How to Prevent, Detect and Mitigate Zero-Day Attacks

July 19, 2022 | By IANS Faculty

Gaining insights into the myriad cyber threats and how to protect your organization from each one is vital. Threat actors have no limits when it comes to devising ways to infiltrate organizations or individual systems for nefarious purposes. 

Zero-day attacks have exploded over the past year and a half, with many different types of bad actors taking advantage of the growing attack surface. These vulnerabilities, which are often unknown to the software vendors, are leveraged by both state-sponsored groups and ransomware gangs. Zero-day attacks and the resulting exploits have become an attractive weapon that cybercriminals increasingly and cavalierly use to their advantage, to security teams' frustration. Can organizations that have experienced zero-day attacks and the resulting damage have done more—or anything at all—to protect their organization?  

This piece details a typical zero-day attack and what security teams can do to protect their organization from a threat you can't detect until it has already made its way into your system. 

What Is a Zero-Day Attack? 

A zero-day attack (or 0day) occurs when a threat actor finds a vulnerability or software weakness they can use to exploit your system or application and enter it to steal data or cause damage. The term "zero" was coined as organizations and software vendors didn’t know their software contained a vulnerability until the attack was already happening, so people have zero days of warning, which removes the ability for any meaningful defenses or to put patches in place, making this a severe security threat. 

These types of attacks started to appear in the early 2010s, and ramped up with 2014's Heartbleed and Shellshock attacks and Stagefright's cluster of bugs in 2015. They then seemed to go back under the radar until 2021. Many businesses experienced zero-day attacks in 2021 because of holes exposed by remote work during the pandemic's peak. Software engineers and developers lacked adequate protections, which made them easier targets for attacks, with platforms and devices that might have fallen off their security program’s radar. 

A zero-day attack can seemingly come out of nowhere, stemming from an internal and as yet undetected software vulnerability. Once threat actors detect a software vulnerability, they can conduct these attacks against organizations or individual users on PCs and various mobile Apple and Android devices. While zero-click attacks are often facilitated by zero-day attacks, they are different. It’s important to understand the connection between the two because zero-day attacks help open the door to zero-click attacks. 

Zero-day attacks have targeted and affected nearly every type of organization, major government, individual or network, including: large and small corporations; freelancers or contract workers; and local, state and federal agencies. They focus on networks and any devices with software, including hardware, firmware or IoT. 

READ: How to Improve Your Vulnerability Management Program 

How Zero-Day Attacks Work 

Zero-day incidents follow a three-step process for threat actors to exploit vulnerabilities and launch the attack: 

  • Scan for software vulnerabilities the software vendor, manufacturer or security team haven't yet patched or detected. 
  • Determine the means to exploit the vulnerability, gaining access to the system using the discovered software vulnerability. 
  • Launch the attack, enter the system and cause chaos and damage until the security team realizes what is happening. 

READ: 3 Keys to Addressing Systemic Vulnerabilities 

Zero-Day Attack Examples and Common Techniques  

Some of the more notable security vulnerabilities and attacks of 2021 included the SolarWinds supply chain attack and the Log4Shell cybersecurity incident. Software suppliers, security and vulnerability risk management teams have had to step up their game ever since. 

Other related methods threat actors use to exploit systems and execute attacks include: 

  • Embedding kits to exploit vulnerabilities within malicious website links and malicious advertisements. 
  • Spear-phishing and social engineering tactics where the threat actor stalks an organization’s member—usually the CISO or another high-ranking executive—then sends a malicious email. 
  • Spam emails, traditional phishing and watering hole attack methods involve sending mass emails to a large number of recipients within the organization. The threat actor is betting that a small number of recipients will open the email and download the attachment to launch the attack. 
  • Zero-click attacks rely on zero-day attacks to execute, requiring no user input or engagement and commonly target messaging apps receiving large amounts of data without requiring any device, data or owner validation.  


READ: Six Common Social Engineering Attack Methods 


Challenges in Zero-Day Attacks 

The most obvious and frustrating challenge in zero-day attacks is not knowing where, when or how attackers will strike your organization and its systems. Plus, affected tech companies like Microsoft, Google and Apple must respond quickly, devise a patch and distribute it widely, all of which takes time, expanding the attack surface. 

Traditional security strategies, such as employing antivirus endpoint solutions and patch management, don't stand up to zero-day exploits and attacks. This is because old-school signature-based tools do not detect such attacks since they haven't occurred before. 

Detecting and Preventing Zero-Day Attacks 

When focusing on detecting and preventing zero-day attacks, look to tighten up your overall security and vulnerability measures. There is little-to-no set solution that is guaranteed on such a large attack surface to anticipate zero-day vulnerabilities to prevent attack to an organization's system. 

However, knowing and using best practices for your security program can help prevent, detect and mitigate zero-day attacks. 

Here are some essential best practices help detect, deter and prevent zero-day attacks and mitigate damage, and speed up recovery if your organization does experience one: 

  • Develop thorough incident recovery and backup plans. 
  • Stay on top of system and software updates and apply patches when released. 
  • Ensure you have a solid vulnerability management  [link to: Setting Up a Successful Vulnerability Management Program] and patching plans. 
  • Provide cybersecurity awareness [link to: How to Build a Strong Security Awareness Program] training for all employees, managers, executives and security team members. 
  • Use antivirus and anti-malware software as an additional protection. 
  • Ensure employees only download apps that are known to the organization. 
  • Conduct threat intelligence monitoring of user activity and anomaly detection. 
  • Deploy layered security controls, such as firewalls, a web application firewall (WAF) and endpoint security controls. 
  • Apply least privilege and micro-segmentation strategies to provide security at the granular level 

The rise in zero-day exploits and the various types of actors using them can be a cause of concern for organizations regardless of their size. On the flip side, it can also provide valuable learning opportunities for the security industry. With the increase in attacks, it's essential to learn as much as possible about them going forward. 

By using best practices and learning more about how cybercriminals exploit these vulnerabilities, you stand a much greater chance of mitigating these attacks and protecting your organization. 

Although reasonable efforts will be made to ensure the completeness and accuracy of the information contained in our blog posts, no liability can be accepted by IANS or our Faculty members for the results of any actions taken by individuals or firms in connection with such information, opinions, or advice. 

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