What Is a Watering Hole Attack and How to Prevent It
By Christine Margret 5 minutes
A watering hole attack is a cyberattack targeting popular websites and tricking users into downloading malware. In this blog, we will discuss how watering hole attacks work. And what preventive measures you can follow to avoid it. Let’s start with a basic introduction on what is a watering hole attack.
What is a Watering Hole Attack?
A watering hole attack is a cyberattack where hackers use social engineering, good research, and patience to trick a specific group of people or an organization into visiting malicious websites and downloading malware.
Once the victim visits the website, they may be prompted to download a malicious payload. Hackers carefully plan these attacks, often taking weeks of preparation, and may exploit zero-day vulnerabilities in browsers or other software to increase their chances of success.
This attack is particularly dangerous for large organizations with numerous endpoints connected to their network through employees’ devices, as it can cause widespread damage to the network’s security.
How Does a Watering Hole Attack Work?
Watering hole attacks are designed to target specific groups, businesses, or organizations. Attackers can create a more effective and widespread attack by focusing on a group of people who share a common interest or use the same website or online platform.
Here are the steps through which the watering attack works:
1. Profiling Targets
The Hackers research and profile their targets to understand their online behaviors and the websites they frequently visit.
2. Identifying Vulnerable Websites
Now, the attackers search for legitimate websites that are popular among the targeted group and have vulnerabilities to exploit. This may involve scanning websites for known vulnerabilities that are not yet patched.
3. Injecting Malicious Code
After identifying a vulnerable website, the attackers inject malicious code into it. This code redirects users to a spoofed website.
4. Lurking and Waiting
After injecting the malicious code, the attackers lurk on the compromised website and wait for their targets to visit. They monitor the website for user activity, collecting data on potential victims and their devices.
5. Exploiting User Trust
The attacker redirects any user from the targeted group visiting the website to a spoofed website. Next, he prompts the user to download a file, unknowingly installing malware.
6. Gaining Unauthorized Access
Next, the malware is installed, and the attackers gain unauthorized access to the victim’s device.
7. Covering Tracks
To avoid detection, the attackers may cover their tracks by deleting traces of their presence, obfuscating their activities, or using other techniques to evade detection by security measures.
Reasons Behind Watering Hole Attacks
Watering hole attacks are typically motivated by similar reasons as other cyberattacks. The main reasons include financial gain, disruption, and reputation loss of a particular organization.
Example of Watering Hole Attacks
Here are some simplified examples of watering hole attacks from the past few years:
1. US Council on Foreign Relations attack
In December 2012, cybercriminals carried out a watering hole attack. They exploited a zero-day security vulnerability in Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 8.0. This attack targeted users who accessed the US Council on Foreign Relations website. The attackers injected malicious code into the website, which infected visitors with Gh0st RAT spyware, a Trojan that gave the hackers unauthorized backdoor access to the systems.
2. TV5Monde Attack
In 2015, the French television network TV5Monde fell victim to a watering hole attack. The attackers exploited a vulnerability in a third-party web application to gain access to the network’s systems. Once inside, the hackers deleted data, hijacked accounts, and disrupted TV5Monde’s programming for over 17 hours.
3. VPNFilter Attack
In the 2018 VPNFilter attack, the FBI issued a warning about malware called VPNFilter that infected over 500,000 home and small office routers globally. The malware collected personal information, launched Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks, and manipulate data on the compromised devices.
How to Prevent These Attacks?
Preventing watering hole attacks requires a combination of technical measures and user awareness. Here are some key steps to take:
- Update software and plugins: Regularly update all software, including operating systems, web browsers, and plugins, to patch known vulnerabilities that attackers could exploit.
- Use robust security solutions: Deploy and maintain reliable antivirus, firewall, and intrusion detection/prevention systems to protect against known malware and other threats.
- Promote Awareness: Train employees and users to be cautious when visiting websites, clicking on links, and downloading files, especially from unfamiliar or suspicious websites.
- Limit website access: Restrict access to websites that are known to be high-risk or unnecessary for business operations.
- Conduct regular security audits: Regularly review and audit websites and web applications for vulnerabilities and promptly address any identified weaknesses.
- Implement strong authentication: Require strong, unique passwords for all accounts and enable multi-factor authentication wherever possible to add an extra layer of protection.
- Monitor for unusual activity: Continuously monitor network and system logs for any signs of unusual activity, such as unexpected redirects or suspicious code injections.
Watering hole attacks can be particularly concerning as they exploit individuals’ and organizations’ trust in familiar websites. However, identifying and mitigating these attacks is possible with proper education, intelligence, and tools. It’s important to adhere to cybersecurity best practices without fail to protect against this type of cyber threat. Vigilance, regular updates, user awareness, and strong security measures are key to defending against watering hole attacks and safeguarding sensitive information.