Exploits: What They Are and How to Protect Your Computer

Exploit. When defined as a verb, it means to make full use of or derive a benefit from something or someone — often in an unfair or selfish way. As a noun, it can act as a daring or bold feat. In the digital world, however, ‘exploit’ seems to take on both definitions in a more sinister way…a way that daringly takes advantage of flaws in your computer system.

What is an Exploit?

Specifically defined in the context of the digital, computer-based world, an exploit is a software tool or program that’s designed to take advantage of a flaw or security hole — a vulnerability — in an application or computer system. This is typically done for malicious purposes that benefit the attacker/hacker — like installing malware.

With that in mind, an exploit is not the same thing as malware. While malware is the malicious code that does all of the damage, the exploit is the tool that allows a hacker to access a specific program or application in your computer and deposit the malware. A good analogy is to think of your computer’s system or application as a padlock with a flaw (the vulnerability). The lock’s flaw is what allows people to create specific keys (exploits) to open the lock and perform criminal activities (malware).

Known and Unknown Exploits

Two types of exploits exist: known and unknown exploits. Here’s a quick breakdown of each:

Known Exploits

As the name suggests, these are exploits and vulnerabilities that already exist, have been used in the past, or their existence has been leaked. Because they are known exploits, security experts generally know how to defend against them — usually with security patches (quick fixes to the vulnerability that are available with downloadable program updates) or through simple computer security techniques.

Unknown Exploits

Unknown exploits are tools and vulnerabilities that are unknown to security experts, software vendor/authors, and the general public. When the unknown exploit is used to access and help malware pass through a previously unknown hole, flaw, or vulnerability in the hardware or software, something called a “zero-day” attack occurs. These are extremely severe cyber threats because they’re active before they’re publicly reported — effectively leaving the software’s author zero days to create a patch or advise the public on safe workarounds.

How Exploits Are Used

Exploits —  like EternalBlue that was used in the 2017 WannaCry and NotPetya ransomware attacks — are commonly used to infect and spread malware (commonly ransomware) to a large network of systems (like hospitals and healthcare facilities, governments, and large corporations), but no company or individual is really safe.

Protecting Yourself from Exploits

One of the simplest ways to protect your computer and your company from known exploits is to maintain a stringent policy on updating your company’s computer systems. These updates often contain patches to known threats. However, since unknown exploits and threats do pop up from time to time — zero-day vulnerabilities actually increased by 125% in 2016 —  it’s equally important to adopt company-wide protective measures to keep your company’s computers secure. Along with that, it’s always a smart idea to contact an IT company that uses their deep security expertise, plus proven operational processes and anti-virus solutions, to help companies prevent security breaches and data compromise and to stay protected at all times.

Protecting your computers and data from things like exploits and malware starts with figuring out if and where your company’s network has issues, and our Knoxville, Tennessee IT company does just that! Simply sign up for our free network assessment, and we’ll help you identify which issues your company’s computers might have — e.g. which machines aren’t patched, which users haven’t logged in in 30 days, and more — so that you know the best plan of action to prevent a potential security breach.

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