Exploits and Vulnerabilities

Exploits are simply termed as a code that takes the upper hand of a software vulnerability or flaw in security. When used, exploits allow an intruder to remotely access a network and gain elevated privileges, or move deeper into the network. As devices are connected increasingly, this makes them more vulnerable and prone towards sophisticated invasions. Peripherals such as printers and cameras were never designed to thwart these occurrences, it has led companies and individuals alike to rethink the security of their networks.

      Software and networks come with built-in protection against hackers, sort of like locks that keep unwanted guests from sneaking inside. A vulnerability, then, is like an accidental open window that a thief can climb through. In the case of a computer or network, thieves can install malicious software through these vulnerabilities (open windows) in order to control (infect) the system for their own nefarious ends. Usually, this happens without the user’s knowledge.

Security Vulnerability Examples

A Security Vulnerability is a weakness, flaw, or error found within a security system that has the potential to be leveraged by a threat agent in order to compromise a secure network.

There are a number of Security Vulnerabilities, but some common examples are: 

•   Broken Authentication: When authentication credentials are compromised, user sessions and identities can be hijacked by malicious actors to pose as the original user. 

•   SQL Injection: As one of the most prevalent security vulnerabilities, SQL injections attempt to gain access to database content via malicious code injection. A successful SQL injection can allow attackers to steal sensitive data, spoof identities, and participate in a collection of other harmful activities.

•   Cross-Site Scripting: Much like an SQL Injection, a Cross-site scripting (XSS) attack also injects malicious code into a website. However, a Cross-site scripting attack targets website users, rather than the actual website itself, which puts sensitive user information at risk of theft.

•   Cross-Site Request Forgery: A Cross-Site Request Forgery (CSRF) attack aims to trick an authenticated user into performing an action that they do not intend to do. This, paired with social engineering, can deceive users into accidentally providing a malicious actor with personal data. 

•   Security Misconfiguration: Any component of a security system that can be leveraged by attackers due to a configuration error can be considered a “Security Misconfiguration.” 

What Is a Threat?

A threat refers to the hypothetical event wherein an attacker uses the vulnerability. The threat itself will normally have an exploit involved, as it’s a common way hackers will make their move. A hacker may use multiple exploits at the same time after assessing what will bring the most reward. While nothing disastrous may have happened yet at this stage, it can give a security team or individual insight into whether or not an action plan needs to be made regarding specific security measures.

While it may seem like you’re constantly hearing about a new attack or cyber threat in the world, these terms can help give further context to the stages and dangers that security professionals deal with on a daily basis. So, what can you do to lower your overall risk? For a proactive approach, scan your environment for vulnerabilities with a vulnerability management tool. To stay responsive to unwanted activity, Security Information and Event Management (SIEM) is a systematic process that can make it easier to control what’s happening on your network. SIEM tools can help companies set up strong, proactive defences that work to fend off threats, exploits, and vulnerabilities to keep their environment safe.

That doesn’t mean that all vulnerabilities can be easily exploited. Sometimes the nature of a particular vulnerability is such that hackers can’t figure out how to write code that exploits it. Returning to our open window analogy, not all open windows cater perfectly to thieves — sometimes they’re too high up to reach, or they might lead only to a locked basement. The same holds true with “open windows” that are security flaws — cybercriminals can’t always take advantage of every window.

Moreover, vulnerabilities can be dangerous on their own, as they can cause system crashes or malfunctions. A vulnerability might invite DoS (denial of service) or DDoS (distributed denial of service) attacks, in which attackers can bring down a website or critical system without even using an exploit.

Are exploits a form of malware?

Although both exploits and malware can have damaging effects on a device or system, they are different. Malware refers to any type of malicious software, including viruses, ransomware, spyware, etc.

An exploit, in contrast, is code that allows a hacker to leverage a vulnerability — for example, they can use an exploit to gain access to a computer system and then install malware on it. Though an exploit attack can contain malware, the exploit itself is not malicious. To go back to our house-and-window example, if a vulnerability is the open window into a system, the exploit is the means by which a hacker reaches the window — and they may be carrying a piece of malicious code (malware) in their backpack.

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