Table of contents
- What are exploits?
- What is the difference between an exploit and a vulnerability?
- Are exploits a form of malware?
- History of computer exploits
- Citibank hack and online heist (1994-1995)
- Sony's PlayStation Network DDoS (2011)
- MySpace data leak (2013)
- Yahoo! data breach (2013)
- How do exploit attacks work?
- Types of computer exploits
- Known exploits
- Unknown exploits
- What are exploit kits?
- Computer exploit examples
- Who's most vulnerable to an exploit attack?
- How to identify an exploit attack
- How to fix a computer exploit
- Exploits on mobile: Android and iOS
- How can you protect against exploits?
- How does a computer exploit impact your business?
What are exploits?
What Is a computer exploit?
The definition of an exploit is simple: computer exploits are attacks leveled against your computer via the loopholes or security vulnerabilities in its software, system, or hardware. These vulnerabilities can be found in your computer's apps, programs, operating system, and networks.
The attacks are usually in the form of code or software. Hackers use these as tools to access your computer, control it, and infect it (or your network) with malicious code.
When hackers and bad actors gain unauthorized access to your computer and networks, it exposes your personal information. This, in turn, compromises your privacy and may result in financial or reputational losses.
Think of your home, for example. If you lock your home and activate the security system, it would be difficult for robbers and thieves to enter it and steal your possessions.
However, if you keep your windows open and your doors unlocked and neglect to activate the security system, thieves can walk into your home and help themselves to your possessions. The open windows and doors would provide them the opportunity they need to enter your home and do as they please.
The same is true for computer exploits. If your computer is secure, bad actors will have a hard time accessing it and getting their hands on your personal information. However, if your computer has a security flaw, hackers can take advantage of it to access your data.
What is the difference between an exploit and a vulnerability?
In order to understand what an exploit is more clearly, we need to unpack what a vulnerability is first.
What is vulnerability?
A vulnerability is a loophole that hackers, cybercriminals can use, and bad actors as an entryway to access your computer and your personal information.
Security vulnerabilities can take many forms. Below are examples of common vulnerabilities:
- Outdated software
- Outdated apps
- Weak passwords
- Using the same passwords across multiple online accounts
- Visiting dodgy websites
- Downloading code without integrity checks.
If vulnerabilities are unarmed, they are the open doors and windows that allow malicious actors access to the unsecured house. Exploits are the tools used to take advantage of vulnerabilities.
Are exploits a form of malware?
There are various types of malware, but computer exploits aren’t one of them. Malware is a broad term for malicious software that can harm your computer, network, or server.
Malware types include:
On the other hand, computer exploits serve as an opportunity or segway for hackers to infect a computer or network with malware. So, while exploits and vulnerabilities aren’t the same things, they are intrinsically connected.
History of computer exploits
Think of computer exploits as computer hacking, which involves gaining unauthorized access to your computer via security vulnerabilities.
Computer hacking dates back to 1988, in the earlier years of the internet when cybersecurity wasn’t as much of a priority as it is today.
Programming student Robert Morris launched a computer worm by hacking into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The computer worm replicated itself and affected 6,000 computers in what we now know as a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack.
The Morris worm deleted the infected computers’ resources and rendered the computers inoperable. The worm took advantage of one significant vulnerability: 900 weak passwords, which it guessed successfully.
Since then, there have been numerous major and minor computer exploits.
Well-known major exploits in recent history include:
Citibank hack and online heist (1994-1995)
A group of hackers, led by a 34-year-old Russian man, hacked Citibank’s computer system. The group successfully transferred $10 million to offshore accounts around the world — all of which was eventually recovered, except for $400,000.
The hackers achieved this by intercepting the bank’s cash management system used by corporate customers to transfer money globally. Shortly after the hack was discovered, the bank updated its security measures to require customers to use a device that generates a one-time password for each transfer. This suggests the bank’s cash management system was flawed.
Sony's PlayStation Network DDoS (2011)
Sony suspended its system and locked gamers out after the company discovered it had been hacked and the accounts of about 77 million gamers were compromised. Hackers took advantage of Sony’s outdated security systems to obtain personal information like passwords, birthdates, home addresses, possibly credit card information with their expiry dates, and more.
MySpace data leak (2013)
A hacker discovered and manipulated a vital security flaw in MySpace’s account recovery process: the process only required a user's date of birth. The account’s name and username were visible on the user's profile. Essentially, this meant anyone who knew the account owner’s date of birth could claim ownership of the account.
Many users at the time had stopped using MySpace thanks to social networks like Facebook taking over the market — that didn’t help. Users abandoned their accounts, leaving them vulnerable to hacking due to the security vulnerability. The hacker subsequently leaked the details of more than 360 million accounts.
Yahoo! data breach (2013)
Hackers compromised the accounts of three billion Yahoo! users by resetting their passwords using security questions and backup email addresses. They successfully obtained user passwords, birthdates, names, and phone numbers. The vulnerability: a weak encryption system.
In fact, many computer frameworks, like Zero Trust, can be attributed to some of the earlier computer exploit events mentioned above.
How do exploit attacks work?
As with most malicious attacks, computer exploits are often delivered through malware attacks. These include phishing emails, SMS phishing attacks, spear phishing, and more.
After you engage in a phishing attempt, like clicking on a malicious link or downloading an infected attachment, the exploit code or program enters your computer. It scans your computer for security vulnerabilities.
If any loopholes are found, the program is able to take advantage of them and deliver malware to your computer. Thus, security gaps play a key role in the success of exploit attacks.
It’s the reason app developers and computer manufacturers release regular software updates. The updates allow them to patch up any vulnerabilities and fix bugs that might make way for hackers to take advantage of your devices.
Types of computer exploits
Computer exploits fall into one of two categories: known and unknown.
As suggested by the name, known exploits are known to cybersecurity experts. The affected computer, network, or software security loopholes have already been identified, and developers have released the relevant fixes and patches.
Despite the patches being released by developers, known exploits can continue to linger on the affected device or network. This is because computer owners and users don’t always update the software as regularly as they should, which makes way for more vulnerabilities.
Conversely, unknown exploits are exploits that cybersecurity experts don’t yet discover. These types of exploits are otherwise known as zero-day attacks or zero-day exploits due to how fast the attacks take place.
Cybercriminals attack victims on the same day they discover a vulnerability. Typically, they move too fast for cybersecurity experts, who must work around the clock to identify and report unknown exploits.
What are exploit kits?
Not all cybercriminals are well-versed in the attacks they level against computers. In the case of computer exploits, some cybercriminals make use of exploit kits. These are a set of tools with multiple exploits.
Instead of programming malware and exploits, cybercriminals can buy these kits on the dark web, saving time and resources. Exploit kits can be hidden in malicious emails, websites, and adware. Once you click on any of these, the kits scan your computer for vulnerabilities and crack it using a specific exploit.
Computer exploit examples
Computer exploits are common, but some have wreaked so much havoc they’re hard to forget.
EternalBlue is a hacking tool developed by the National Security Agency (NSA) using a loophole found in Microsoft’s legacy operating systems. The loophole in question was the server message block (SMB) protocol.
A group of hackers known as the Shadow Brokers leaked EternalBlue in April 2017, shortly after Microsoft identified and patched the vulnerability in March. Although Microsoft released a patch for the vulnerability, the damage had already been done, as scores of users failed to implement an update on time.
The hack made way for more damaging hacks — WannaCry and NotPetya.
WannaCry is a ransomware attack that leveraged EternalBlue to infect 200,000 computers in 150 countries globally in May 2017. The cybercriminals behind it demanded payment in bitcoin. WannaCry has spread automatically. And while Microsoft released a patch for it the day after it was released, many users fell victim to it, as they didn’t update their operating systems on time.
Like WannaCry, Petya, and NotPetya are ransomware attacks inspired by EternalBlue. NotPetya is a state-sponsored Russian attack that targeted Ukraine in 2017. However, it affected organizations around the world, including Rosneft, a Russian oil company.
NotPetya encrypted computers’ master file tables (MFTs), but the computers could not be decrypted when payment was made, and the exploits rendered them inoperable. The Petya exploits caused upwards of $10 billion in damages.
Who's most vulnerable to an exploit attack?
Anyone who uses a computer can fall victim to an exploit attack, especially if you don’t stay on top of software updates. Both individuals and organizations can be targeted for exploit attacks.
Computer exploits highlight the importance of securing your computer to protect your personal information. There are several ways to achieve this, but one of the most effective solutions is using a trusted antivirus software and VPN tool. Use Antivirus if you suspect you might have malware on your device. Use VPN at all times when browsing to prevent hackers from intercepting your data and accessing your device.
Clario is an anti-spying app that encompasses all the solutions you need to keep your data safe from prying eyes.
- Its Antivirus software keeps your computer free of viruses that can be used as entry points to compromise your device.
- The VPN tool masks your IP address to make it difficult for cybercriminals and bad actors to track and spy on you online.
Together, these tools act as layers of protection to keep cybercriminals out of your computer and their hands off your personal information.
Anyone can use Clario’s anti-spying tools. Here’s how to get started.
To enable Antivirus
- Download Clario on your iOS, Android, Windows, or macOS device and register an account
- Tap Device > Start scan and wait a few moments while Clario scans your device for viruses
- If any viruses are found, tap Fix now
- Tap the infected files or apps as shown on the screen, and tap Uninstall > Uninstall > OK.
To enable VPN
- On the Clario home screen, toggle Browsing protection on
- Clario will choose the best server from its extensive list of global server locations. If you want to pick a different server, tap the server location and pick the one you prefer.
Keep both Antivirus and VPN enabled at all times to ensure your device stays protected around the clock.
How to identify an exploit attack
It’s difficult to identify an exploit attack. That’s why it’s advisable to keep your software and apps updated to patch any vulnerabilities that may pop up.
However, you can look out for the following telltale signs that your computer is infected with malware:
- Your computer starts lagging
- Your apps crash or freeze
- You get more pop-up ads than you’re used to
- Your storage is very low.
How to fix a computer exploit
Due to the fact that exploits come about as a result of program and app vulnerabilities, it’s up to the developers to fix them. However, cybersecurity experts also watch for zero-day exploits, so they can be attended to speedily.
As for you, the best you can do if your computer suffers an exploit is to get rid of the malware.
Exploits on mobile: Android and iOS
Exploits aren't just limited to computers — mobile attacks are common, too. In this case, cybercriminals exploit mobile apps and software vulnerabilities to infect your phone with malware.
For instance, the Android Security Bulletin publishes a list of known vulnerabilities and fixes affecting Android users. iPhones are no exception. They, too, fall victim to zero-day vulnerabilities and other exploits.
How can you protect against exploits?
The best way to protect against exploits is by limiting vulnerabilities. You can achieve this by updating your software and apps as often as updates are released.
Other than that, never engage with emails and text messages from people you don’t know or suspicious-looking emails. Don’t visit dodgy websites or click on pop-up ads.
How does a computer exploit impact your business?
Computer exploits can cause harm to a business just as they can negatively impact individuals. Earlier in this article, we listed some of the largest computer exploits that have hit major businesses. Any of those incidents can happen to your business — large, medium, or small.
If hackers can find vulnerabilities in your business' security systems, they can use them to launch computer exploit attacks. Additionally, given that the computers in your business are all connected to a network if that network is ever compromised, a computer exploit can be launched against it, too.
The damage can be more far-reaching for businesses, and both your employees and customers can be affected.
Below are examples of the negative impacts that computer exploits can have on your business:
- Customers’ sensitive information can be leaked on the dark web
- The business might have to stop operating for days or weeks while it investigates and rectifies the exploit, resulting in financial losses
- Bad publicity could lead to lost business
- Unplanned costs associated with the exploit can impact business operations.