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Ten Proactive Strategies to Mitigate Zero-Day Threats

Patching is critical, but what else can security teams do to stay ahead of zero-day threats?

After running a poll on our TrueFort LinkedIn Page last week, asking our friends and followers in the trenches their biggest current security concerns, the clear winner (with 57%) was zero-day threats.

Fear of the unknown is healthy, and these vulnerabilities are blind spots to the vendor at the time of their discovery, making them particularly dangerous as no patches yet exist. By the time a patch is developed and rolled out, even if that’s as swiftly as within a few hours, it’s very possible that significant damage may already have been done.

Alas, relying solely on patches is like constantly playing catch-up. It’s recognized best practice that security teams go beyond reactive measures and adopt proactive strategies to mitigate the risks posed by these ever-evolving and pervasive zero-day threats.

The Zero-Day Threat Situation

Before diving into the strategies, it’s vital to grasp the gravity of the situation. The increasing interconnectedness of devices and the proliferation of the Internet of Things (IoT) has expanded the potential attack surface. Sophisticated cybercriminals are always on the lookout for vulnerabilities, and when they find one, they act quickly. Zero-day exploits can be sold on the dark web for substantial sums, incentivizing hackers to discover and exploit them before vendors become aware.

The concern is justified when we consider the following examples:

  • Microsoft Exchange Server Attack (2021): Threat actors exploited multiple zero-day vulnerabilities in Microsoft’s Exchange Server, compromising thousands of servers worldwide.
  • Google Chrome (2023): Not for the first time, Google reported several zero-day vulnerabilities in its Chrome browser that were actively exploited, prompting urgent patches.
  • SolarWinds Orion Software (2020): A highly sophisticated cyber-espionage campaign exploited vulnerabilities in the SolarWinds Orion software, compromising several high-profile organizations and government entities.
  • WhatsApp (2019): A vulnerability in WhatsApp allowed attackers to install surveillance software on phones by simply calling the target, even if the call was not answered.
  • iOS (2019): Apple users were targeted with websites harboring malicious code exploiting zero-day vulnerabilities, granting attackers high-level access without user interaction.

Strategies to Mitigate Zero-Day Threats

Let’s consider ten preemptive strategies for staying ahead of zero-day threats.

  1. Threat Intelligence and Information Sharing

    In the fight against zero-day threats, knowledge is power. Security teams should invest in advanced threat intelligence tools and services that offer real-time insights into emerging vulnerabilities and threats. Organizations can take preventative measures even before official patches are released by being informed about potential zero-day exploits in real-time. Moreover, fostering a culture of information sharing with peer organizations, industry groups, and even competitors can help create a united front against cyber adversaries. Collective defense is stronger than individual defense.

  2. Regular Network Segmentation

    Dividing the network into smaller, more manageable segments can prevent the lateral movement of threats. Even if an attacker exploits a zero-day vulnerability in one segment, it doesn’t mean they can traverse the entire network. Granular segmentation, known as microsegmentation, is particularly effective. Regularly updating and re-evaluating segmentation rules is crucial to ensure they align with the organization’s evolving infrastructure and needs.

  3. Deploying Advanced Endpoint Detection and Response (EDR) Solutions

    Modern EDR solutions can identify suspicious behaviors and patterns, even if the specific threat has never been seen before. By monitoring endpoints in real-time, these solutions can detect anomalies that may indicate a zero-day exploit and respond immediately to contain and neutralize the threat.

  4. Embracing the Principle of Least Privilege (PoLP)

    By ensuring that every user, application, and process has only the minimum necessary access to perform their function, organizations can limit the potential damage of an exploit. Regular audits and role-based access controls can keep privilege inflation in check by adopting zero trust best practices.

  5. Continuous Employee Training

    Our colleagues are often the weakest link in the cybersecurity chain. We’re only human, after all. Regularly educating employees about the latest threats, safe online practices, and the importance of reporting suspicious activities can significantly reduce the risk of zero-day exploits being successful.

  6. Virtual Patching

    While by no means a replacement for actual patches, virtual patching can serve as a valuable stop-gap measure. It involves creating a security policy to monitor or block the traffic that could exploit the vulnerability, giving vendors more time to develop and release a patch.

  7. Regular Backups and Disaster Recovery Planning

    Having a robust backup strategy ensures that data can be recovered without significant loss, even in the event of a successful zero-day attack. Pair this with a well-documented and tested disaster recovery plan, and organizations can reduce downtime, falling foul of legislative industry standards, and financial impact.

  8. Engaging in Red Teaming and Penetration Testing

    Organizations can test their defenses against potential zero-day exploits by simulating real-world attacks. Regularly scheduled red teaming exercises and penetration tests can uncover vulnerabilities that might go unnoticed during routine checks.

  9. Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA)

    MFA adds an additional layer of security, ensuring that attackers can’t gain access without additional authentication factors, even if login credentials are compromised. This can be particularly useful in protecting against zero-day threats targeting authentication mechanisms.

  10. Staying Updated

    Patching isn’t just for Tuesday mornings. While this article advocates for proactive measures beyond patching, it’s essential to underscore the importance of staying updated. Regularly updating software, applications, and systems with the latest patches is still a foundational element of cybersecurity.

    ABP: Always Be Patching.

Proactively Managing Zero-Day Threats

The cybersecurity goalposts are constantly moving, and security teams need to stay one step ahead of modern, well-funded cyber adversaries. While zero-day threats obviously pose a significant challenge, organizations can significantly mitigate their risks with the right strategies, tools, and a proactive approach.

By integrating the above measures into their cybersecurity framework, teams can ensure a more resilient and robust defense against the unknowns of tomorrow.

It’s a part of our mission the make zero-day threats a zero-problem scenario. If you’d like to talk more about mitigating zero-day threats or want a no-obligation consultation on how we can help your organization stay a step ahead of the unknown, please get in touch.

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