Preventing Watering Hole Attacks: Essential Guide

A watering hole attack is a security exploit in which the attacker seeks to compromise a specific group of end-users by infecting websites that members of the group are known to visit. The goal is to swipe username and password combinations, hoping the victim reuses them or infects a victim’s computer and gains unauthorized access to the network within their place of employment. Many conclude that these attacks are an alternative to Spear Phishing but are pretty different.

Watering Hole attacks are still targeted but cast a wider net and trap more victims than the attacker’s original objective. These attacks specifically target members of the group and often look for specific information, making it important for individuals to be aware of the risks and take necessary precautions to prevent targeted attacks like watering hole attacks. Understanding what a watering hole attack is and how it works, as well as the potential risks to personal information and sensitive corporate systems, is crucial in protecting against this type of security exploit.

What is a “Watering Hole” Attack?

Phishing is like giving random people poisoned candy and hoping they eat it, but a watering hole attack is like poisoning the village water supply and just waiting for them to drink from it.

To a lion, the watering hole is more than just a place to get hydrated – it’s the perfect place to ambush unsuspecting prey. For the energy-conserving predator, waiting for victims to gather is much easier than the usual tracking and attacking method.

To a hacker, the game plan is largely the same when conducting a cyberattack in this method – infect a website typically frequented by an individual of a specific group (be it a large enterprise, religious group, or organization) and wait.

When the “prey” logs on, the implemented malware can compromise the end user’s computer and gain access to their network. Although, in comparison with the antelope, a cyberattack victim may not realize they’ve been taken down until much, much later.

As attackers create new sites or compromise legitimate websites and applications that aren’t blacklisted – often using zero-day and obfuscated exploits with no antivirus signatures, the attack success rate remains high.

While not the average modus operandi of a hacker, the water hole attack is particularly nefarious because it’s difficult to detect and relies on social engineering – taking advantage of human error.

Who Has Been Affected by Watering Hole Attacks?

Watering hole attacks, a cunning tactic used by cyber attackers to infiltrate networks, have become increasingly prevalent across various sectors globally. From government entities targeting political dissidents to industrial espionage against defense contractors, the versatility of these attacks is alarming. Recently, high-profile cases uncovered by cybersecurity experts highlight the evolving sophistication of these tactics, utilizing zero-day vulnerabilities and deceptive techniques to ensnare unsuspecting victims of security threats. One notable victim of a watering hole attack was SolarWinds, an IT company that was targeted by state-sponsored agents for months before the attack was uncovered and infiltrated their organization’s network, highlighting the need for strong security measures both on and off the corporate network.

The metaphorical comparison to predators stalking their prey in the wild is apt, as victims often fall into the trap unknowingly, only realizing the breach much later.

A diverse victim set, we see watering hole attacks being used by everyone from the Chinese government against political dissidents, foreign APTs against US nuclear scientists, and industrial espionage against US/UK defense contractors, as well as organizations such as the U.S. Council of Foreign Relations who were infected in 2012 by a zero-day vulnerability in Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. One of the more sophisticated watering hole attacks recently was uncovered by Google security team Project Zero who uncovered a sophisticated watering hole that attracted users of a particular group to websites and through an android application and utilized four zero-days in their attack.1 Other notable examples of watering hole attacks include the 2012 VOHO attacks on the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations through a vulnerability in Internet Explorer and the 2019 attack tracked by Kaspersky Labs that incorporated a website, malicious Java, and a phony Adobe Flash update pop-up. These attacks demonstrate the widespread use and effectiveness of watering hole attacks in targeting specific groups or organizations, highlighting the importance of regularly testing security solutions to prevent users from accessing malicious websites through their web browsers.

Watering hole attacks have emerged as a sophisticated and stealthy method employed by cyber attackers to infiltrate networks. Unlike the swift takedown of an antelope by a predator, victims of cyber watering hole attacks often remain unaware until much later due to the deceptive nature of these attacks.

These attacks leverage newly created websites or compromised legitimate platforms, exploiting zero-day vulnerabilities and obfuscated techniques that evade traditional antivirus defenses. The success rate of such attacks remains high, posing a significant challenge to cybersecurity.

How Does a Watering Hole Attack Work?

How Does a Watering Hole Attack Work?

  1. First, the attackers profile their targets by industry, job title, etc. This helps them determine the type of websites and targeted applications often visited and used by the employees or members of their targeted entity.
  2. The attacker then creates a new website or looks for vulnerabilities in these existing websites and applications to inject malicious code that redirects the targets to a separate site where the malware is hosted.
  3. The exploit drops the malware onto the target’s system.
  4. The attacker now uses the dropped malware to initiate its malicious activities. Also, knowing that most people still sadly reuse passwords, the attacker often collects usernames and passwords to attempt credential-stuffing attacks against targeted applications, enterprises, and sites.
  5. Once the victim’s machines, applications, enterprises, and sites are compromised, the attackers will perform lateral movements within the victim’s network and ultimately exfiltrate data.

What Can I Do To Prevent These Attacks?

  • Continuously test your current security solutions and controls to verify they provide adequate defense against application and browser-based attacks… Ensure your security controls prevent criminal redirection, malware, and rootkits from being successfully deployed. Ensure that browser control and endpoint software are adequately tuned and that web content and security proxy gateways are well configured. Organizations must seek additional layers of advanced threat protection, such as behavioral analysis, which is more likely to detect zero-day threats.
  • Update systems with the latest software and OS patches offered by vendors.
  • All third-party traffic must be treated as untrusted until otherwise verified. It should not matter if content comes from a partner site or a popular Internet property like a Google domain.
  • Educate your end-users on what watering hole attacks are by creating easy-to-understand corporate materials you distribute.


This attack will continue as attackers leverage legitimate resources to catalyze attacks. This includes influencing search engine results, posting on popular social networks, and hosting malware on trusted file-sharing sites.

With the rise of sophisticated cyberattacks like watering hole attacks targeting specific applications, enterprises, and sites, it is imperative to bolster your defenses. Continuous testing of security solutions and controls is crucial to ensure they can withstand application and browser-based attacks. Implement robust security measures to prevent criminal redirection, malware, and rootkits from infiltrating your systems.

Additionally, staying proactive by updating systems with the latest software patches and adopting advanced threat protection mechanisms such as behavioral analysis can help detect emerging threats effectively. Treat all third-party traffic as untrusted until verified, irrespective of the source. Educating end-users about watering hole.

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