The Greek hero Achilles was a great warrior, much feared for his fighting skills and daring courage. But beneath his unbeatable facade, he had a vulnerability that led to his downfall—his heel.
A vulnerability, in the field of cybersecurity, is a weakness in your computer systems that an attacker can exploit. Computers, digital devices, and software have many known and undiscovered flaws due to their design. For example, many popular devices have insufficient user authentication, and some software may not encrypt their data. These weaknesses render them vulnerable to attacks.
Hackers are always searching for vulnerabilities to get into a target computer. Once in, they can steal sensitive data or sabotage the organization’s operations.
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How do Cyber Attackers Take Advantage of Vulnerabilities?
Any software, application, or system has vulnerabilities or security flaws. That is why companies hire penetration testers in the first place. These experts test all software and hardware in a corporate network for exploitable weaknesses so that these can be patched or fixed before they are deployed or connected to other systems. Why?
Attackers can create exploits or malicious programs that take advantage of vulnerabilities to gain access to a target network. They typically use so-called “exploit kits.” An exploit kit is like a set of lock picks that can open any insufficiently secured door.
It has become common, in fact, for hackers to use exploit kits to infect target users’ computers with malware. An example would be WannaCry ransomware. Several attackers have been known to take advantage of a Windows vulnerability to drop the malware onto a system.
Known vulnerabilities (those that have available patches) are easier to address than unknown or zero-day vulnerabilities. To reduce risks brought on by known vulnerabilities, all users need to do is download and install patches. That’s not the case for zero-days, though, as you’ll see in the next section.
What is a Zero-Day Vulnerability?
A zero-day vulnerability typically remains unknown and undisclosed for some time. Hence, it doesn’t usually have a patch or fix. That gives cyber attackers time and opportunity to exploit the weakness for campaigns. The longer it remains unpatched, the more it exposes an affected system or application and consequently, the network to various online threats that could lead to a breach.
How can You Defend Against Vulnerability Exploitation?
Individuals and companies alike are not immune to vulnerability exploitation. But there are ways to reduce related risks such as:
- Install security solutions that can detect and block exploits.
- Regularly download and install security patches or updates as soon as vendors release them.
- Use intrusion detection/prevention systems (IDS/IPS) that specifically monitor for and block vulnerability exploits.
- Scan your network for the presence of security bugs or weaknesses. Hire a penetration tester if you have the resources to do so.
- In the absence of patches (for zero-days), rely on indicators of compromise (IoCs) stated in security alerts and news. Avoid clicking URLs embedded in and opening attachments to emails from unknown senders. They can be vulnerability exploits in disguise.