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Tackling zero-day exploits. How to stay secure against unexpected cyber-attacks

There’s no doubt that cyber security threats are on the rise, but there’s been a particularly noticeable increase in a specific type of threat that exploits zero-day vulnerabilities. 74% of malware detected in the first quarter of 2021 were classed as zero-day exploits, and it’s no wonder that this type of attack is becoming an attractive proposition for cyber criminals. Let’s start by defining exactly what we mean by zero-day threats.

Threats that no one sees coming

Put simply, zero-day threats are those which exploit previously unknown and unidentified  security available with mainstream software platforms such as productivity suites, email clients, and Line of Business (LoB) applications.

The beauty of these vulnerabilities from a cyber attacker’s perspective is that there is often an extended window of opportunity for them to capitalise on an issue with a small effort expenditure. Even once a vulnerability has been identified, it can take weeks or months to create and deploy an appropriate patch, meaning that the vulnerability remains available for exploit for a significant period of time before it is locked down.

An attractive opening for bad actors

Zero-day exploits are the holy grail for cybercriminals. The opportunity to expose and exploit previously unknown vulnerabilities presents a low-risk, high-reward strategy that can yield impressive success rates. Unfortunately, their increased prevalence means that zero-day threats are fast becoming one of the biggest nightmares keeping IT professionals and business leaders awake at night.

Why are they becoming more prevalent?

There are several reasons why this type of vulnerability has become an increasingly viable option for cybercriminals, but fundamentally it boils down to one simple point – they are now much easier to deliver then they were previously.

Hackers have become more attuned to identifying new vulnerabilities before businesses or providers, and they are also becoming more adept at exploiting them.

10-15 years ago it could have taken 6 months or more for a new vulnerability to be successfully exploited. The time between discovery and exploitation has been dramatically reduced,  so sophisticated attacks can now occur within weeks or even days. These attacks propagate in a much shorter time than previously experienced. A malware attack delivered by email, for example, can now self-propagate in just a few minutes.

Just how can you prevent and prepare for attacks that haven’t previously surfaced?

Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to protect your business from every single zero-day vulnerability, but there are important steps you can take to help you stay as secure as possible.

1. Regular patching and updates

When any new vulnerabilities are identified, software providers and vendors will endeavour to create and deploy appropriate patches as quickly as possible. These will typically be delivered via software updates, so it’s vital that every user ensures that the devices and applications they use are always updated to the latest versions.

This also extends to your business-wide protections including Firewall policies, anti-virus, and anti-malware software, as well as more overarching considerations such as your chosen operating system.

2. Perform frequent vulnerability scans

While identifying potential vulnerabilities within your protections will not offer any security itself, spotting them early will give you the best possible chance of actioning appropriate responses and implementing any new defences before you are exposed to an unforeseen exploit.

3. Outline an incident response plan

Should you fall victim to a zero-day exploit, the speed and accuracy of your response is crucial to minimising the impact and supporting a strong recovery.

A thorough assessment of your internal processes will help you to prioritise mission-critical actions and define key roles for those involved in remediation. It’s also important to consider backup and recovery implications, and what steps should be taken to slow or prevent the spread of any attack beyond the initial breach.

4. Ensure end-user awareness

Frequently described as the human firewall, your users are often the first-line of defence for your organisation and play an important role in the effectiveness of your defences. They need to have a good knowledge and understanding of the threats facing your business, so undertaking regular user awareness training is a good place to start.

With appropriate training you can educate your team on how to spot malicious activity, and outline best practice to reduce the likelihood of a breach. To assess the awareness and behaviour of your team and better inform you as to where potential vulnerabilities may exist among your user base, you can also perform regular penetration testing.

Expert support helps you stay ahead

Fighting against zero-day vulnerabilities is an ongoing challenge, so it always helps to have the support of an experienced and knowledgeable IT partner on-hand.

Our strong relationships with some of the world’s leading vendors mean we can access and deploy the latest solutions to keep your business protected, while we can also offer advice and support on business continuity planning, backup solutions, and end-user awareness training.

To learn more about the risk of zero-day threats, and how we can help your business stay protected, just get in touch with the team.