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With the explosion of computer peripherals, software advances, edge computing, and cloud computing, there has also been an explosion of vulnerabilities open to exploit. 

But what is an exploit? 

An exploit (in its noun form) is a segment of code or a program that maliciously takes advantage of vulnerabilities or security flaws in software or hardware to infiltrate and initiate a denial-of-service (DoS) attack or install malware, such as spyware, ransomwareTrojan horses, worms, or viruses. So the exploit is not the malware itself but is used to deliver the malware. To exploit (in its verb form) is to successfully carry out such an attack.

How Do Exploits Work?

When developers produce an operating system (OS) for a device, write code for software, or develop an application, bugs often appear due to inherent imperfections. These bugs can create a vulnerability in the system, and an exploit searches out such vulnerabilities and looks for a way to exploit databases and networks or systems. 

If the bug is not reported and “patched,” it becomes an entryway, so to speak, for cyber criminals to conduct an exploit. With so many devices connected together in the modern world, as in the Internet of Things (IoT), for example, an exploit does not just compromise a singular device, but it can become a security vulnerability for a whole network.

The Different Types of Exploits

Hardware

Hardware, to various degrees, must run on an OS, whether it be a complex OS for a PC or a simpler OS for an edge device. Vulnerabilities in the OS become entry points for an exploit, which can corrupt the memory or cause the device to “freeze.”

Software

Software bugs, a normal consequence of software development, can become vulnerabilities open to exploits if not patched or fixed. Some of the common exploit methods include memory safety violations, input validation errors, side-channel attacks, and privilege confusion bugs.

Network

Each of the components of a network offers the possibility of vulnerability, whether hardware, software, or firewall configurations. Some attacks that may be part of an exploit can be domain hijacking, DoS and distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, and malware. 

Personnel

Even personnel can be exploited. Cyber criminals may target their devices and credentials by means of social engineering attacksspear phishing, and honey trapping. Training and access control are crucial to mitigating this vulnerability.

Physical Site

Exploits can be conducted on-site and if deficient physical security or inadequate access control exists. Just as a thief can break in and steal, a cyber criminal can break in (physically or remotely) and conduct an exploit that compromises an entire network.

Groups in Which Exploits Can Be Categorized

Zero-day Exploits

This is a previously unknown exploit or an unknown opportunity for an exploit due to vulnerabilities. Anticipating zero-day exploits is crucial to developing patches or other strategies for mitigating the vulnerability or threat.

Known Vulnerabilities

Known vulnerabilities have been identified and documented. Patches and other “fixes” can be issued, but cyber criminals can also get hold of the documentation and design an exploit. The main risk factor is that organizations often do not apply the patch or repair an issue quickly enough to eliminate a vulnerability.

How Do Exploits Occur?

Remote Exploits

Remote exploits are run on an external computer, via an intranet or other network, exploiting a security vulnerability without prior access to the system. Its purpose is to either access or steal data or install malware to either a single computer or a complete system or network.

Local Exploits

Local exploits can only be run if the malicious party has access to a machine on the network using a compromised account.

Client Exploits

Client exploits influence or attack a user, misleading the user to click and download malware that can then compromise the network or system.

What Is an Exploit Kit?

Exploit kits silently and automatically seek to exploit any vulnerabilities identified on a user’s machine when they are web browsing. They are largely automated in nature and have become the preferred method for the distribution of remote access tools (RATs) or mass malware by cyber criminals, especially those seeking to profit from an exploit. 

Often, the goal is to gain control of devices in a simplified and automated manner. A sequence of events takes place within an exploit kit for the attack to be successful. It starts with a redirect to a landing page, followed by the execution of the exploit, and finally, the delivery of the payload, gaining control of the host. 

Exploit kits can also be used in penetration testing to evaluate the security of the system. For example, the Fortinet exploit kit is used to run a simulation exercise on a system to detect vulnerabilities.

How To Recognize an Exploit Attack

Slow Performance

There are multiple issues that can cause a machine or system to run slowly, and infection as the result of an exploit is one of them. So if you are used to seeing fast performance, and your device slows suddenly as if bogged down, it may be due to a malware infection.

Frequent Crashes or Freezes

Freezing, crashing, and the dreaded blue screen of death can all be caused by technical issues due to incompatibility between hardware and software, but malware infections can also be the cause.

Unexplained Changed Settings

Unusual behavior and changes you do not recall making, such as a changed default homepage in your browser, can be annoying, but they can be much more than annoying if caused by malicious software or unauthorized access.

Tons of Pop-ups or Ads Where they Should Not Be

Numerous pop-ups can disguise concealed malware threats, and annoying ads may actually be monitoring your browsing activity, hoping to collect data and passwords. Unsolicited emails and special offers may also be concealing similar intent.

Loss of Storage Space

Rapid, sudden loss of storage space can be the result of several underlying issues, but infection with malware is a primary reason and must be investigated before being eliminated as a possible cause.

How To Fix an Exploit Attack

It is important to install any available software patches immediately after release, but to respond to and mitigate cyberattacks, you must provide cybersecurity training and awareness for employees and invest in security software. Additional strategies may include automated programs that detect when credentials and data have been leaked or exposed. 

Clients and vendors with access to your system also need to make sure their security is ample so as not to become the weak link.

How To Prevent an Exploit

It goes without saying that preventing exploits is preferable to fixing the damages. Certain strategies help prevent any component in the organization from being exploited.

  1. Software: Apply patches and updates as soon as possible. Run antivirus software scans.
  2. Hardware: Keep operating systems up-to-date. Scan with antivirus software, and institute control access protocols.
  3. Network: Practice safe computing habits, control access, monitor the network for unusual activity, and establish network security.
  4. Personnel: Train your employees in safe computing habits. Advise them on how to identify risks and prevent them. Enable multi-factor authentication (MFA) and other access control management strategies.
  5. Physical site: Maintain good physical security, and monitor access.

Famous Examples of Exploits

In recent years, there have been many well-known exploits used to initiate malware attacks and cause huge data breaches. For example, in 2016, Yahoo disclosed that an exploit had taken place years prior, resulting in a massive data leak that affected about 1 billion of their users. A weak and out-of-date algorithm had caused a vulnerability, providing hackers with access to multiple email accounts. 

A recent infamous exploit named "EternalBlue" takes advantage of a flaw found in the Windows Server Message Block protocol. Sadly, the exploit was first designed by the National Security Agency (NSA) but was stolen and publicized by the Shadow Brokers group. It has since been used in the NotPetya and WannaCry ransomware attacks. 

More recently, Equifax, a credit reporting firm, suffered a huge breach of data when hackers exploited a vulnerability found within the Apache Struts framework used in a web application run by the company. A patch was developed, but Equifax failed to update the compromised web application soon enough to avoid the breach.

How Fortinet Can Help

The Fortinet database security service can offer protection against threats that may exploit vulnerable email servers by using powerful antispam protection. It can deliver dynamic protection by monitoring your database activity, provide expert remediation advice, and help identify vulnerabilities using automated detection, alerting your organization promptly to reduce security threats. 

Additional services include keeping track of policies according to predefined parameters and then generating reports containing the pertinent policy information that had existed at the time of the original scan. The Fortinet exploit protection will help identify vulnerabilities and secure your organization against database exploits. 

FAQs

What is an exploit?

An exploit is a segment of code or a program that maliciously takes advantage of vulnerabilities in software or hardware to infiltrate and initiate an attack.

How do exploits work?

Bugs can create a vulnerability in the system, and an exploit searches out such vulnerabilities and looks for a way to exploit databases and networks or systems.

What are the different types of exploits?

Some exploit types include hardware, software, network, personnel, and physical site exploits.

How do exploits occur?

Exploits occur remotely, locally, or client-based.

What is an exploit kit?

Exploit kits silently and automatically seek to exploit any vulnerabilities identified on a user’s machine when they are web browsing. They are largely automated in nature and have become the preferred method for the distribution of remote access tools (RATs) or mass malware by cyber criminals, especially those seeking to profit from an exploit.