Everything you should know about zero-days and zero-day attacks in cybersecurity

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Hacker working in a dark room

With fast-paced advancements in Internet communication technology, we have now well and truly entered the internet era. The internet has become an inseparable part of our lives, transforming the fortunes of billions worldwide. We know about how the internet has changed many aspects of our lives. There are some glaring issues and risks involved when you use the internet. As we all know, cybercrime is one of the major talking points in the internet space as it has affected millions worldwide. 

There has been an incredible surge in the number of cybercrimes reported over the past five years. As per the FBI’s annual cybercrime report, around 300,000 cybercrime reports were filed in 2016. That number reached a whopping 800,000 by the end of 2020, signaling the alarming rate at which cybercrimes have increased in the past few years [1]. 

Besides, if you ardently read about cybersecurity or follow the topic, you may know the term zero-day attacks. The term “zero-day” is commonly used in the cybersecurity space. 

If you have just started learning about cybersecurity, you have arrived at the right place. In this article, we will examine zero-day attacks, understand what they are, and how we can prevent them. Without further ado, let’s dive straight in. 

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Understanding zero-day in cybersecurity

Understanding zero day

Zero-day in cybersecurity refers to vulnerabilities in software that software manufacturers do not know about. This means that someone can easily compromise the security, leaving software vendors in a terrible spot. When they spot a problem, they typically have zero days to address the problem since they are already under some threat. 

According to security software Kaspersky, there are three ways to look at zero-days in cybersecurity. 

  • Zero-day vulnerability

A blind, vulnerable spot in software that attackers can easily compromise and predominantly spot before software vendors know about it. 

  • Zero-day exploit

A zero-day exploit is a technique used by cybercriminals to enter the system illegally due to zero-day vulnerabilities. 

  • Zero-day attack

When cyber attackers make most of the zero-day vulnerability to enter the system to inflict damage or steal data. 

In a nutshell, zero-day vulnerability is the weakness, a zero-day exploit is a method used to enter the system, and a zero-day attack is an action taken by cyber-attackers to cause damage or steal critical information. It is important to understand that although these terms are interchangeably used, they differ from each other. 

How does a zero-day attack work?

Despite the sincere and diligent efforts of software vendors and developers to ensure they have built a reliable product, weaknesses may exist. Cybercriminals are on the lookout for such weaknesses so that they can exploit them. 

When the vulnerability is detected, cyber attackers can write a code to exploit it. The nature of the vulnerability determines what the code is and what it does. Frequently, the perpetrators enter the system by using a zero-day exploit. If they fail, they will look for individuals who may let them inside. But, how do these cybercriminals trick people into letting them inside the system?

The answer is social engineering. Social engineering refers to different techniques used to trick individuals so that they let their guard down. Click baiting and phishing scams that deliver threatening messages to frighten people compelling them to do something are prime examples of social engineering. 

In addition, fake emails that appear as if your bank sent them can expose your account and potentially help cyber attackers drain money from your account. Right from USB attacks to malware scams, social engineering is a common element deployed to execute almost all forms of cyberattacks. 

Did you know that a zero-day vulnerability can remain undetected for months? During that period, attackers operate in stealth mode, stealing and copying information until the developers fix the issue. Cybercriminals sell data on the dark web for large sums of money. 

What is even scarier is that zero-attacks can wreak havoc in more ways than you can imagine. Direct access to your emails or banking data is just one way to cause trouble. Cybercriminals eye personal passwords and data to identify weak spots in Internet-of-Things (IoT) connected devices. 

How does one discover zero-day attacks?

By now, we hope you have understood how cybercriminals exploit zero-day vulnerabilities. Now, let’s move on to our next topic; discovering zero-day attacks. How do tech companies discover zero-day attacks? 

The silver lining when we talk about zero-day attacks in cyber security is that apart from hackers, tech and software companies are looking for vulnerabilities. Tech companies rely on “gray hat” or “white hat” hackers to find vulnerabilities in their systems against potential attacks before the final product hits the market. 

When they find these vulnerabilities, they are posted across public forums where industry experts come together. Even third-party vendors enter the fray to cash in on this opportunity and address vulnerabilities. Besides, tech companies also offer large “bug bounties” to independent hackers who spot vulnerabilities in their products. In addition, there are plenty of incentives for talented hackers who report vulnerabilities to developers regularly. 

It is important to note that zero-day threats are very difficult to detect, as we make data about them public only after we find them post an attack. Evidence of zero-day attacks includes bugs in the system, missing data, algorithms not working appropriately, and missing encryption. In addition, unexpected traffic or scanning activity are also symptoms of zero-day attacks. 

According to Kaspersky, a blend of existing malware databases, machine learning, and stringent observations to spot strange behavior are primarily deployed to find zero-day threats. Even records are used to spot suspicious activities. 

Can you shield yourself from zero-day attacks?

Zero-day security

If you are wondering if there is a foolproof to shield yourself from zero-day attacks, the answer is no. Do not feel dejected just yet. There are many ways to resist and repel zero-day attacks. For starters, ensure that all your systems and software are up to date. 

  • Regular software and system updates

Let’s look at a case from 2017. A WannaCry ransomware attack plagued the global cyber network. Upon inspection, they identified the root cause of the problem as a stolen list of vulnerabilities across Microsystems worldwide. Users could have protected themselves from this attack by downloading a free update patch. Therefore, it is probably not a good idea to click on “remind me later” every time an update prompt greets you. 

  • Use applications you need, dump the rest

We know it is tempting to download a plethora of applications that we think might help us at some point. The advice here would be to not do so and for a strong reason. 

It is important to download only those applications that are necessary. When you have loads of applications downloaded into your system, you are giving the criminals more ways to enter your system. 

  • Malware and anti-virus software

Installing anti-virus will help you strengthen your security against malicious attacks. These software applications primarily depend rely on past data to detect potential threats. It is important to let these applications run regular scans through your system so that you do not forget about them. If you want to add a layer of security, a firewall is an excellent option. 

  • Self-education 

Apart from all the points discussed, do not forget to do your research. Stay on top of the latest developments in the cybersecurity world to understand how you can safeguard your systems against deadly zero-attacks. Besides, you can also take the initiative of organizing various workshops to educate other members of your organization. These programs will help them understand the various social engineering tactics used by hackers to trap users. 

Final thoughts: zero-day attacks in cybersecurity

Zero-day attacks in cybersecurity are not going away anytime soon. Despite profound efforts to defend against such attacks, vulnerabilities exist. Organizations need to step up and do more to prevent such harmful attacks. Small to large businesses should take the right measures to mitigate risks, detect threats, and respond to them on time. 

Cybercriminals are running in the wild looking for misconfiguration, coding weaknesses, and all vulnerabilities that are still not known to software developers and companies. So, you need to plan a solid security strategy to ensure your systems do not fall prey.

Do you think your organization does enough to fend off zero-day attacks? Comment below and let us know. We would love to hear your thoughts. 

RECOMMENDED READ: How to protect your digital infrastructure from cyber-attacks?

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Feature Image: Photo by Clint Patterson on Unsplash

Image 1 Source: Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

Image 2 Source: Photo by FLY:D on Unsplash

Sources:

[1] (2020) “2020 Internet Crime Report” FBI [online] Available from: https://www.ic3.gov/Media/PDF/AnnualReport/2020_IC3Report.pdf [accessed August 2022]

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Karandeep is a technical content writer based out of Pune, a city in India that is also known as the Oxford of the East. His journey with writing started in 2014 when he decided to try his luck in a gaming startup as a Content Developer. Since then, he has written on a wide range of topics within the gaming and the tech space. Apart from his love for gaming, Karandeep is keeping tabs on the hottest trends in the tech industry. After completing his Bachelors in Business Administration (BBA) from Symbiosis International University, Pune, he worked as an intern in an NGO that focused on urban development.
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