What is a Watering Hole Attack? All You Need to Know

By Tibor Moes / Updated: June 2023

What is a Watering Hole Attack? All You Need to Know (2023)<br />

What is a Watering Hole Attack?

Imagine you’re a predator in the wild, waiting patiently near a watering hole, ready to strike unsuspecting prey as they gather for a drink. This very concept is the basis for a clever cyberattack known as a watering hole attack.

In this post, we’ll explore how these attacks work, the process behind them, how they’re similar to other cyberattack tactics, and most importantly, how you can protect yourself and your organization from falling victim to them.


  • Watering Hole Attacks are cyber-attacks where hackers infect popular, industry-specific websites to target users from a specific sector or organization.

  • Attackers exploit website vulnerabilities, adding malicious code to compromise visitors’ systems and gain unauthorized access.

  • This stealthy strategy enables access to sensitive information, potentially leading to financial loss, data breaches, and reputational damage.

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Understanding Watering Hole Attacks

The term watering hole attack comes from the world of hunting, wherein a predator sets a trap at a spot where their prey is likely to go, such as a watering hole. In the cyber world, this means that hackers target certain groups of people by infiltrating websites they often visit. Though they’re not very common, watering hole attacks can be pretty nasty. They’re hard to spot and usually target high-security organizations through their less-secure partners, employees, or vendors. Plus, since they can breach several layers of security, they can cause a lot of damage.

The aim of a watering hole attack is to infect victims with malware by compromising the targeted website(s) and waiting for them to visit. This is achieved by hitting victims where they gather, usually on websites they often visit, which leaves them exposed to unexpected attacks from multiple sources. These attacks are more successful than other cyberattack tactics due to their precision and ability to gather intelligence on their targets.

The Process of a Watering Hole Attack

Watering hole attacks typically follow a four-step process to monitor, analyze, and execute web-borne exploits. First, cybercriminals gather intelligence on their target group, then they analyze the security measures, content management, and track the target’s web browsing habits. Once they have all the necessary information, cybercriminals exploit website vulnerabilities and finally launch the attack.

To target a specific group or demographic, cybercriminals will focus on a website that’s popular among that group. They typically target web technologies like ActiveX, HTML, JavaScript, and images to compromise browsers and infect visitors with specific IP addresses during the attack.

Gathering Target Information

For a successful watering hole attack, attackers need to identify popular websites among the target group, analyze their security measures and content management, and track the target’s web browsing. To do this, they employ various techniques and tools such as search engines, social media pages, website demographic data, social engineering, spyware, and keyloggers to monitor their target’s web browsing activities.

The main goal of gathering intelligence in a watering hole attack is to come up with a list of potential websites that can be used for a watering hole cyberattack. With this information, attackers can strategize and choose the most effective method to compromise their target’s security.

Exploiting Website Vulnerabilities

Once attackers have collected all the necessary information, they will look at the domain and subdomain levels to identify any weaknesses or vulnerabilities in the targeted websites. They usually inject malicious HTML or JavaScript code into the website, which then redirects users to a malicious site. The malicious code could be used to spread malware, pilfer personal data, or even launch more attacks against those who visit the website.

Watering hole attacks take advantage of known vulnerabilities and weaknesses in website security to cause maximum damage. By exploiting these vulnerabilities, cybercriminals can compromise multiple layers of security and gain access to sensitive information or systems.

Launching the Attack

With the target websites compromised, attackers will exploit web technologies like ActiveX, HTML, JavaScript, and images to infect visitors with specific IP addresses. Web browsers tend to download code from websites to local computers and devices without any discrimination, making them prone to web-borne exploits. The target’s browser downloads pre-placed software from the compromised sites. This software runs automatically, which completes the attack.

One particularly devious method used in watering hole attacks is a drive-by attack. In this scenario, a malicious actor secretly installs malware on a victim’s computer, usually using a Remote Access Trojan (RAT) to gain remote access to the device. The victim would be unaware of the attack taking place, further highlighting the stealthy nature of watering hole attacks.

Similar Cyberattack Tactics

Watering hole attacks share similarities with other types of cyberattacks, such as SQL injection, URL interpretation/URL poisoning, and ransomware. These tactics also exploit vulnerabilities in websites and systems to compromise security and gain access to sensitive information.

While watering hole attacks are more precise and tend to be more successful than other cyberattack tactics, it’s important to be aware of the various threats that exist in the digital landscape. Understanding the similarities and differences between these cyberattack tactics can help individuals and organizations better protect themselves from emerging malware threats and other malicious behavior.

By staying informed and up-to-date on the latest cybersecurity developments, you can greatly reduce the likelihood of falling victim to not only watering hole attacks but also other cyber threats.

Protecting Yourself from Watering Hole Attacks: Best Practices

Preventing watering hole attacks starts with implementing good cybersecurity practices. Educate your staff on the risks, keep an eye out for the latest news and developments in the cybersecurity world, and prioritize training for computer and network security. Regularly patch and update software, use the latest versions of operating systems and applications, and employ firewalls, intrusion detection systems, and other security tools to identify and block any malicious traffic.

To stay safe online, avoid clicking on pop-ups, use strong passwords, and steer clear of suspicious websites. Utilize antivirus and anti-malware software, sandboxing, and other methods to detect and analyze malicious code. Additionally, teach staff to spot signs of a potential attack, like unexpected emails or requests for sensitive information.

By following these best practices, you can greatly reduce the risk of falling victim to watering hole attacks and other cyber threats.

Real-Life Examples of Watering Hole Attacks

Watering hole attacks have made headlines in recent years, demonstrating their impact on various industries and organizations worldwide. Some of the most well-known attacks include the NotPetya ransomware attack in 2017, which used a Ukrainian accounting software website, MeDoc, as the gateway to infect major public institutions, energy companies, and banks.

The Pony Botnet attack, which occurred in 2013, is widely known for targeting 1.58 million user accounts across different platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Yahoo. It significantly impacted the world of cyber security.

High-Profile Organizations Targeted

Watering hole attacks have targeted several high-profile organizations, showcasing the potential severity of these threats. Some notable targets include SolarWinds, cybersecurity companies, the Treasury Department, Homeland Security, the American Council on Foreign Relations, Chinese military, religious, charity, and volunteer websites, TV5Monde, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and diplomatic, governmental, and scientific research institutions in over 30 countries.

These attacks took advantage of a flaw in a widely used social media site, certain languages that were vulnerable, a weakness in a third-party web app, and a vulnerability in their own website.

Diverse Industries Affected

Watering hole attacks have had an impact on many industries, such as defense, energy, aviation, pharmaceutical, aerospace, automotive, manufacturing, and ASEAN organizations. The widespread nature of this threat highlights the importance of staying vigilant and implementing strong cybersecurity measures across all sectors.

Any industry that has a specific group as its target audience could be affected by a watering hole attack, as these attacks are designed to target a certain group of people. By understanding the scope and impact of watering hole attacks on various industries, organizations can better prepare and protect themselves from this ever-evolving threat.

Detecting and Responding to Watering Hole Attacks

Detecting watering hole attacks requires general security tools like antivirus software and endpoint detection and response (EDR) tools, which can monitor network and web traffic for malicious activity and irregularities that might point to an attack.

In response to a watering hole attack, it’s important to create an incident response plan, do some threat hunting, and take other measures to help mitigate the attack. By staying proactive and vigilant in monitoring for suspicious activity, individuals and organizations can reduce the likelihood of falling victim to watering hole attacks and other cyber threats.


In conclusion, watering hole attacks pose a significant threat to both individuals and organizations, as they exploit vulnerabilities in websites and systems to target specific groups and industries. By understanding the process behind these attacks, implementing strong cybersecurity measures, and staying informed about emerging threats, you can greatly reduce the risk of falling victim to a watering hole attack. Remember, just as predators in the wild patiently wait for their prey at a watering hole, cyber predators are also lying in wait, ready to strike when you least expect it. Stay vigilant and protect yourself and your organization from these cunning threats.

How to stay safe online:

  • Practice Strong Password Hygiene: Use a unique and complex password for each account. A password manager can help generate and store them. In addition, enable two-factor authentication (2FA) whenever available.
  • Invest in Your Safety: Buying the best antivirus for Windows 11 is key for your online security. A high-quality antivirus like Norton, McAfee, or Bitdefender will safeguard your PC from various online threats, including malware, ransomware, and spyware.
  • Be Wary of Phishing Attempts: Be cautious when receiving suspicious communications that ask for personal information. Legitimate businesses will never ask for sensitive details via email or text. Before clicking on any links, ensure the sender's authenticity.
  • Stay Informed. We cover a wide range of cybersecurity topics on our blog. And there are several credible sources offering threat reports and recommendations, such as NIST, CISA, FBI, ENISA, Symantec, Verizon, Cisco, Crowdstrike, and many more.

Happy surfing!

Frequently Asked Questions

Below are the most frequently asked questions.

How does a watering hole attack work?

A watering hole attack involves targeting a website that a particular group of people visit regularly, in order to deliver malicious content to the visitors. Attackers identify a vulnerable or easily exploitable website which is then used to spread malware or gain access to sensitive data.

How common are watering hole attacks?

Watering hole attacks are relatively rare, however, they can still be a significant threat due to their ability to target organizations through their less secure external parties.

Author: Tibor Moes

Author: Tibor Moes

Founder & Chief Editor at SoftwareLab

Tibor has tested 39 antivirus programs and 30 VPN services, and holds a Cybersecurity Graduate Certificate from Stanford University.

He uses Norton to protect his devices, CyberGhost for his privacy, and Dashlane for his passwords.

You can find him on LinkedIn or contact him here.