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What is an Active Attack?

An active attack is an attempt to alter your computer network systems resources or operations by making changes to your existing data, modifying data in transit, or inserting data into the system. The main objective of an active attack is to interfere with the way your network performs its operations by either modifying the target data or introducing new data into your system or device. Think of all the activities a hacker can perform while compromising your network server or computer, they can be grouped under active attacks. The hacker will try to manipulate data to harm the target's computer network system.

An active attack is quite different from a passive attack which can be thought of as a preliminary for an active attack. Essentially, the information gathered during passive attacks is used to perform effective active attacks. We'll be discussing passive attacks and how they differ from active attacks, later on, the point being; both forms of security attacks are interlinked.

As a rule of thumb, you need to be aware of active attacks and how they can damage your system resources.

Why? Because they can affect you everywhere: in your homes and your workspaces.

Computer networking is an important part of today's IT systems, most businesses leverage computer networks to communicate information and operations within their organization and outside the organization. They employ measures to keep this information secure from external violation. The same applies to home networks who are equally viable to computer network attacks.

With a good security system in place and an understanding of how you can keep your network secure from active attacks, you can minimize the probability of your network being compromised.

What does Active Attack Mean?

Active attack is a type of cyber attack in which a hacker attempts to change or transform the content of messages or information. It jeopardize the system's integrity and availability.

While active attacks are easily detectable and most victims are informed that their network has been compromised, it is exceedingly difficult to prevent them.

You can prevent attacks by having powerful firewalls and intrusion prevention systems (IPS) in place, but you also need to make sure you have a strategy to detect such attacks and recover from active attacks.

Active attacks can prove to be extremely costly; not only can an attacker disrupt your network's processing, they can also jeopardize your sensitive information. If your computer or network's security is vulnerable in the slightest, you can become an easy target for active attacks.

Why is Active Attack Important?

Cybersecurity is a big part of computer network systems today. Because most of our information is stored on drives and electronic devices connected to the cloud. This means our systems can never be fully secure. Preventive measures of active attacks are difficult because there is a higher range of potential vulnerabilities in network systems. In order to take effective preventive measures, you need to understand how active attacks work and what damages an active attack can do to your system.

Another reason why active attacks are important is because you'll see a whole lot more of them in the coming years. With the Covid-19 pandemic, businesses worldwide shifted to digital mediums for their operations. As a result, we saw ransomware attacks (a form of malware cyber active attacks) increase by 288% in the first half of 2021. Some other shocking statistics show that companies worldwide will lose up to $10.5 trillion annually by 2025 due to cybercrime - compare this $3 trillion back in 2015.

Most targeted attacks are towards specific industries such as large businesses and small businesses that don't have the resources to invest in network security, government agencies, financial institutions, and political groups.

Today's attackers are smarter and use more sophisticated techniques to target your networks, this is why you need to stay up to date on active attack activity. Attackers won't only damage your systems, they can acquire your private information, steal your funds, and hijack your profiles. But in the scenario that you are unable to prevent an active attack, the next step would be to ensure you are notified of any network compromise so you can restore your system information.

How Does Active Attack Work?

An active attack will essentially try to compromise your computer network's security. The attacker may employ passive attacks prior to the actual hacking so they can gather enough data about your system to hack into it without affecting your system just yet.

  1. Attackers will first identify the target and probe for potential vulnerabilities in the system. This is a sort of preparatory phase in which your system's weaknesses are identified.
  1. The next step is assessing the potential vulnerabilities to see how effectively your system can be compromised. They may deploy network scanners to calculate the details of your system and programs running on it as a part of network reconnaissance.
  1. Then, the attack begins. The attackers will try to get to a point in the system where its vulnerabilities can easily be exploited
  1. Once the attackers get access to your system they can carry out their activities. Some attackers also consider post-attack operations to clear off any evidence.

What Are the Types of Active Attack?

There are a number of ways a hacker can carry out an active attack. Here are some common types of active attacks:

Types of Active Attack

Figure 1. What Are the Types of Active Attack

1. Session Hijacking Attack

A session hijacking attack is a form of active attack in which the attacker will take over your internet session. How? They will access the session information of previously authorized users over the internet and steal their session ID information. Once they have access to a user's session ID information they can successfully impersonate the user.

These attacks can happen as you are shopping online, making payments, or checking your credit card balance. The hijacker can use your session ID to fool the website into thinking you are surfing their site and making purchases or accessing the user's credit card information and bank accounts.

The most common form of session hijacking is done via session cookies. The HTTP communication protocol generally uses session cookies to identify your browsers, this session cookie will stay in the browser until the user has logged out or is automatically logged out. A hacker will try to access this session cookie so as to complete a session hijacking attack successfully.

In order to carry out an attack, an attacker may also use a user session ID or session key. There are a number of ways a hacker can gain access to user session ID. In one case, a hacker can convince the user to click on a malicious link with a prepared session ID which it can later on use to hijack the same session. The server won't be able to make the difference between the user's sessions or the attackers' sessions.

The attackers may also use packet sniffers to capture the victims' sessions ID or they may use cross-site scripting to attack a web server and have it reveal your session ID.

2. Message Modification Attack

A message modification attack is a type of active attack in which a hacker modifies, delays, or reorders communication content to his benefit. The attacker may change packet header addresses so they can send messages to a different target and alter information on a target device to gain access to the network system.

In this type of attack, an intruder will intercept messages being sent from one person to the second. The intruder can then perform three types of modifications to the message:

  • They can change existing information in the message.
  • They can insert new information.
  • They can remove existing information entirely.

The message will then carry on to the intended target as before. These attacks are usually carried out to modify the content of messages in the network, alter your systems programs, change information stored in your data files, or reconfigure your network topology.

3. Masquerade Attack

In a masquerade attack, the hacker will disguise himself as someone else and gain unauthorized access to the user's network system. The main motive behind these attacks is data theft and this type of attack is a consequence of identity theft since the attacker may also use someone else's identity to carry out cybercrimes.

These attacks compromise authorization processes in network security. The attackers may use a fake identity, sometimes in the form of a legitimate network to gain access to user information.

Sometimes, the attacker may send out fake surveys in the network to collect users' login information which can be used to access their system. The attacker may also send out phishing emails targeting users inside the network and again, asking for their login information. In other cases, the attacker may employ malware such as keyloggers to record the user's keystrokes when entering their login information.

With access to your network's critical information, attackers can make changes, steal your sensitive data or alter data transmission networks. If you have a weak authentication algorithm in place, then there is a chance your system may be the victim of a masquerade attack.

4. Denial-of-Service Attack

A DoS attack, also known as a 'Denial-of-Service' attack is a type of active attack in which an attacker will make a network resource unavailable to its intended user. The affected users will not be able to access information systems, devices, or network resources. This can include emails, websites, online accounts, and any other services hosted on the network.

A denial of service attack is usually carried out by flooding the host network with more traffic than it can handle until it crashes, so legitimate users can't access the site. This is also known as a buffer overflow attack.

The attacker may also use a smurf attack, a type of DoS attack in which the attacker will use misconfigured network devices to send ICMP (Internet Control Message Protocol) packers to a number of network hosts with a spoofed IP address. The recipients of these packets will send responses to the host. With so many responses coming in, the target host will again get flooded with traffic.

The third type of DoS attack is an SYN flood, in this case, the attacker will send a request to connect to the targeted server but leave the three-way handshake mid-way. Since the connection is incomplete, the port will remain occupied and unavailable for further requests. The attacker will do the same on all open ports so legitimate users are unable to connect to the server.

This attack prevents the normal behavior of computer networks and systems and services running on these systems. This attack has diverse targets and it is one of the most commonly seen attack types on contemporary computer networks and systems. The targets may include high-profile organizations such as banks, media, or government organizations. The goal here isn't the loss of assets, rather the attack will cost its victim a lot of time and money to undo the damage so the network can be available to its audience again.

5. Distributed Denial-of-Service Attack

A distributed denial-of-service attack is another type of DoS attack. This form of attack will occur when multiple machines operate collectively to attack a single target. The difference between this and DoS is that the attack is carried out from multiple locations at once.

The attacker will leverage a group of compromised devices to carry out a single attack on the target. These devices could be randomly distributed around the world so it's hard to identify the exact location of the attacker. Similarly, it will be difficult to counter this attack since it is coordinated among a number of devices. In most cases, it is impossible to identify the attacker from behind so many compromised devices.

It doesn't end there, some attackers may also rent out such a group of compromised devices to other potential attackers so even unskilled users can launch a DDoS attack.

A DDoS attack, like a DoS attack, will send multiple requests to the target server until they exceed the website's capacity and render it unavailable. Some attackers do this so as to damage a competitor's business or simply to blackmail the target network for payment.

While systems can be designed to counter DoS attacks, DDoS attacks are still a more complex form of active attacks; it is very difficult to have sound countermeasures in place to tackle such an attack.

One reason for the development of such attacks is an increase in connected devices through the Internet of Things. IoT devices are much easier to compromise and can easily be used to coordinate such an attack, sometimes without the knowledge of the device's owner.

6. Trojans

You've probably heard of the Trojan tale of Greece, where the Greeks successfully overtook Troy by using a deceptive wooden Trojan horse to enter city boundaries. In computing, a trojan horse is a type of malware that appears harmless and is downloaded and installed onto a computer; however, like the Greek, it will instead wreak havoc on the targeted device. The malware can then damage, disrupt or steal your data.

You may unknowingly download a seemingly harmless attachment from an email or program from a credible source. Once downloaded, it will then go on to install malware on your device.

There are multiple types of trojan malware that can do all sorts of damage.

  1. A backdoor trojan as the name suggests will create backdoor access to your device from which an attacker can access your device and manipulate, steal or delete your information. The attacker may also upload more malware to your device.
  1. A rootkit trojan will assist the malware that is affecting the system to the fullest by hiding it so it isn't detected. The longer the malware runs on your device, the more damage it does to your system.
  1. A dropper trojan or a downloader trojan will allow for the download of further malicious software and malware to your device.
  1. A DDoS trojan will perform a DDoS attack on a third target. The traffic that floods the target will come from devices corrupted with DDoS trojans.

Trojan malware isn't just limited to computers, it can affect all sorts of smartphones and tablets as well. Most attackers will place trojan malware among apps on unofficial sites or websites hosting pirated software so unsuspecting users may download them onto their devices.

What is the Protection Method from Active Attacks?

Now that you know what active attacks can look like, the next step is to ensure your system and devices are safe from such attacks. In order to counter such attacks, you need to have a number of countermeasures in place.

1. Firewalls

Firewalls are used to block unauthorized access to a network. With a strong firewall in place that monitors your network traffic flow, it can ensure no hijackers or attackers get through.

2. IPS

An IPS or Intrusion Prevention System is used to detect and prevent identified threats by blocking suspicious IPs, alerting the system administrator to take action, or by closing off access points to such threats.

3. Random session keys

During a session, a session key is generated that is usually discarded after the session ends. A session key will ensure the security of the connection between the user and network resource. Ensuring that old session keys are discarded and new random session keys are generated for each transaction can mitigate the chances of an attacker getting hold of your session key.

4. OTPs

Using one-time passwords can help strengthen your network's authentication process. Since these passwords can only be used once before they expire, an attacker will be unable to access your account. OTPs help add an additional layer of security to your account so it is more difficult to compromise.

5. Kerberos Authentication Protocol

Kerberos Authentication Protocol is a type of authentication protocol that authenticates service requests between two users across a public network like the internet. A Kerberos system will generate a ticket to servers when a connection is established so as to verify their identity. This can help secure your device when using the internet so hackers don't sniff your session ID or user passwords.

What is the Difference Between Active and Passive Attack?

As mentioned earlier passive attacks serve as a preliminary for active attacks. Both are used in conjunction to carry out a network attack. A passive attack will allow the attacker to monitor the system and scan for vulnerabilities; attackers don't do anything to the target but instead gather information on its security system.

  • Passive attacks differ from active attacks as the attacker does not modify the messages or information on the device whereas active attacks will modify, delete, add information as the attacker sees fit.
  • An active attack will cause harm to the system whereas a passive attack does not cause any harm to the system.
  • Both attack types also differ on what damage they do to a target; active attacks will damage the availability and functionality of a system whereas a passive attack will damage its confidentiality.
  • Victims of an active attack are informed that their system is compromised whereas victims of a passive attack are not informed of the attack.
  • Active attacks are also much more difficult to counter and prevent whereas passive attacks are much easier to prevent.