Cyber attacks often begin with a vulnerability. Before a hacker can access your computer, he or she must find a weakness that can be exploited. Known as a vulnerability, it paves the way to intrusion. There are different types of vulnerabilities, however. Zero-day vulnerabilities are arguably one of the most harmful because they aren’t easily identified by antivirus software. For a stronger level of cybersecurity, you must protect against zero-day vulnerabilities.

What Is a Zero-Day Vulnerability?

A zero-day vulnerability is a recently discovered weakness in a piece of legitimate software that hasn’t been patched by the developer. Developers typically test and scrutinize their software for vulnerabilities before releasing it to the public. If they discover a vulnerability, they’ll make the necessary changes to the software to remove it. Vulnerabilities, of course, can go unnoticed. A developer may release a piece of software without realizing that it contains a vulnerability.

A vulnerability is considered zero day if it contains a weakness that the developer hasn’t yet patched. Maybe the developer was just made aware of the vulnerability, or perhaps the developer simply has found a solution for it. Regardless, zero-day vulnerabilities consist of unpatched weaknesses that make the affected computer more susceptible to cyber attacks.

How Zero-Day Vulnerabilities Work

All software contains code. Depending on the type of software, it may contain anywhere from a few thousand to several million lines of code. A zero-day vulnerability, in the basic sense, is a mistake in one or more lines of code that makes the software — as well as the computer running the software — susceptible to cyber attacks.

The Dangers of Zero-Day Vulnerabilities

Allowing zero-day vulnerabilities to go unnoticed is a serious risk. Some zero-day vulnerabilities offer a backdoor through which a hacker can access the computer. If your computer is running unpatched software with a zero-day vulnerability, a hacker may exploit the vulnerability to gain access to your computer. These vulnerability-created backdoors often provide hackers with admin-level access, thus allowing them to view and copy all of the data on the targeted computer.

Most antivirus software won’t catch zero-day vulnerabilities, either. Like with other vulnerabilities, zero-day vulnerabilities aren’t necessarily malware. They are simply weaknesses that hackers can exploit to perform cyber attacks, including the deployment of malware.

While problematic for many reasons, zero-day vulnerabilities are few and far between. Nonetheless, you should perform software updates as soon as they are available. Whether it’s for your operating systems or any other software, timely updates will lower your risk of sustaining a cyber attack due to a vulnerability.

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