What is a Zero Day Exploit?

If you’re running a business website, then you need to know the answer to the question “What is a zero day hack?”. Here is a quick guide to help.

Zero Day Attack Definition

If you do an internet search on the question “What is a zero day hack?” you will probably get the answer that it is an exploit which takes advantage of newly-discovered vulnerabilities in software before the vendor has the opportunity to address them. This is true but it is helpful to have a bit more detail to understand what this means in practice.

What is a Zero Day Hack

The progress of a Zero Day hack

As a rule of thumb, the progress of a zero day hack goes something along the following lines

Vulnerability introduced

  • Exploit released in the wild
  • Vulnerability discovered by the vendor
  • Vulnerability disclosed publicly
  • Anti-virus signatures released

Patch released

Patch deployment completed

Let’s look at these stages in more detail to see what they mean for security.

Vulnerability introduced

A vulnerability can be introduced a long time before it is discovered, although these days that’s relatively unlikely. Malicious actors will generally pay close attention when popular software is updated and will probe it for potential weaknesses. This means that vulnerabilities do tend to be discovered quite quickly.

Exploit released to anti-virus signatures released

In principle, it can take malicious actors some time to create an exploit that takes advantage of this vulnerability. In practice, however, this also tends to happen fairly quickly. The longer software is in use, the longer legitimate users have to find vulnerabilities in it and report them to the vendor. This means that malicious actors are under time pressure.

Steps two through five tend to happen in fairly quick succession. The key point to note is that the anti-virus companies are often quicker off the mark at releasing virus signatures than the software companies are at releasing patches.

This means that as long as you keep your antimalware software up-to-date (or use cloud-based software so that the vendor does), you should get some level of protection fairly quickly. This may not be complete. There may be other ways the vulnerability can be exploited, but you should be protected from malware fairly quickly.

Patches released and installed

One of the key points to understand about zero day hacks is that it can take anything from a few hours to several months for vendors to create a patch for the underlying problem. Then those patches have to be tested and installed. This means that the term “zero day hack” can actually be a bit misleading because you may have to stay on the alert for the threat for several months.

Protecting yourself against zero day hacks

It may sound like there is nothing you can do to protect yourself from zero day hacks other than to wait for the security companies and/or the vendor to address the issue. Actually, there’s quite a lot you can do to protect yourself.

Make good use of your firewall

If you’re using a robust anti-malware solution, it should have an integrated firewall. If it doesn’t either change your solution or buy a separate firewall. Use this to filter and monitor all network traffic (both incoming and outgoing) for suspicious activity.

Use the minimum amount of software

There are many good reasons for minimizing the amount of software you use. Most of them revolve around the fact that all software is an attack vector. This means that the more of it you use, the more room malicious actors have to attack you and vice versa.

Also, the more software you use, the more resources you have to devote to learning how to use it effectively and the more scope there is for people to make mistakes that could be exploited by a malicious actor. For example, a zero day attack may only work if a user has left default settings as they are or failed to set permissions effectively.

Train your staff on basic security practices

The vast majority of malware still depends on social engineering to some degree. This means that, in theory, it can be blocked just through human vigilance. In practice, there is far too much malware out there to rely on humans catching everything but humans can and indeed must be trained to check for suspicious activity so that they act as a backstop for automated security software.

What is Zero-Day Vulnerability?

A zero day hack is not an exploit that takes advantage of a known vulnerability for which a patch is available, but has not been applied. Commit to updating all software promptly!

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