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The 6 Stages of the Cyber Attack Lifecycle

by Team Nuggets
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Updated on November 10, 2023

Quick Definition: The 6 stages of the cyber attack lifecycle are reconnaissance, weaponization & delivery, exploitation, installation, and command & control. By disrupting the lifecycle through proactive measures, cybersecurity training, and solid security plans, organizations can mitigate the risks of cyber attacks and bolster their overall cyber resiliency.

Cybersecurity and data breaches are an ever-present threat to our digital lives. With the looming possibility of a cyber attack, it may seem like there is little we can do to prevent this from happening. Without a proactive approach, this can be true. 

Despite the distilled information we get after a corporation suffers a cyber attack, this process takes place over several stages, comprising the cyber attack lifecycle. Knowing the stages of the cyber attack lifecycle (and breaking it) can make all the difference in keeping bad actors from gaining network or system access.

According to Palo Alto Networks, there are six stages to the cyber attack lifecycle. Any bad actor wanting to launch a successful cyber attack must move through each stage. A failure at any one stage results in an unsuccessful cyber attack. 

However, if a company is unaware that its network or systems are under attack, this could allow its adversaries to continue trying to gain access.

Let's explore the cyber attack lifecycle and learn how to thwart potential attacks.

6 Stages of the Cyber Attack Lifecycle

Here's a quick rundown of the six stages within the cyber attack lifecycle, followed by a real-world example of them in action.

1. Reconnaissance

As the name implies, this is the stage where a potential cyber adversary gathers the intelligence and information they need to begin planning their attack. Often, bad actors collect information from popular and widely used websites, such as Facebook and Linkedin. 

Cyber adversaries could also gather intelligence on websites specific to their target or gather emails to and from employees. The reconnaissance phase includes research and intelligence gathering on a network, data security, and within relevant applications or website coding.

2. Weaponization and Delivery 

After finishing the reconnaissance stage, the next step is weaponizing that information. The Delivery phase of the weaponization stage can vary but generally includes email phishing, virus-laced links, or malicious attachments. In many cases, it only takes one user to open a bad link or download and install malicious malware to provide access to the system. 

3. Exploitation 

The next stage of the cyber attack lifecycle after the weaponization stage is using the vulnerability once the exploit is deployed in the network, system, or code. This stage’s success is the adversary’s first entry into the organization, similar to gaining a foothold on a breach and turning it into a staging area.

4. Installation

Much like the end of the exploitation stage, installation is when the delivery device and the malicious malware do their job of compromising the desired area. The installation stage’s primary goal is not to gain access to the desired data, but to provide a secure connection to the network or system for the adversaries to begin the attack.

5. Command and Control 

Like weaponization and delivery, command and control are sometimes separated, but they are closely related. While the name of this stage may elicit military overtones, this stage does precisely what it sounds like. The adversaries are now in command on each side of the established connection and execute their attack plans. They are now effectively in control of their intended victim's network, system, or application. The attackers begin extracting private information or sensitive data and gathering it on their end.

6. Actions

Perhaps not the best-titled stage; this is when adversaries take action steps to achieve their original intent. There are many ways for adversaries to act on the intrusion they created. Sometimes, these are highly publicized attacks where a prominent website is changed or defaced to push an agenda, embarrass a person or company, or hold stolen data for ransom. Other times, the general public only hears about the data breach weeks or months after the attack.

A Real World Example of a Cyber Attack

Recently, Apple pushed out a critical security patch update for their iOS operating system to correct a security vulnerability that exploited a significant flaw. The security update addressed the ability zero-day, zero-exploit virus Pegasus to gain near-unfettered access to an Apple device running iOS version 14.7.1.

The most troubling aspect of this virus was that the user didn’t have to (actively or accidentally) do anything on their device for the exploit to happen. Once infected, the Pegasus virus would have access to the files and data on the device and could capture texts, emails, and phone calls, then share them with any bad actor worldwide. The worst part was that any user with an infected device would have no idea.

The Pegasus virus is a prime example of successfully implementing the cyber attack lifecycle. It is also a stark reminder that cybersecurity experts must always be vigilant. Seedy individuals or organizations constantly seek ways to create or discover, and then exploit, security vulnerabilities.

Breaking the Cyber Attack Lifecycle

Despite the risks and the devastating impact a cyber attack can have on an individual, corporation, or organization, it’s not all doom and gloom. Yes, a successful cyber attack can have wide-ranging adverse effects, not the least of which is a shattering of public trust in the eyes of clients or subscribers. 

The good news is adversaries must succeed at each stage of the cyber attack lifecycle. To stop bad actors from carrying out their nefarious plans, a potential victim must only stop the intrusion at any of the cyber attack lifecycle stages.

Investing in cyber resiliency is one of the best ways to combat the cyber attack lifecycle. Most companies already practice some form of cyber security or have a robust plan in place. Establishing and maintaining cyber resiliency includes cyber security training and education for anyone with access to systems or networks, no matter how sensitive.

There is no such thing as too much cybersecurity training. It only takes one time for a user to click on a malicious link or unknowingly download malware for a potential adversary to begin the cyber attack lifecycle. A holistic and robust cyber security plan, processes, and policies, combined with up-to-date, and when possible, non-antiquated, systems and software are other pillars of cyber resiliency.

When considering deploying a cybersecurity program, there are plenty of security choices for individuals, small businesses, or corporations. For instance, Palo Alto Firewalls are part of the more extensive Enterprise Security Platform, designed to defend against and break the cyber attack lifecycle at every stage. 

The Enterprise Security Platform takes a proactive approach to protect and secure networks and applications by reducing the attack surface and significantly limiting vulnerabilities from being exploited.

Final Thoughts on Cyber Attack Lifecycles

A cyber attack is an ever-present threat in our increasingly connected and digital world. It is not a matter of if but when you will become the victim of a cyber attack. Should the worst-case scenario happen, and cyber adversaries gain control of your network, systems, or applications, understanding and knowing how to break the cyber attack lifecycle could help minimize, reduce, or even thwart a potential cyber attack.

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