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What are Zero Day Threats and How to Handle Them?


What are Zero Day Threats and How to Handle Them?


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What are Zero Day Threats?

A zero day threat or zero day exploit is an attack which takes advantage of a vulnerability in a program. This is essentially a security hole that doesn’t have a patch or fix in place. When the flaw is discovered, developers have zero days to fix it. This is due to the potentially hundreds or thousands of hackers looking to exploit such vulnerabilities in software.

These flaws are often unintended since they stem from a programming error or improper configuration problems. These vulnerabilities are often undetected for many days, months, or even years. Take the example of the Sony Zero Day attack.

This was an attack by North Korea on Sony Pictures Entertainment in response to the release of “The Interview”. A satirical movie parodying Kim Jong Un, prompted a massive attack on the studio. The hackers released sensitive information from the studio including copies of movies awaiting release and private business dealings.

While the security flaw that allowed this hack to happen remains unknown, it was a zero day attack.

Zero day threats

Security graphic on a computer screen

How Do Zero Day Attacks Work?

When hackers identify a vulnerability that was previously unknown, they write code to specifically target it. This involves the creation of malware. When the code is executed, systems are usually compromised. To get rid of the intrusion, the hackers usually demand some sort of ransom or compensation. This is why many of these attacks are also referred to as ransomware attacks.

A common tactic to distribute malware for a zero day attack is through phishing emails. They contain attachments or links which have exploits embedded into them. These are payloads which are executed when a user clicks or interacts with the files.

Once zero day attacks are in motion, only quick responses can recover sensitive information. This is why sensitive information is stolen and leaked on to the web if there are no preventive measures in place. Customers can often lose trust in a business that allows this to happen. The business also may have to divert any valuable engineering resources they have to patch the existing security flaw depending on how severe the attack.

Best Ways to Prevent a Zero Day Attack

How to prevent a zero day attack

Two computers hooked up to each other

Browser Isolation

As mentioned before, phishing is one of the most common ways that zero day attacks happen. Clicking on an email attachment or a link can often spell doom for a computer or an entire system. Hence, there are many virus scans embedded within email services like Gmail and Outlook Mail.

However, browser isolation goes a step further to keep browsing activity entirely separate from end user devices. This way corporate networks and systems stay isolated from malicious code.

This can be done through:

  • Remote Browser Isolation:
    Remote browser isolation allows for web pages, including their code and links to be saved and loaded on a cloud server. This keeps them away from user devices and internal networks.
  • On-Premises Browser Isolation:
    An internally managed server basically carries out browser isolation.
  • Client Side Browser Isolation:
    Sandboxing, a security mechanism, is used to keep programs running separately. Pairing this with a device’s browser allows the content and code on the browser to remain separate from the device.

Strong Firewalls

Firewalls are well known to computer users. They isolate your computer from online threats. They monitor both incoming and outgoing traffic using preset policies. They are literally walls for fire that separate untrusted networks from trusted networks.

Hence, sensitive information and private details are prevented from being leaked. These firewalls can be built into software, hardware, and a combination of both. These firewalls can block all traffic that can target a security vulnerability, and can prevent a zero day attack very effectively.

Detecting Zero Day Threats

While zero day threats are very difficult to detect, there are ways in which they can be isolated and done away with. There are several proven strategies which can help to make detection very easy.

Stats-Based Detection Methods

Machine learning and previous data can help prevent zero day attacks. The information gathered from previous attacks can be used to detect the same behavior in a system that signals it. Patterns and metrics can be used to detect activity which warrants a shutdown.

Signature Authentication

This is one of the earliest ways to monitor security in any system. Basically existing databases of malware signatures can be constantly updated to stop them from entering a system. When a database recognizes the signature of a malware, it can stop it in its tracks.

This can be used to stop downloads and reduce the chances of the malware entering a system. This is a good technique to scan for potential threats. However, the disadvantage here is that the signature can only identify threats which are known. Hence, this method fails when a new exploit or new code is used against your system.

Analyzing Behavior

The most innovative and experimental way of detecting zero day attacks is through behavior analysis. Using AI and machine learning, it’s possible to analyze the normal behavior of entities on a network. Anything out of the ordinary can automatically prompt a check or a shutdown of said entity.

This analysis can help isolate threats and then shut them out of a system. This relies on predicting the flow of network traffic. It’s a very effective detection system which is used in places like banks and financial institutions to detect fraud.

Detecting Unauthorized Changes to Configuration

Finally, advanced AI and machine learning can also be used to detect unauthorized changes to your environment. This can act as an early warning system of an attack based on what changes, risk levels and who /what performed the change.  Again, anything out of the ordinary can set off red flags before a major or long term issue begins.

How to Handle a Zero Day Attack?

Handling a zero day attack

Code on a computer screen

Patch Management Strategies

The only sure fire way to eliminate a zero day attack possibility is to eliminate the vulnerability itself. Hence, a company should always have a patch management program. This includes having a clear communication policy for employees. This will coordinate development of the right patches. It will also facilitate the right communication among departments like IT and security.

In large enterprises, it’s important to automate this procedure so that patches are regular and managed more efficiently. Patch management solutions can be used to automatically source patches from vendors. They can then identify systems which require patches, updates, or overhauls.

The vendors can then automatically deploy patches and prevent legacy system problems. This way, all previous systems can be updated quickly and efficiently.

While patch management is not strictly a prevention measure, it can reduce the overall exposure of any company. In case of a severe vulnerability, software vendors can issue patches within hours or perhaps days. Automated management for security patches can help deploy your fixes quickly. Before attackers can identify vulnerabilities, you can actually patch them up.

Incident Response Plans

A very important element of how to handle a zero day attack is the incident response plan and team.  Large enterprises again will need a team to quickly identify, isolate, and respond to a cyber-attack. Having a plan focused on zero day attacks will give you an advantage over hackers.

Having a comprehensive response plan can reduce confusion on D-day, the chances of damage as well as leaks.

There is no foolproof way to eliminate zero day attacks. However, through these techniques, there is a great chance that your company can reduce their chances. Having a response team, continuous risk assessments, patch management, advanced technology that helps assess risk, and other security measures can prevent zero day attacks effectively.

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