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What is a Watering Hole Attack?

Picture a peaceful oasis in the online world where people come together for a break. Just like animals gathering to drink in the wild, these people gather on familiar websites and apps. This is where the watering hole attack unfolds its nefarious plot. Instead of lions and gazelles, we have hackers prowling the digital savannah, patiently stalking their prey.

This insidious threat targets specific groups by infecting many online places. When an unsuspecting victim visits one of these infected sites or apps, their device falls victim to malware. It’s a virtual ambush, reminding us that vigilance is key even in the cyber jungle. To protect ourselves from online dangers, we must understand the strategies of cyber attackers. Let’s explore the watering hole attack and learn how to keep ourselves safe in today’s world.

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Understanding the Watering Hole Attack

Understanding the Watering Hole Attack

A watering hole attack is a targeted cyberattack that exploits a specific group of people by infecting websites and applications that they typically visit with malware. The ultimate objective is to infect the user’s devices, such as PCs or laptops, and enter the company network.

In simple terms, watering hole attacks can target anyone – individuals, organizations, or even governments. Hackers use them to steal valuable info like secrets, finances, or personal data. They can also cause chaos or launch bigger attacks, like ransomware attacks. Stay vigilant online!

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How Does a Watering Hole Attack Work?

How Does a Watering Hole Attack Work?

Imagine you’re going on a hike, and you always stop at a specific waterhole to drink water because it’s convenient and you trust it. Now, picture a sneaky animal (the attacker) that wants to catch you by surprise. Here’s how it works:

  1. Choosing the Right Waterhole (Target Selection): The attacker observes your habits and realizes you frequently visit this particular waterhole (a website or service). They know it’s not very well guarded and has weak security features.
  2. Laying the Trap (Compromising the Website): Just like the sneaky animal digs a hole near the waterhole, the attacker hacks into the website. They insert a hidden trap, which is like a tricky device, into the website’s code. This trap can be made of special code, kind of like a hidden message.
  3. Waiting for the Prey (Victim Visits the Site): You go on your hike and, as usual, stop at your trusted waterhole (visit the website). You don’t know the trap is there.
  4. Surprise Attack (Malicious Payload): When you arrive at the waterhole (visit the website), you inadvertently set off the trap (malicious code). It’s like stepping on a hidden switch. This code can do different things, like steal your information or trick you into downloading bad stuff, just like the sneaky animal trying to catch you.
  5. Consequences (Exploiting Your Computer): Once the trap is activated, the attacker can get into your computer or network. It’s as if the sneaky animal has taken control of your backpack or map. They can use your computer to do bad things, like steal your secrets or make your computer do harmful tasks.
  6. Expanding the Attack (Pivot Attack): Now, the attacker can use your computer as a base to attack others. Think of it like the sneaky animal calling its friends to join the surprise attack.

So, in simple terms, a watering hole attack is like a sneaky animal setting a trap at your favorite waterhole to catch you off guard when you visit. The attacker tricks the website you trust, and when you visit it, they can do wicked things to your computer and even use it to attack others. It’s essential to be cautious online, just as you’d be careful in the wild!

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What Techniques Do Hackers Use in Watering Hole Attacks?

In the world of cyberattacks, hackers are constantly evolving their tactics to compromise their targets. One such technique that has gained prominence in recent years is the watering hole attack. But what specific techniques do hackers employ in these attacks to ensnare unsuspecting victims? To fully grasp the seriousness of this threat, we must examine the methods hackers use to carry out these clever attacks. 

  1. Cross-Site Scripting (XSS): In this attack, hackers sneak harmful scripts into a website’s content, and when people visit the site, these scripts can lead them to dangerous websites. It’s like someone secretly putting misleading signs on the road.
  2. SQL Injection: Hackers use SQL injection to break into a website’s database and steal information. It’s similar to someone sneaking into a locked room to steal valuable items.
  3. DNS Cache Poisoning (DNS Spoofing): This trick involves hackers manipulating the system that directs internet traffic. They send people to fake, harmful websites instead of the real ones. It’s like sending travelers down the wrong path instead of their destination.
  4. Drive-by Downloads: At a watering hole (a popular website), visitors might unknowingly download bad stuff without clicking or doing anything. It’s like picking up a virus while passing through a crowded place.
  5. Malvertising: Here, hackers hide malicious code in online ads on popular websites. When people see these ads, they can get infected with malware. It’s like finding something harmful hidden in a newspaper or magazine.
  6. Zero-day Exploitation: Threat actors take advantage of secret weaknesses (called zero-day vulnerabilities) in websites or web browsers. These vulnerabilities are unknown to most people and can be used by watering hole attackers. It’s like using a secret passage into a fortress nobody knows about.

These are all sneaky ways that cybercriminals use to harm people and their computers when they’re just trying to browse the internet. So, it’s essential to stay cautious and keep your online defenses up!

Have a look at our blog on DoS Vs. DDoS attacks to learn more about the differences and similarities.

How Can Organizations Protect Against Watering Hole Attacks?

How Can Organizations Protect Against Watering Hole Attacks?

Organizations can shield themselves from watering hole attacks by implementing advanced targeted attack protection solutions. Employing web gateways is another strategy to safeguard the enterprise, particularly against drive-by downloads with known signatures or a bad reputation. For more adept attackers, organizations should explore dynamic malware analysis solutions that scrutinize the behavior of websites users visit for potential malicious activities.

To counter targeted email lures leading to watering hole attacks, it’s advisable to seek an email solution that employs similar dynamic malware analysis during email delivery and when users click on links or open attachments. Furthermore, the solution should incorporate mechanisms for user protection, regardless of whether they are connected to the corporate network or navigating through on-premises security controls.

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Watering Hole Attack Examples

It’s important to protect against watering hole attacks. Also, we should study past incidents for insights. Let’s explore a few noteworthy examples

  • 2021: Google’s Threat Analysis Group (TAG) uncovered a significant series of watering hole attacks that specifically targeted visitors to media and pro-democracy websites in Hong Kong. This malware infection was designed to implant a backdoor on the devices of individuals using Apple devices.
  • 2020: The American information technology company SolarWinds fell victim to a lengthy watering hole attack that remained undetected for several months. State-sponsored actors employed this watering hole attack to conduct surveillance on cybersecurity firms, the Treasury Department, Homeland Security, and other entities.
  • 2019: Cybercriminals initiated a drive-by download attack on nearly a dozen websites by exploiting a malicious Adobe Flash pop-up. This attack, known as Holy Water, specifically targeted websites associated with religious, charitable, and volunteer organizations.
  • 2018: Researchers have identified a watering hole campaign named OceanLotus. This campaign targeted Cambodian government websites and Vietnamese media sites.
  • 2017: The NotPetya malware infiltrated networks throughout Ukraine, infecting website visitors and erasing data from their hard drives.
  • 2016: A hacker compromised two servers of the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which serves as a gateway to numerous airlines, airports, and national aviation agencies. This breach resulted in the spread of malware to other websites, exposing the sensitive data of approximately 2000 users and staff members to potential risks.
  • 2016: Researchers discovered a specialized custom exploit kit aimed at organizations in over 31 countries, including Poland, the United States, and Mexico. The origin of this attack may potentially be traced back to the web server of the Polish Financial Supervision Authority.
  • 2013: Hackers collected user information using the United States Department of Labor website as a watering hole.
  • 2013: State-sponsored malware attacks have struck Industrial Control Systems (ICS) in both the United States and Europe. These attacks specifically focused on critical sectors, including defense, energy, aviation, pharmaceuticals, and petrochemicals.
  • 2012: The American Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) website fell victim to hackers who used an Internet Explorer vulnerability for their attack. Intriguingly, this watering hole attack exclusively targeted Internet Explorer browsers set to specific languages.

Watering hole attacks, which fall under the category of advanced persistent threats (APTs), pose a global risk to various businesses. Regrettably, hackers are focusing their efforts on retail enterprises, real estate firms, and other establishments by employing watering hole phishing techniques driven by social engineering strategies.

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Watering hole attack is a stealthy and effective cyberattack technique that preys on the trust of individuals and organizations placed on familiar websites. By compromising these trusted online sources, hackers can infiltrate their targets, steal sensitive data, and wreak havoc. To defend against watering hole attacks, vigilance is key. Regularly update software and plugins, employ strong security measures, and educate users about the risks. Cybersecurity is an ongoing battle, and staying informed and prepared is our best defense against the cunning tactics employed by malicious actors in the digital landscape.

If you have any questions on Cyber Security, ask them in our Cyber Security Community.


1. What are some common signs that my organization might be targeted in a watering hole attack?

Answer: Look out for unusual website behavior, unexpected downloads, and reports of system anomalies. Regularly monitor network traffic and educate employees about cybersecurity risks.

2. Can small businesses also be targets of watering hole attacks?

Answer: Yes, small businesses can be targets, especially if they are part of a larger supply chain or industry ecosystem. Hackers often go after smaller entities to gain access to more significant targets.

3. Is it enough to rely on antivirus software to protect against watering hole attacks?

Answer: While antivirus software is essential, it’s not sufficient on its own. Implement a comprehensive cybersecurity strategy that includes employee training, network monitoring, and timely software updates.

4. Are there any tools or services that can help organizations proactively detect watering hole attacks?

Answer: Yes, there are threat intelligence services and intrusion detection systems (IDS) that can help organizations detect and respond to watering hole attacks in real-time.

5. How frequently do watering hole attacks occur, and are they on the rise?

Answer: The frequency of watering hole attacks varies, but they remain a persistent threat. Attackers continually evolve their tactics, so organizations must stay vigilant to protect against them.

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