How can organizations protect against zero-day threats?

With every passing day or even every passing hour, the cybersecurity landscape becomes increasingly complex and sophisticated. As cybercriminals continue to add new and updated techniques and tactics to their dangerously massive arsenal of threats and vulnerabilities, it is only a matter of time before an organization is hit with a devastating cyberattack.

It is high time for companies to realize that their current cybersecurity infrastructure fails to hit the mark, particularly as far as circumventing zero-day threats and malware is concerned. Many malware and zero-day threats can evade the security measures that an organization has put up, which typically consists of an antivirus solution, that is too slow to detect and ward off these security vulnerabilities.

Moreover, as the threat landscape continues to integrate within itself, an increasingly sophisticated arsenal of vulnerabilities, including the likes of a zero-day exploit- the evolving attack tactics utilized by cybercriminals make it extremely difficult for enterprises to keep up.

Bearing witness to the fragile state that cybersecurity is currently in, were the findings of WatchGuard’s Q4 2019 Internet Security report, which highlighted the furious pace at which threat actors are evolving their attack methods. Furthermore, with more than two-thirds of malware, it is uniquely formulated to sneak past signature-based defenses and other security measures that a company may have employed.

In an attempt to help readers cope with the changing threat landscape, we have compiled an article that focuses on one aspect, namely the danger posed by zero-day threats. Before we can get into the multiple security measures that businesses can take to prevent the damage caused by an unchecked zero-day exploit, we’d like to begin by clarifying what a zero-day threat is.

What Exactly is Meant By a Zero-Day Threat?

Unlike some other vulnerabilities, there is a high chance that the typical layman might not be familiar with zero-day threats, and there’s a good reason for it. Up until this point, however, we’ve used the terms’ zero-day exploit’, ‘zero-day vulnerability,’ and ‘zero-day attack’ interchangeably, while in reality, all three of these terms have quite different connotations, which we’ll get to in a bit.

To fully understand what a zero-day threat, attack or vulnerability is, we will have to start at the very beginning, that is, at the release of any new computer program, component, or any other piece of the element. When either of these software components is first released, it is given that they underwent rigorous testing, which is performed by the manufacturers or the developers.

With that being said, however, organizations must take into account that no matter how rigorous the testing process might seem on paper, it is still limited to the resources at the testers’ disposal. No matter how stringent the testing process might seem, there is still a high chance that a minuscule glitch or flaw has made it to the finished product, potentially manifesting itself in hindered performance.

Since the security flaws that made it through the testing phase without any detection, the possibility of the developer or manufacturer putting in counter-measures is next to zero, which ultimately gives rise to zero-day attacks. Although software developers, along with white hat researchers, are always on the lookout for any undiscovered vulnerabilities, the tiniest security flaw’s mere existence can prove to be lethal for organizations.

Zero-Day (0-day) Vulnerability

Simply put, a zero-day vulnerability is a software vulnerability discovered by cybercriminals before the developer, manufacturer, or vendor has been made aware of its existence. Based on its very definition, there is virtually no patch available for a zero-day vulnerability, since targeted users and systems have no defenses against it, increasing the chances of an attack.

Zero-Day Exploit

A zero-day exploit refers to the method or technique employed by cybercriminals to launch attacks on systems that contain the unknown vulnerability. One such alarming technique utilized by threat actors includes the ‘zero-day malware,’ which targets explicitly zero-day vulnerabilities.

Zero-Day Attacks

As the name suggests, a zero-day attack refers to a threat actor employing a zero-day exploit to permeate through a system affected by an unknown (zero-day) vulnerability. By launching a zero-day attack, cybercriminals can wreak a monumental amount of damage on a network, as well as steal confidential information.

What Systems are the Most Commonly Targeted By Zero-Day Threats?

Now that we have gone through what a zero-day attack implies, we would like to mention some of the most commonly targeted systems by a zero-day attack:

  • Operating Systems: Operating systems are the most sought-after system in a zero-day attack, primarily because they provide cybercriminals access to all user systems, and contain crucial information.
  • Office applications: Although these applications might seem secure, malware embedded within documents and other files may contain zero-day vulnerabilities, which can later be used to exploit the application.
  • Internet of Things (IoT): Interconnected smart devices, which may include everything from an intelligent refrigerator, to televisions and sensors around the house constitute the IoT-, which is highly susceptible to zero-day attacks. Furthermore, most IoT devices lack the mechanism to patch any flaws or to update their software.
  • Web browsers: By exploiting an undetected zero-day vulnerability, hackers can manipulate web browsers like the Tor browser, which allows them to execute drive-by downloads and run malicious scripts and files on user devices.
  • Hardware: A highly susceptible component of zero-day attacks is hardware, which may include anything from an unknown vulnerability in the router, switch, network appliance, or even a home device such as a gaming console. Hackers launching zero-day attacks may exploit these hardware devices and deploy them to build botnets.

How Can Organizations Guard Against Zero-Day Threats?

Before we get into mentioning the multiple ways users can bypass the rather dire threat posed by zero-day attacks, we would like to make things one clear- there is no hard and fast rule for protecting an organization against zero-day threats. Instead, the best that most companies can do is to practice what is highly recommended, and figure out what works the best for them.

  1. Configuring firewalls: When it comes to circumventing zero-day attacks, it is highly critical that organizations configure stringent firewalls, which only allow the most necessary of transactions to pass through.
  2. Separating work units: To prevent vulnerabilities being exploited by cybercriminals across workgroups, it is highly recommended that organizations limit access by utilizing different risk profiles across the various segments of your network.
  3. Allow limited network privileges: By limiting users’ access to network privileges, organizations can ensure that no malicious attack vectors are permeating their network.
  4. Staying up-to-date on security patches: Perhaps the most simple security step that organizations can take, merely staying in the loop regarding the latest security fixes, may help protect against vulnerabilities that you might have been unaware of.
  5. Formulating a stringent incident response plan: Utilizing the tools that an organization’s security team has at their disposal, it is highly recommended that you devise a robust incident response plan that focuses specifically on prevention and remediation strategy.

Parting Words

Hopefully, by the end of the article, we’ve brought our readers up to the mark regarding zero-day attacks, as well as equipping them with some security tactics that they can employ to prevent them. Although zero-day threats might seem too sneaky to prevent, utilizing threat intelligence, along with a strategy of exercising caution before it’s too late- organizations can easily circumvent zero-day attacks.


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