Imagine waking up one day to find your bank account emptied, your confidential information has been stolen, and your digital life is in shambles. This nightmare could become a reality if you fall victim to a zero-day vulnerability. These elusive cybersecurity threats are unknown to the software vendors and are often exploited by cybercriminals before a patch is released.

According to GPZ research, half of the 18 zero-day vulnerabilities were exploited by hackers in the first half of 2022. This happened before a software update was made available and could have been prevented had software vendors conducted more thorough testing and created more comprehensive patches. Four of this year’s zero-day vulnerabilities are variations from 2021.

An Overview of the Term “Zero Day”

In the security community, the term “zero-day” refers to a vulnerability that has not been publicly disclosed or patched by a vendor. 

WatchGuard’s Internet Security Report for Q4 2021 revealed that zero-day malware comprised two-thirds of all threats during this period. This was a drop from the prior three months.

Hackers can use zero-day vulnerabilities to exploit systems without having to develop exploits for them. This enables hackers to break into systems and steal data or cause damage with little warning.

  • Zero-day vulnerabilities are security holes unknown to the public and, therefore, cannot be patched.
  • Zero-day exploits are programs designed to take advantage of zero-day vulnerabilities. They can be used by malware or hackers to gain access to a computer or network and by security researchers who want to demonstrate the vulnerability’s seriousness.
  • Zero-day attacks occur when someone uses a zero-day exploit against a victim’s computer. For example, visit a website infected with malware that contains a zero-day exploit and click on it. Your computer could become infected with malware without your knowledge or consent.

Related Read: Zero-day Vulnerability: Definition and Examples

Anatomy of a Zero-Day Attack

Zero-day attacks are complex and sophisticated, but they all follow a similar pattern.

When a vulnerability is discovered, attackers can take advantage of it before anyone else has found the flaw. This process is called “exploitation.”

The steps below will help you understand how it works:

Identification of the Vulnerability

This step may seem obvious, but it’s important to note that not all vulnerabilities are created equal. Some vulnerabilities are easier to find than others; some require more skill to exploit, and some have a greater impact on users when they are exploited.

Development of the Exploit

Once an attacker has identified a vulnerability, they must develop an exploit — a program that takes advantage of it. In general, exploits enable unauthorized access to systems or networks by taking advantage of security holes or bugs in software or hardware. This access often allows attackers to steal sensitive information or install malware on victims’ computers.

Delivery of the Exploit

The attacker must deliver their exploit to victims’ computers for it to work. This delivery method can be done through phishing emails with malicious attachments or links to websites hosting malware downloads (also known as drive-by downloads).

Execution of the Exploit

The attacker uses an unknown vulnerability in the target software product to launch the exploit. To successfully execute this step, the attacker must know about this vulnerability, which has yet to be publicly known.

Establishment of Persistence

After executing an exploit, the attacker must ensure that she can access her victim’s system again to execute more attacks. This is achieved by installing malicious software on the victim’s system, which will run on start-up and remain undetected by security software.

Data Exfiltration

The attacker can now use compromised credentials or malware installed on the victim’s system to exfiltrate data from their network (e.g., passwords, credit card numbers, etc.).

Clean and Cover-Up

To avoid detection, attackers clean up their tracks after they have finished their malicious activities on a victim’s computer by deleting files they created or removing registry keys they created during their attack. They may also disable monitoring tools such as antivirus software or firewalls.

Impact of Zero-day Vulnerabilities on Cybersecurity

The impact of zero-day vulnerabilities can vary depending on the type of vulnerability and the way it’s exploited, but they always pose a risk for organizations and businesses.

Here are some ways they can affect your organization:

Security Breaches and Data Loss

Zero days allow cybercriminals to break into systems undetected and steal sensitive information like credit card numbers, personal data, and passwords.

This can lead to financial losses and damage your reputation with customers who lose trust in your company or brand due to its failure to protect their private data.

Increased risk for organizations and businesses

Organizations need secure computing environments where employees can work safely without being at risk of cyberattacks. However, if an organization does not know about a zero-day vulnerability before hackers exploit it, it cannot protect itself from such attacks.

This is why organizations should always be aware of their security status so that they can take measures to protect themselves from such attacks when needed.

Vulnerability Exploitation by Malicious Actors

Zero days allow attackers to access systems and networks without being detected. They can also use these vulnerabilities to install malicious software or steal data from them.

This makes it difficult for organizations to prevent such attacks or detect them early enough so that they can recover from them quickly before any damage is done.

Impact on Organizations

The impact of zero-day vulnerabilities depends on what kind of data is targeted by attackers. If they’re looking to steal money, they will go after financial data and use it to transfer funds from bank accounts or make purchases online. 

Other times, they may try to steal confidential information such as usernames and passwords that give them access to sensitive documents within an organization’s network.

Final Words

The world is becoming an increasingly dangerous place. Viruses and malware are rampant, and existing protection isn’t doing enough to keep users safe. Fortunately, there may be a solution to this growing problem: the development of zero-day vulnerabilities. Today’s threats should encourage us to think outside the box because our enemies also think creatively.

Zero-day vulnerabilities could be the answer to our cybersecurity problems, but we need to understand what they are to take full advantage of them.