put their attack strategy to the test. Successful execution benefits them with the compromise of the target account, system, network, etc. However, in some cases, failed execution attempts also put adverse effects & damage the target organization’s environment.

In-Depth Analysis of The Exploitation in Information Security

Once the malevolent software is surreptitiously placed at or near the target in preparation, the next step of the threat actor is to exploit a found vulnerability to gain unauthorized access to its environment in the form of software, hardware, or even humans.

For instance, they use known flaws against unpatched systems or activate unseen zero-day exploits. And, the thing is that these exploits can be triggered remotely or set off by pre-determined factors. Such as at what time of the day the exploit needs to be activated.

exploitation in cyber kill chain

Let’s better understand the exploitation phase with the below hypothetical scenario.

Suppose there’s a small-scale business which means its attack surface is comparatively smaller and has limited funds to dedicate to security. Since the business is less focused on security, the unpatched systems facing the public internet are left exposed. Upon identifying the loophole opportunistic attackers weaponize this vulnerability by downloading malware for a botnet and then delivering it to the target system to exploit further.

Exploitation Stage of Cyberattack – Why Is It Dangerous?

When cybercriminals use the loophole in an outdated, unpatched, or internet-facing system, they can hijack the resources of other related systems. By this, they can easily perform Denial of Service (DoS) attacks, mine virtual currency, or execute other malicious activities using their combined computing power.

In addition, this phase allows the hacker to gain complete control of the organization’s IT infrastructure. Since most IT assets are internet-facing, it becomes easier for the attacker to communicate with the target organization’s systems without much risk of detection. 

The pressing concern of the exploitation stage is that the threat actor can simply send a set of instructions to install and activate the malware itself when prompted.

Anyway, the path to reaching this 4th stage is slow and consistent. That means, if done rightly, it is possible to break the chain in this very stage by using their persistence to our advantage.

Defend Against Exploitation – Understand The Key Strategies

The step to prevent exploitation is a combination of traditional, resilience-based hardening measures and a strong awareness of a company’s environment and its most critical resources. 

From a defender’s perspective, it’s important to understand the aggressor’s actions. That means it’s crucial to know the threats, what would an attacker be trying to do, and what I (as a defender) have to worry about from where I’m at.

In addition, it’s critical to adopt the truth that the cyberattack landscape is always changing that’s why custom capabilities are necessary to stop the exploits. 

At this stage, you can follow the below measures.

  • User cybersecurity awareness training and email testing for employees.
  • Secure coding training for web developers.
  • Regular vulnerability scanning and penetration testing (VAPT).
  • Endpoint hardening measures:  Restrict admin privileges & Use Microsoft EMET
  • Custom endpoint rules to block shellcode execution
  • Auditing endpoint processes to forensically identify the exploit’s source.

Final Words

Cyberattacks are becoming common and widespread these days by threat actors. Aiming to carry out both successful and unsuccessful compromise attempts. And, strengthening the existing security posture alone is not enough. Thus, experts suggest adopting techniques or strategies that include continuous monitoring of the IT environment through SOC. Such that, businesses can protect their most critical functions as well as place themselves in the best position possible to defend themselves from threats.

Note: To enquire about cybersecurity-related services contact our expert team now!