What is a Zero Day Exploit

Zero day exploit is an emerging cybersecurity threat where hackers exploit vulnerabilities in the wild before it’s known to the creators or the public. Before white hat hackers jump into the situation to resolve the issue, attackers breach data and penetrate systems and networks for malicious purposes. 

As per a report, the number of zero-day exploits in 2021 grew more than 100% compared to the previous record set in 2019. This scary statistic indicates that almost 40% of the total zero-day exploits occurred in 2021 alone. 

Read the entire blog to know what is a zero day exploit and why it is so dangerous. 

What is a Zero Day Exploit?

A zero day exploit is a cybercrime where hackers exploit software or system vulnerabilities unknown to vendors, providers, and users. Malware is one such zero day exploit that’s spread to attack government agencies, IT companies, financial institutions, etc. Malwares and ransomwares spread through spoofed emails can be mitigated using email security protocols like DMARC.

 It’s also synonymously called zero-day attacks or day-0 exploits. The term zero-day indicates the intensity of the issue and the fact that developers have zero days to fix the error before it becomes an urgent issue.

Zero-day vulnerability is a term associated with zero-day exploits, which basically refers to the undiscovered flaw in the program or software. A security vulnerability isn’t referred to as a zero-day vulnerability once developers discover the issue and disseminate its patch.

Life-Span of a Zero-Day Exploit

The usual life-span of a zero day exploit is divided into 7 stages. Let’s see what these are.

Stage 1: Vulnerability Introduced

While creating and testing software, a green sign is seen by the developer. This means the software has a vulnerable code without knowing. 

Stage 2: Exploit Released

A threat actor discovers the vulnerability before the vendor or developer knows about it and gets the chance to fix it.  The Hacker writes and deploys exploited codes for malicious purposes.

Stage 3: Vulnerability Discovered

In this stage, vendors become aware of the flaws, but the patch isn’t created and released yet. 

Stage 4: Vulnerability Disclosed

The vulnerability is publicly acknowledged by the vendor or security researchers. The users are intimated about the potential risks associated with the software.

Stage 5: Antivirus Signature Released 

An antivirus is released so that if users’ devices are attacked to launch a zero-day exploit, antivirus vendors can identify its signature and offer protection. But the system may be vulnerable to such risks if bad actors have other ways to exploit the vulnerability. 

Stage 6: Security Patch Made Public

Developers create and disseminate a security patch to address the vulnerability. The time taken for its creation depends on the complexity of the vulnerability and its priority in the development process. 

Stage 7: Security Patch Deployment Completed

In the last stage, the security patch installation is successfully completed. Installation is necessary as releasing a security patch doesn’t behave as an immediate fix because users take time to deploy it. Thus, companies and individuals using it are notified about the updated version. 

What Unique Characteristics of Zero Day Exploits Make Them So Dangerous?

Do you know what is a zero day attack’s advantage for hackers? It makes it easy and quick for them to penetrate into a system to steal and intercept sensitive data. That’s why the technique is a part of many ransomware attacks, including the recent one launched against Rackspace. 

Rackspace, the cloud computing giant, made a public announcement that hackers accessed the personal data of 27 customers during a ransomware attack. 

Continue reading to know what unique characteristics of zero-day exploits make them so dangerous.

Reason 1: The Vulnerability is Not Known To The Vendors or Developers

Programs are prone to vulnerabilities, and it isn’t practical for developers to detect everything. This is why they create and release patches as soon as they know of the flaws. However, if hackers found out about them before the developers, they are more likely to compromise them to penetrate systems.

Reason 2: Hackers Tailor Zero-Day Attacks

Hackers make attacks specific enough to launch a zero day exploit successfully. These tailorings make it hard to counteract their malicious moves. Often, the victim’s side ends up conjuring solutions on the fly since they are less likely to encounter such situations otherwise. 

Reason 3: There is No Defence or Protection in Place

Unless the developing company finds vulnerabilities or reports cases of compromises, it won’t create defense mechanisms in advance. Tackling the problem and its repercussions starts when you learn about it. 

Reason 4: People Follow Directions

Generally, users don’t follow good internet hygiene and pass on emails, download files, click links, or follow directions without scrutinizing the genuineness of the sender. This leads to zero-day exploits, SQL injection attacks, data breaches, misuse of financial details, etc. 

Common Targets of a Zero-Day Exploit

A zero-day exploit can target any individual or organization that can bring them profits. The common ones are:

  • Companies with poor cybersecurity.
  • Companies that record users’ data like names, contact details, financial details, addresses, social security numbers, medical details, etc.
  • Government agencies.
  • Companies that handle confidential data.
  • Companies that develop software and hardware for customers.
  • Companies that work for the defense sector.

How to Detect Zero Day Exploits?

Companies are responsible for protecting data and client information. Regulatory bodies are taking stricter actions against organizations mishandling them; thus, you and your team must be aware of zero day exploit detection methods. Some important ones are listed below.

  • Conduct Vulnerability Scanning

It’s the process of zero-day exploit detection, where experts hunt down the flaws in a system or software. Once you know the vulnerability, you can create and release a patch for the users.

Vulnerability scanning can be planned as an independent activity or a regular part of the development process. Some companies outsource the job to cybersecurity firms. 

  • Gather and Analyze Reports From System Users

System users interact with software regularly and are more likely to detect issues before the developing team can do. Thus, you should motivate them to report such issues so that they can be fixed before malicious actors compromise them to launch zero day exploits.

  • Monitor Your Website’s Performance

You can’t directly figure out if a hacker has been trying to compromise your web application, but take action if you or your team notices the following:

  1. Issues while logging in.
  2. Changes in how your website used to look. Don’t ignore slight alterations as well.
  3. Your website redirecting you to another cloned website.
  4. Deflection in website traffic.
  5. You are seeing browser warnings like “This site may be hacked.”
  • Use Retro Hunting

Retro hunting is a practical way to detect zero-day exploits, where IT experts look for reports of nefarious cyberattacks and check if their software was affected in a similar manner. Ensure that you do the following to get the maximum benefit from retro hunting.

  1. All the emails from software vendors should land in a central inbox.
  2. Check these emails for notifications about security vulnerabilities.
  3. Be updated with cybersecurity news.
  4. Check if hackers can penetrate your system through methods used in the most infamous attacks.
  • Notice Deflection in Network Speed

When a cyberactor penetrates your system through malware injection, the spike in traffic slows down the network speed. Take requisite action if you notice this.

  • Track Software Performance

Your program’s speed can slow when hackers inject malicious code into it. You may also encounter alterations in functions, appearance, settings, etc. These unexplainable changes indicate that someone has been maneuvering with your software.

3 Best Ways to Prevent Zero-Day Exploits

You know that prevention is better than cure, right? So, here we have mentioned the best and most practical ways to prevent zero day exploits before things go out of your control.

1. Make Use of Security Software

Security software help shield your system against spiteful malware, internet-based intrusions, and other security threats. Use the ones that are specialized in scanning downloads, blocking illegitimate users from using your system, and encrypting sensitive data. Also, enable plugins that prevent brute force attacks and hunt down dodgy comments. 

2. Keep Your Software and System Updated

Educate your team to update software and systems as soon as they get notifications. The updated versions have patches that can combat new attacking techniques of malicious actors. Updated versions fix minor bugs that are otherwise vulnerable to fuzzing.

3. Restrict User Access

It isn’t sufficient to know zero day exploit definition, you should also consider restricting user access. Use allowlisting or blocklisting methods to let only authorized entities access systems, software, and confidential data.  This will make it easier to contain the damage and patch limited vulnerabilities.

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