Watering Hole Attacks – Understand Threats and Best Practices

June 7, 2022 | By IANS Faculty

Watering hole attacks target specific end users by infecting frequently visited websites with malware that spreads to the user’s device. When watering hole attacks are successful, they compromise and allow access to critical data on computers and network servers, putting organizations and individuals at significant risk. 

Watering hole attacks are an advanced persistent threat (APT) against all types of organizations worldwide and can include watering hole phishing driven by social engineering strategies. Threats can involve several kinds of malware and lead to many types of follow-on attacks. As cyberattacks become more diverse, it’s important that individuals recognize attack indicators and organizations develop best practices for at-risk ‘watering hole’ websites.  

What Is a Watering Hole Attack?

During a watering hole attack, high traffic websites are infected or new fake websites are created to attract unsuspecting users. As the name suggests, cyber attackers lurk where many individuals access essential information or resources, similar to a watering hole in the wild where prey is hunted that “stops to drink water,” unaware of the threat. 

After infecting a high-traffic website bad actors wait for the perfect moment, when users log on and the malware compromises their computer and network. 

While prey attacked at a watering hole unfortunately suffer the consequences immediately, security watering hole attacks go on for much longer. An organization may not even realize the security breach until it's too late and the damage is already done. 

Watering hole attacks may be directed against individuals or groups, although the most common victims are businesses, government agencies and human-interest organizations. Many groups and organizations are relatively easy targets for sophisticated attackers who monitor the websites, along with general interest platforms and social media. 


READ: How to Prevent and Mitigate Social Engineering Attacks 


5 Stages of Watering Hole Attacks

Watering hole attacks have a common five stage process to target unsuspecting organizations and individuals: 

  1. Website is chosen and compromised through advanced malware. 
  2. Users visit the website and unknowingly download malware. 
  3. Malware infects the users’ computers. 
  4. Malware moves laterally to other servers. 
  5. Malware infects other systems. 

Watering hole attacks often target groups by gaining access through lower-level employees or partners/vendors with fewer security measures. If attackers breach through several security layers, they can cause significant damage to the organization by unleashing any number of various types of attacks. 

Businesses and public interest organizations with lower levels of security are especially at risk for watering hole attacks. When public organizations websites are targeted attackers can launch malicious malware, to gain access and release sensitive information.  

Examples of Other Social Engineering Threats 

Beyond watering hole attacks, users should be aware of several other common APTs, such as:  

  • Supply chain attacks - These compromise services and products purchased by the target user as a way to gain access to the user’s systems. 
  • Man-in-the-middle - These attacks intercept communication between victims and third parties. 
  • Tailgating - Shadows victim to obtain access, either digitally or physically to websites or data.  

READ: How to Build a Proactive Threat Hunting Strategy 


Challenges of Watering Hole Attack Prevention 

Key challenges in preventing watering hole attacks start with the sheer size of target enterprises. While some types of attacks target relatively unknown users and small organizations, watering hole attacks often focus on high-level organizations, using advanced malware and attack methods. 

Attackers will even prompt users to visit the target websites by sending ‘harmless’ and highly contextual emails directing them to specific parts of the compromised website. Often, these emails do not come from the attackers themselves, but through the compromised website’s automatic email notifications or newsletters that go out on a consistent basis. This makes detection of the email phishing lures particularly problematic. 

As with targeted website baiting attacks, typically the laptop or computer is transparently compromised via a drive-by download attack that provides no clues to the user that his or her machine has been attacked. This can make watering hole attack prevention difficult for organizations. Without adequate security deterrents, websites can be infected for long periods of time before they are detected. 

Attackers can infect sites by injecting a malicious code payload through HTML or JavaScript. When end users visit the site, the payload is automatically triggered, prompting an exploit chain that infects the victim's computer. 

Preventing Watering Hole Attacks 

Watering hole attackers can quickly infiltrate computers and entire networks once they successfully infect commonly visited websites. Because attacks can be so insidious, organizations must focus more on detection and prevention to avoid the costly effects of compromised computers, servers and data. 

Watering hole attack initial prevention steps include: 

  • Use best practices and training for computer and network security. 
  • Educate staff to recognize unusual behavior. 
  • Prioritize use of MFA and AV software. 
  • Restrict personal use of corporate IT and resources.  
  • Do not trust or allow-list third-party sites. 
  • Monitor internet traffic and bypass unstable connections. 

Best Practices for Watering Hole Attack Prevention 

By actively addressing watering hole attacks and prioritizing prevention methods, you can better protect your organization and mitigate risk. Start by educating employees through anti-phishing programs about prevention practices, such as not using personal computers for corporate resources and relying on secure internet connections only.  Then continuously monitor data and connections to identify any suspicious activity and address threats as soon as possible.  

Best practices to protect your organization against watering hole attacks include: 

  • Use advanced malware analysis software to detect unusual behavior on websites and emails. 
  • Test your security prevention and response solutions regularly. 
  • Stay current on security patches to reduce the exploit risk. 
  • Audit websites and other user permissions.  
  • Use endpoint detection and response tools to combat emerging malware threats. 

Although reasonable efforts will be made to ensure the completeness and accuracy of the information contained in our blog posts, no liability can be accepted by IANS or our Faculty members for the results of any actions taken by individuals or firms in connection with such information, opinions, or advice. 


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