How to Prevent Zero-Day Attacks

How to Prevent Zero-Day Attacks

Rom Hendler is the CEO & co-founder of Trustifi, a SaaS-based security and email encryption provider.

“Zero-Day.” Sounds ominous, doesn’t it? Like our last day on Earth. In the cyber threat intelligence and security industry, a zero-day vulnerability is nearly as frightening as that. It refers to a software vulnerability that has never been detected on a system before, leaving IT administrators scrambling to immediately rectify it (with zero lead time).

What is a Zero-Day Attack?

Zero-day attacks are unknown threats which typically occur when cybercriminals identify a weakness in a software program they can exploit by way of a previously undetected flaw in the application or operating system. By definition, IT departments are challenged to predict which zero-day vulnerabilities will be the target of the next crippling strike against their systems.

Technology writer Joe Devanesan from TechHQ magazine reports that the past calendar year was “a record-breaking year for zero-day exploits globally,” with nearly twice as many zero-day attacks as reported in 2020. This “shatters the recorded number from any other year since zero-day exploits began being monitored,” according to his article. Industry consortiums and security researchers attempt to stay current with recent security advisory notifications to the end-user community, yet these emerging threats and cyber attacks continue to evolve, along with the methods that cybercriminals take in executing zero-day attacks.

What Zero-Day Threats Does the Market Face?

Zero-day attacks are challenging to detect and defend against. Malicious software that takes advantage of these vulnerabilities is known as a “zero-day exploit.” These exploit attacks are used against high-value targets including healthcare, government, manufacturing, and many other verticals. One of the high profile zero-day threat examples called Operation Aurora targeted the intellectual property of more than 20 major global organizations, including Adobe Systems, Blackberry, Dow Chemical, Google, Morgan Stanley, and Yahoo. The hackers exploited vulnerabilities in Internet Explorer, various other Windows software versions. Another victim was the security company RSA back in 2011 where the attackers sent emails with Excel spreadsheet attachments that contained an embedded flash file to the employees. Once the employee opened the attachment, the attackers gained access to the network and stole data.
Zero-day methods use more common attack vectors including personal email messages, documentation sharing, and social media connections to gain access to vulnerable systems. The affected systems could be a host, an application database, or even an unprotected networking device. Methods such as spear phishing and social engineering continue to be effective for this purpose, even though they’ve been around for years.

To restore affected systems in just a few hours, Security teams enable remediation procedures including network isolation, patch management strategy, or two-factor authentication. An incident response plan is also put in place in order to prevent people from being attacked by zero-day exploits. These issues are mostly resolved by having the right security tools deployed to the right places, and by staffers practicing appropriate cyber hygiene, including not sharing passwords, clicking on emails from people they don’t know, or downloading potentially malicious content from the Internet onto their corporate devices.
Another effective way to prevent zero-day attacks is deploying a web application firewall on the network edge. WAF enables administrators to review incoming traffic and filter out malicious inputs that might target system security vulnerabilities.

Reducing Human Error Helps Avert Zero Day Attacks

Many zero-day exploits are a result of human error. Threat and vulnerability researchers encourage organizations to educate employees including remote users about good internet safety and security habits that will keep them safe online and effectively protect organizations from a potential zero-day attack and other digital threats. Education, not technology, tends to have a greater positive impact in preventing zero-day attacks.

Email is still the top communication channel used by organizations. Messaging, SMS, and social media also are very popular methods for corporate and personal communications. These channels are exploitable by hackers which target security vulnerabilities using zero-day attack methods and other advanced persistent threats. Social engineering, phishing emails, and social media invitation requests continue to lead toward zero-day exploit attacks. Email security is proven to reduce what’s known as the “attack surface.” These attack surfaces include corporate laptops, mobile devices, personal email addresses’ inboxes, and networking equipment.

Email security continues to mature in the marketplace, including new AI-based tools that scan incoming emails for zero day malware, phishing lure keywords, ransomware, and other areas that may serve as an entry point for zero-day exploit software. These vulnerability scanning solutions bring to light unknown vulnerabilities in computer systems, networks, applications and procedures. IT departments should implement several layers of adaptive control, including effective integration to ensure ease of use. Greater adoption of unpatched vulnerability detection tools on the part of users is one of the most critical security controls to prevent zero-day initiatives.

Zero-day exploits within an email channel could be introduced in the form of an attachment, calendar invite, or URL link. With the proper email security solution, these attack vectors and potential vulnerabilities can be stopped. Security team managers should insist on the following capabilities and strategies when implementing an email security solution aimed at attack service reduction.

  • Next generation anti-virus scanning
  • Behavioral analysis of incoming traffic leveraging AI and machine learning
  • Detection of malware signatures or malicious inputs
  • Whitelisting and blacklisting of secure and malicious IP addresses, respectively
  • Sandboxing and securely detonating attachments before end-user access
  • Comprehensive, AES-25 encryption, including straightforward message, encrypt and decrypt strategies

Attachment detonation is a common adaptive security control, where the email security system opens the attachment before the user and checks for malware, ransomware, and phishing URLs that could be used to exploit vulnerabilities of the system. Phishing is a widespread security feature within email security, especially with zero-day attack prevention strategies. And sandbox attachment capability is required on all email security RFPs.

Accuracy and Resilience are Critical

Email security and other adaptive controls within the defense-in-depth strategy need to be resilient in order to protect against zero day attacks. Hackers spend countless efforts counteracting security capabilities well before any significant attack occurs. Suppose a critical security solution gets taken down early in a cyber attack. In that case, this rapidly exposes the client’s attack surface (or the total range of points where an unauthorized user can attempt to infiltrate or steal data from a network environment), compounding the potential damage.

To accurately respond to a security incident, all security solutions, including email security, need to be accurate as well. Solutions reporting a high degree of false positives create an operational challenge for the business that uses it. Many email security solutions have become complicated because software vendors try to do too much within the same platform. Clients should evaluate email security vendors based on their ease of use, risk assessment and management, deployment, resilience, and accuracy of the platform, along with total expected time-to-value.

Zero-Day Protection with Trustifi

Prevention is the best way to mitigate the security risk of suffering a zero-day attack. Unsecured email systems are one of the cybercriminals’ most common targets for infiltrating an organization’s vulnerable system and steal sensitive data. Therefore, it is extremely important for businesses to ensure they have a secure email and network protection system. Proactive, layered email security defenses are the best way to detect malware and combat zero-day risks and similar attacks.

Trustifi’s Inbound Shield provides a powerful line of defense against cyber threats. Once you’ve deployed Trustifi’s Inbound Shield to your company’s email system, a sophisticated AI-powered software will scan every incoming email for viruses, trojans, malware, and other threats using three layers of protection.

With any luck, business owners and IT administrators can attempt to keep the amount of these events down to… you guessed it:  Zero.

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