Users often just assume that the software tools they’re using are in top working condition, and that’s generally true. However, every change and every piece of new code introduces new potential for gaps, problems, and bugs. Sometimes cyber security is a race against time.

What happens when a cyber attacker finds a hole before a security team does?

What is a Zero-Day Attack?

As soon as a malicious actor detects a vulnerability, they can manipulate it to steal sensitive information, harm systems, gain access to devices, or even take control of remote equipment. That ability to do damage lasts as long as the developer remains unaware of the problem.

When cyber criminals exploit an unidentified vulnerability to initiate a cyber attack, it’s called a zero-day attack.

The name relates to the lack of time at the moment of revelation. When a security incident reveals a previously unrecognized gap, software developers have “zero” days to rectify the situation.

Sometimes cyber criminals know about the weakness for weeks or months beforehand—enough time to carefully plan their attack. When it eventually happens, the vendor has zero fixes, zero patches, and zero time.

Cyber security professionals call this type of security gap a ‘zero-day vulnerability’, and the method attackers use to exploit this gap a ‘zero-day exploit.’

How Do Zero-Day Attacks Occur?

Even though its building blocks are code, software is a living, breathing thing. It’s always a work in progress. When developers issue a piece of software, they’re always improving it, adding to it, looking for operational enhancements, and looking for bugs.

When they find a bug, they patch it behind the scenes, or address the flaw in the form of a security update. The problem is cyber attackers are scanning and testing for security gaps as well. When a malicious actor finds a vulnerability, they have an opportunity to rewrite or manipulate the code in ways that benefit them.

Malicious actors might find a security gap and steal your sensitive data directly. They might exploit a weakness, then use phishing emails to get you to download malware that reveals your personal information. They can exploit software flaws to run malicious code and hijack your device.

Cyber criminals that find vulnerabilities aren’t always the ones to exploit those flaws. Instead, they sell them through dark web marketplaces to other malicious actors. Zero-day vulnerabilities are big business and exploits garner high prices.

The longer cyber attackers wait to launch the exploit, the more unprepared the security professionals can be on the other end. In some cases, cyber criminals wait for advantageous times, like holidays, to perpetrate exploits.

As a result, unidentified vulnerabilities can circulate for weeks or months before software security teams catch wind that a weakness in their code poses a significant risk.

Zero-Day Attack Examples

Zero-day attacks can command the headlines, especially when they target a well-known software package or organization or involve vast amounts of stolen personal or corporate data. Here are a few of the most widely known zero-day attacks.

  • Google Chrome: In early April 2023, Google issued a warning for all 3 billion users of its Chrome browser due to zero-day security vulnerability CVE-2023-2033.

Google’s internal security team identified the weakness, but only after attackers began actively exploiting it. Google has released a patch and is encouraging all users of Chrome on Mac, Windows, and Linux, to update their browser software.

  • Apple iOS: In early 2023, Apple released patched versions of its operating system software for Apple iPads and iPhones to patch zero-day security vulnerabilities. The exploits activate arbitrary code when users visit malicious websites, which gives attackers the ability to hijack user devices.
  • Sony Pictures Entertainment: In a well-known 2014 attack, cyber criminals exploited a zero-day security vulnerability to attack Sony Pictures Entertainment.

They placed malware in email attachments that disabled company computers and gained access to unreleased movies, confidential business information, and executive communications that they then released on public websites.

How to Identify Zero-Day Attacks

The most frustrating thing about zero-day attacks is how hard they are to detect. The identification usually happens only after cyber attackers have caused the damage. The software vulnerability can take any form—as a bug, an encryption or configuration issue, or a missing authorization. Security professionals can get clues about these kinds of problems using zero-day identification techniques.

  • If malicious actors are attacking a particular software or system, security teams may notice an unusual spike in traffic in that area that needs investigating.
  • Security professionals and IT teams can check malware databases as a reference point for comparison with a potential zero-day exploit.
  • Machine learning techniques can compare past and present system behaviour and interactions to detect anomalies and zero in on a zero-day vulnerability.

How to Prevent Zero-Day Attacks

At the highest level, protecting against zero-day attacks is a job for the pros – the security researchers and analysts who test software configurations scouring for vulnerabilities. Still, end user best practices can mitigate the effects of zero-day attacks when they remain undetected.

For instance, zero-day malware often comes via phishing and social engineering attempts. When you know not to click, the malware is not installed. Here are more steps you can take to protect your organization against zero-day attacks before developers issue a patch.

  • Know what’s happening: When a software vendor finds a zero-day vulnerability, they sometimes make an announcement so users can protect themselves until they release a patch. To protect yourself, follow the news about the major software platforms you use.
  • Cut down on apps: With so many useful software tools out there, it can be tempting to load up on applications. However, every new app is a new potential source of a zero-day vulnerability. Organizations can reduce risk by limiting software to necessary applications. That includes deleting software and apps that are no longer useful.
  • Secure the perimeter: Install a firewall to limit the kinds of network transactions that can occur between your private network and public sites. Use antivirus software for extra protection.
  • Update your systems: When software developers issue security updates, make sure you and your employees take immediate action. To make it foolproof, turn on automatic updating.
  • Educate employees: Cyber security awareness training helps software users understand what cyber criminals are doing behind the scenes. Employees come away with a toolbox of valuable techniques to protect themselves and the organization against zero-day attacks.

From Zero to Hero with Cyber Security Awareness Training

While zero-day attacks are challenging to detect, your best defense starts with awareness. A comprehensive cyber security awareness training program can teach your employees the necessary security basics.

It also cultivates a powerful team of cyber security heroes within your organization to protect you over the long run. For more resources, visit our Cyber Security Hub.



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