Watering Hole Attack: An Easy Guide In 4 Steps

Ajay Ohri


Cybersecurity is of great concern in every industry where computers have become a part of the working environment. There is hardly any industry we might come across wherein the computers are not being used. This widespread usage of computers for easy storage of data has opened up its vulnerabilities to malicious characters who would like to steal data from the computers and networks.

They are invisible and operate subtly and hardly get noticed. Attacking a particular industry network or employees to steal data or to cause any kind of damage to the system is termed as a watering hole attack. In this blog let’s take a look at what is a watering hole attack, watering hole attack definition, and watering hole attack prevention to safeguard our data.

  1. Definition
  2. Detection
  3. Prevention
  4. Examples

1. Definition

A specific group of individuals or particular industry users are targeted at a time. The goal behind the attack is to compromise the target set of users. This is achieved by infecting the websites the users frequently visit. When the users visit the maliciously infected site, the user’s computes are infected and cybercriminals get access to the individual’s laptop or network. The watering hole attacks are entirely dependent on a compromised website. So, the scope of success rate is less unless the individual is lured to these websites. Cybercriminals use watering hole social engineering techniques to identify the websites that are frequently used by the targeted users. 

The watering hole phishing and malware is commonly used to attack the target group of victims. Once the cybercriminals have compromised a website, they wait patiently till they can get targets to their malicious net. Cybercriminals looking to make economic gains focus on public favorite consumer websites amongst the users. If the cybercriminals are looking for much more than economic gain then they aim at public websites of known industry. The attackers focus on the vulnerabilities of the website. On understanding these vulnerabilities, they infect the malware and wait till the target falls into the trap.

The water hole attack has got its name from Jungle where predators lurk around the watering holes to catch their prey. Similar to that here cybercriminals compromise the website that is frequently visited by the users and lure them to a malicious website. Cybercriminals wait patiently luring the targets to click on the links or pdf files to give them entry to their laptop or network. Once the user is lured, cybercriminals take over their laptop and network.

2. Detection

Following are few ways to detect the water hole attacks

  • Having web gateways will provide the detection layer capabilities matching the signature of the websites. Organizations are now using highly advanced malware solutions to scan for malicious activity on known websites that employees or users visit frequently.
  • Organizations have email security solutions to scan the email delivered. If the emails have watering hole masking in their email ids they will be detected. 
  • Cybercriminals normally use Adobe Reader, Flash, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, and JRE (Java Runtime Environment). A commonly used way to prevent waterhole attacks by organizations is by disabling above mentioned programs from users access.
  • Organizations use watering hole cybersecurity tools to detect watering hole domains.

3. Prevention

Internet is a must for everyday activity. So we cannot completely cut off from communication channels via the internet. So prevention is the option left for individuals and organizations.

  • Understand the current security solutions at the organizations set for browsing the internet. The defence mechanism is implemented while downloading any files or documents via the internet. During this download the security solution checks for malware presence. If malware is detected the rootkits will not be downloaded and employees cannot access malware-infected websites.
  • Organizations undertake extra layers of protection inclusive of behavioural analysis which is easier to detect threats on daily basis.
  • Keep the systems and networks updated with the latest version of software and OS patches provided by vendors. 
  • Any traffic arriving into the network is considered to be that of a third party. Even if mail arrives from the Google domain also, it goes through the same grind of verification.
  • Using web gateway solutions for checking HTTP/HTTPS for exposure to infected websites.

4. Examples

Below are a few instances where organizations faced water hole attacks.

  • A water hole attack example in the year 2020 is that on SolarWinds Orion business software update. FireEye detected a supply-chain attack on SolarWind’s business software updates to spread malware. 
  • In the year 2016, a Polish bank got to know about the malware in systems belonging to the organization. It was known later that malware was found in the web server of the institution
  • Another watering hole attack example is from the year 2019; a holy water campaign was launched targeting charity groups of Asian religions. Target victims faced Adobe Flash prompts resulting in the attack.
  • In the year 2013, water hole attackers got information of users from the US Department of Labor. The ones visiting nuclear content were the target group.
  •  In 2017, an organizational-level water hole attack was found in Montreal-based International Civil Aviation. The attack resulted in a data breach in the organization.
  • In 2017, malware infected the Ukrainian government website. The attack was on users downloading from the site. This malware ended up erasing the contents on the victim’s hard drives.


As long as there is the usage of the internet and communication channels via email, and instant messaging exist there are chances for water hole attacks. With the technology advance, malicious characters will identify new vulnerabilities to attach their target group of people. So, watering hole cyber attack is a serious threat for organizations. So, watering hole cybersecurity is a prime concern to organizations to detect.

This hard to detect quality of the attack makes the threat challenging for the organizations. Organizations are brazing themselves with firewalls to screen incoming emails, downloads, and also the fake email id’s. Employees are also made aware of the risk and advised to take necessary precautions while downloading the files. Precautionary measures are taken to verify the content being sent out of the organization.  

So, have you made up your mind to make a career in Cyber Security? Visit our Master Certificate in Cyber Security (Red Team) for further help. It is the first program in offensive technologies in India and allows learners to practice in a real-time simulated ecosystem, that will give them an edge in this competitive world.

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