Zero-Day Vulnerabilities Matter, but Don’t Ignore Known Issues

Discussing zero-day attacks is interesting for all security experts, from CISOs to journalists, whether the talks occur at conferences or within enterprises. The reason for this is quite obvious: The exploitation of unknown vulnerabilities, which are also referred to as zero-day vulnerabilities, is quite aggressive and could create serious problems for an organization. In fact, the victim is absolutely exposed, unaware of any action that could be taken to mitigate the risk.

The Cost of Security Vulnerabilities

Knowing how to react to such vulnerabilities when they arise is important. Naturally, that means there is a market cost associated with preventing, detecting and responding to zero-day vulnerabilities. Similarly, malware with the capabilities to exploit such weaknesses has a cost, as well, and many malicious attackers are willing to pay if they think the end results will be profitable.

The risks associated with zero-day vulnerabilities are well-established, and there are technologies developed to limit such risks. But a more interesting topic of discussion may center around how organizations decide whether they are a likely target of a zero-day attack. If I’m exposed to risks due to a zero-day vulnerability, for example, I hope no one will know about it, and it’s unlikely they would. That is, unless someone is willing to pay money to exploit the weakness and carry out an attack. But organizations must first decide whether they are important enough — or have data that is important enough — for someone to spend the money to launch an attack. Depending on the answer, they may be better served focusing their resources on other cybersecurity issues.

Zero-Day Vulnerabilities Aren’t the Only Concern

We shouldn’t underestimate the severity of the zero-day exploits, but what about the more well-known vulnerabilities? These could be just as dangerous to an organization, even if a security team is prepared for them. If a vulnerability is well-known, the attacker could simply perform some research to see who is affected and what can be done to exploit the weakness. This is facilitated by the fact that most of the Internet uses the same foundations — operating systems, application servers, protocols, etc. — so it’s relatively easy to carry out these malicious instructions.

If the vulnerability is well-known, very likely providers have made patches available. This could be useful if the patch is installed, but adding fixes to a program is not always immediate. And even in situations when the fix is completed in a timely manner, enterprises may still be at risk. Patches represent a sort of map for the attacker. The patch is a small portion of code that can be used to understand how to exploit the vulnerability, specifically in places where it has not been installed. It’s no surprise that if the attention of the cybersecurity world is on zero-day vulnerabilities, malicious actors can still infiltrate organizations. Many of the publicized attacks involve very well-known vulnerabilities.

Organizations and security professionals will always have to pay attention to zero-day vulnerabilities, but do not forget a proper vulnerability management system integrated within your security intelligence platform. This will reduce your risk of attack dramatically — and reduce the costs.

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Domenico Raguseo

Technical Sales and Solutions Leader in Europe, IBM Security

Domenico Raguseo is currently Manager of Technical Sales in Europe for the Security Systems Division. He has over 15 years of management experience in different areas. Domenico also cooperates with several Universities by teaching Service Management, Cloud Computing. Since 2010 Domenico is member of Educational Scientific Council for the Master in IT Governance at the University of Rome La Sapienza (http://w3.uniroma1.it/mastersicurezza/index.php/master-itgov/direzione). Domenico got in IBM a certification as IBM Master Inventor for the multiple patents and publications in several disciplines (Business Processes, ROI, Messages and Collaborations, Networking). Finally, he is speaker on Information Security Management, Service Management, Cloud computing, Energy Optimization and Smarter Planet in several national and international events.