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zero-day (computer)
Posted by Thang Le Toan on 03 August 2018 01:03 AM

Zero-day is a flaw in software, hardware or firmware that is unknown to the party or parties responsible for patching or otherwise fixing the flaw. The term zero day may refer to the vulnerability itself, or an attack that has zero days between the time the vulnerability is discovered and the first attack. Once a zero-day vulnerability has been made public, it is known as an n-day or one-day vulnerability.

Ordinarily, when someone detects that a software program contains a potential security issue, that person or company will notify the software company (and sometimes the world at large) so that action can be taken. Given time, the software company can fix the code and distribute a patch or software update. Even if potential attackers hear about the vulnerability, it may take them some time to exploit it; meanwhile, the fix will hopefully become available first. Sometimes, however, a hacker may be the first to discover the vulnerability. Since the vulnerability isn't known in advance, there is no way to guard against the exploit before it happens. Companies exposed to such exploits can, however, institute procedures for early detection.

Security researchers cooperate with vendors and usually agree to withhold all details of zero-day vulnerabilities for a reasonable period before publishing those details. Google Project Zero, for example, follows industry guidelines that give vendors up to 90 days to patch a vulnerability before the finder of the vulnerability publicly discloses the flaw. For vulnerabilities deemed "critical," Project Zero allows only seven days for the vendor to patch before publishing the vulnerability; if the vulnerability is being actively exploited, Project Zero may reduce the response time to less than seven days.

Zero-day exploit detection

Zero-day exploits tend to be very difficult to detect. Antimalware software and some intrusion detection systems (IDSes) and intrusion prevention systems (IPSes) are often ineffective because no attack signature yet exists. This is why the best way to detect a zero-day attack is user behavior analytics. Most of the entities authorized to access networks exhibit certain usage and behavior patterns that are considered to be normal. Activities falling outside of the normal scope of operations could be an indicator of a zero-day attack.

For example, a web application server normally responds to requests in specific ways. If outbound packets are detected exiting the port assigned to that web application, and those packets do not match anything that would ordinarily be generated by the application, it is a good indication that an attack is going on.

Zero-day exploit period

Some zero-day attacks have been attributed to advanced persistent threat (APT) actors, hacking or cybercrime groups affiliated with or a part of national governments. Attackers, especially APTs or organized cybercrime groups, are believed to reserve their zero-day exploits for high-value targets.

N-day vulnerabilities continue to live on and are subject to exploits long after the vulnerabilities have been patched or otherwise fixed by vendors. For example, the credit bureau Equifax was breached in 2017 by attackers using an exploit against the Apache Struts web framework. The attackers exploited a vulnerability in Apache Struts that was reported, and patched, earlier in the year; Equifax failed to patch the vulnerability and was breached by attackers exploiting the unpatched vulnerability.

Likewise, researchers continue to find zero-day vulnerabilities in the Server Message Block protocol, implemented in the Windows OS for many years. Once the zero-day vulnerability is made public, users should patch their systems, but attackers continue to exploit the vulnerabilities for as long as unpatched systems remain exposed on the internet.

Defending against zero-day attacks

Zero-day exploits are difficult to defend against because they are so difficult to detect. Vulnerability scanning software relies on malware signature checkers to compare suspicious code with signatures of known malware; when the malware uses a zero-day exploit that has not been previously encountered, such vulnerability scanners will fail to block the malware.

Since a zero-day vulnerability can't be known in advance, there is no way to guard against a specific exploit before it happens. However, there are some things that companies can do to reduce their level of risk exposure.

  • Use virtual local area networks to segregate some areas of the network or use dedicated physical or virtual network segments to isolate sensitive traffic flowing between servers.
  • Implement IPsec, the IP security protocol, to apply encryption and authentication to network traffic.
  • Deploy an IDS or IPS. Although signature-based IDS and IPS security products may not be able to identify the attack, they may be able to alert defenders to suspicious activity that occurs as a side effect to the attack.
  • Use network access control to prevent rogue machines from gaining access to crucial parts of the enterprise environment.
  • Lock down wireless access points and use a security scheme such as Wi-Fi Protected Access 2 for maximum protection against wireless-based attacks.
  • Keep all systems patched and up to date. Although patches will not stop a zero-day attack, keeping network resources fully patched may make it more difficult for an attack to succeed. When a zero-day patch does become available, apply it as soon as possible.
  • Perform regular vulnerability scanning against enterprise networks and lock down any vulnerabilities that are discovered.

While maintaining a high standard for information security may not prevent all zero-day exploits, it can help defeat attacks that use zero-day exploits after the vulnerabilities have been patched.

Examples of zero-day attacks

Multiple zero-day attacks commonly occur each year. In 2016, for example, there was a zero-day attack (CVE-2016-4117) that exploited a previously undiscovered flaw in Adobe Flash Player. Also in 2016, more than 100 organizations succumbed to a zero day bug (CVE-2016-0167) that was exploited for an elevation of privilege attack targeting Microsoft Windows.


In 2017, a zero-day vulnerability (CVE-2017-0199) was discovered in which a Microsoft Office document in rich text format was shown to be able to trigger the execution of a visual basic script containing PowerShell commands upon being opened. Another 2017 exploit (CVE-2017-0261) used encapsulated PostScript as a platform for initiating malware infections.

The Stuxnet worm was a devastating zero-day exploit that targeted supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems by first attacking computers running the Windows operating system. Stuxnet exploited four different Windows zero-day vulnerabilities and spread through infected USB drives, making it possible to infect both Windows and SCADA systems remotely without attacking them through a network. The Stuxnet worm has been widely reported to be the result of a joint effort by U.S. and Israel intelligence agencies  to disrupt Iran's nuclear program.

Learn more about zero-day attacks
from the CompTia security course.


FBI admits to using zero-day exploits, not disclosing them

The FBI has admitted to using zero-day exploits rather than disclosing them, and experts say this should not be a surprise considering the history of federal agency actions.

In a surprise bout of openness, Amy Hess, executive assistant director for science and technology with the FBI, admitted that the FBI uses zero-day exploits, but said the agency does struggle with the decision.


In an interview with The Washington Post, Hess called it a "constant challenge" to decide whether it is better to use a zero-day exploit "to be able to identify a person who is threatening public safety" or to disclose the vulnerability in order to allow developers to secure products being used by the public. Hess also noted the FBI prefers not to rely on zero-day exploits because the fact that they can be patched at any moment makes them unreliable.

Jeff Schilling, CSO for Armor, said the surprise might come from the fact that many people don't know that the FBI has a foreign intelligence collection mission.

"Any agency that has a foreign intelligence collection mission in cyberspace has to make decisions every day on the value gained in leveraging a zero day to collect intelligence data, especially with the impact of not letting people who are at risk know of the potential vulnerability which could be compromised," Schilling said, adding that the need for the government to find a balance between security and intelligence is not a new phenomenon. "This country experienced the same intelligence gained versus operational impact during World War II (WWII) when the intelligence community did not disclose that we had broken both the Japanese and German codes. Lots of sailors, soldiers and airmen lost their lives to keep those secrets. I think the FBI and the rest of the intelligence community have the same dilemmas as the intelligence community in WWII, however, at this point, data, not lives are at risk."

Robert Hansen, vice president for WhiteHat Security Labs, said it boils down to whether the public trusts the government to not abuse its power in this area, and whether the government should assume that only it knows about these exploits.

"In general, I think that although the net truth is that most people in government have good intentions, they can't all be relied upon to hold such belief systems," Hansen said. "And, given that in most cases exploits are found much later, it stands to reason that it's more dangerous to keep vulnerabilities in place. That's not to diminish their value, however, it's very dangerous to presume that an agency is the only one [that] can and will find and leverage that vulnerability."

Adam Kujawa, head of malware intelligence at Malwarebytes Labs, said the draw of zero-day exploits may be too strong for government agencies to resist.

"The 'benefit' of this method [is] simply having access to a weapon that theoretically can't be protected against," Kujawa said. "This is like being able to shoot someone with a nuke when they are only wearing a bullet proof vest -- completely unstoppable, theoretically. Law enforcement, when they have a target in mind, be it a cybercriminal, terrorist, et cetera, are able to breach the security of the suspect and gather intelligence or collect information on them to identify any criminal activity that might happen or will happen."

Daren Glenister, field CTO at Intralinks Inc., noted that while leaving vulnerabilities unpatched leads to risk, there is also some benefit to not publishing vulnerabilities too soon.

"Patching a threat may take a vendor days or weeks. Every hour lost in providing a patch introduces additional risk to data and access to systems," Glenister said. "[However], by not publishing zero-day threats, it minimizes the widespread underground threat from hackers that occurs every time a new threat is disclosed."

The NSA recently detailed its vulnerability disclosure policy, but while doing so never mentioned whether or not the agency used zero-day exploits. Multiple experts said this admission by the FBI makes it safe to assume the NSA is also leveraging zero days in its efforts.

Adam Meyer, chief security strategist at SurfWatch Labs Inc., said it is not only reasonable to expect the NSA is actively exploiting zero days, but many others are as well.

"I believe it is safe to assume that any U.S. agency with a Defense or Homeland Security mission area are using exploits to achieve a presence against their targets," Meyer said. "Unfortunately, I also think it is safe to assume that every developed country in the world is doing the exact same thing. The reality is a zero day can be used against us just as much as for us."

Schilling said using zero days may not be the only option, but noted that human intelligence gathering carries much greater risks.

"At the end of the day, if we are leveraging zero days to stay ahead of our national threats, I am ok with us accepting the risk of data loss and compromises," Schilling said. "History has shown that we have accepted higher costs to protect our intelligence collection, and I think we are still OK today in the risk we are accepting as it is to save lives."

Kujawa said that while there are viable alternatives to using zero days to gather intelligence, it is hard to ignore the ease and relative safety of this method.

"There are plenty of viable methods of extracting information from a suspect; however the zero-day method is incredibly effective, very quiet and very fast. Law enforcement could attack systems using known exploits, social engineering tactics or gaining physical access to the system and installing malware manually, however none of these methods are guaranteed and they all can be protected against if the suspect is practicing common security procedures. The zero-day method will fall into the same bucket as the other attacks soon enough, however, so we will have to wait and see what the future holds for law enforcement in trying to gather evidence and intelligence on criminal suspects."

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