The world of cybersecurity is a messy one. In truth, hacks and breaches are happening all the time, but if you're a business with good cybersecurity on your side, you don't even notice. Breaches and attempted hacks are immediately seen and can be blocked, patched, fixed, and learned from so that they no longer pose a threat moving forward.
Unfortunately, one of the most serious types of security issues is a bit harder to detect and poses a much bigger threat: Zero-day attacks.
What is a zero-day attack?
"A 'zero-day' is the first day of a cyberattack using a previously unknown vulnerability in a piece of software," says Don Baham of Kraft Technology Group. "The vulnerability or exploit was not previously known (or disclosed) by the software vendor or others in the security ecosystem."
In other words, the software or hardware vendor has no idea a problem exists with their product. Then, as Sean Connery of Orbis Solutions Inc. puts it: "Once [the] flaw or software/hardware vulnerability is exploited ... attackers release malware before a developer has an opportunity to create a patch to fix the vulnerability-hence 'zero-day.' "
The term "zero-day" usually refers to the type of attack that is occurring, but because it is a time-sensitive term, "an attack that is going on now," as Guy Baroan of Baroan Technologies puts it, it is often referred to as a timeframe as well.
"When you hear 'zero day', think 'unknown' " says 365 Technologies' Michael Anderson. However, "when a security patch has been released to address the vulnerability, it is no longer a zero-day," he continues.
Why are zero-days so effective?
Zero-days are a special type of attack in the IT world. They have the potential to be especially vicious, so when IT specialists find out about them, timing is critical.
The reason they're so effective can be traced to the tactic they employ, which is relatively new in the IT cybersecurity world. Michael Anderson puts it this way:
"Zero-day are effective because until recently many of our available security tools relied on signatures - basically, maintaining lists of malicious code that could be identified and stopped when it was discovered on a network." The enemies of cybersecurity specialists never stick to one strategy for long, however. He continues: "Since zero-day vulnerabilities are unknown, this reactive approach is ineffective. Newer, behavior-based security tools look at how software is behaving and block suspicious activity rather than relying on specific signatures."
Are zero-day attacks common?
According to SemTech IT Solutions' Nick Allo, zero-day attacks are "pretty common."
Don Baham agrees: "Unfortunately zero-day exploits and vulnerabilities are constantly being discovered. Software manufacturers and other companies have created bug bounty programs that will pay security researchers to disclose zero-day vulnerabilities they discover."
How do you fix a zero-day attack?
All cyber attacks are cause for taking immediate action, but zero-day attacks are especially pressing. Unfortunately, these types of attacks sometimes go unnoticed for far too long, and this is the true cause of the ensuing destruction and corruption of systems, files, etc.
"The most important way to recover from an attack is to know that you are under attack," says Guy Baroan. Unfortunately, "[Hackers] want to keep [the vulnerability] as quiet as possible to fully exploit [it]," notes CTECH Consulting Group's Carl Fransen.
For this reason, says Baroan, "you need to have ways to detect any kind of threat. Not many [businesses] have this in place, so it is usually too late when they do find out that they have been breached."
According to Ilan Sredni of Palindrome Consulting, "Once the [software] vulnerability is identified, it must be immediately resolved or cured to minimize risk. Until the vulnerability is resolved, hackers can exploit it and enter a computer or network."
You can see where the experts are going with this:
You need to invest in high-quality cybersecurity, which means hiring a professionally managed service provider. "The best defense, in this case, is to truly understand there is no way to stop someone from getting in," Baroan says. "So how do you reduce the risk? Proper network and security implementations and following some good cyber framework to reduce the risk of becoming a victim and suffering greatly."
As far as the mechanics of actually fixing the problem once it's already occurred, Cameron Call, Technical Operations Manager for Network Security Associates, Inc. had this to say:
"Recovering from a zero-day attack can be very challenging and will be unique to the zero-day attack. It will most likely take a vendor some time to reverse engineer the exploit used and release a patch."
What can companies do to protect themselves long-term from zero-day attacks?
It's really up to your cybersecurity professionals.
Twenty years ago, a business owner might be able to "handle" their own cybersecurity without outside help. All they'd have to do is download a few anti-virus programs, keep an eye on email practices among employees, and make sure everything was password protected.
Things have changed drastically in the last few decades, however, and unfortunately, these days are gone. Even sole proprietors and small businesses with just a few employees need to have robust cybersecurity in place in order to prevent a breach. From hackers who want to exploit your clients' sensitive data, steal funds from you, or hold your information for ransom, to cybercriminals who simply want to corrupt wherever they can corrupt, there's really no end to the threats your business is under.
There is good news, however.
While Kraft Technology Group's Don Baham concedes that, "Any organization or individual that uses technology is potentially vulnerable from current or future zero-days," Nick Allo of SemTech IT Solutions notes that, "really larger software/hardware makers are the most [at risk] because they are the biggest payoff for a hacker since the hacker can reach more users."
Furthermore, Baham notes that "the most vulnerable targets are those who do not practice good cyber hygiene such as an aggressive patch management program, two-factor authentication for critical accounts, and encrypted sensitive data."
In other words, you're probably not the number one target for these targets.
Still, don't assume you're not on someone's list somewhere. Becoming complacent and lackadaisical with your cybersecurity is a recipe for disaster. Hiring an outsourced managed service provider with a quality reputation and vast expertise and experience may sound like a huge investment. But keep in mind that MSPs offer scalable, contracted services, and in many ways, they are less expensive than keeping an in-house tech team on your staff. Moreover, the value of hiring a good MSP is immeasurable overall. They will not only provide cybersecurity protections for your business, but they can also handle other aspects of your hardware, software, and data storage needs.
According to Michael Anderson: "The bottom line is that protecting networks from known vulnerabilities does nothing to address zero-day attacks. Organizations must look to advanced, behavior-based protection methods, and adopt a zero-trust model, even as it relates to well-established software or vendors."
In the end, remember that there are steps you can take to prevent a massive disruption of your business as can occur from a zero-day attack. And according to all of the IT experts and engineers we spoke to, you'd be wise to take them.