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Zero-day vulnerabilities: A beginner’s guide

Note: This article was originally published on The New Stack.

As software supply chain attacks continue to evolve, security challenges remain at the forefront of modern software development. Of all the cyber threats addressed in application security, zero-day vulnerabilities exemplify some of the most serious issues.

These critical security vulnerabilities are so named because bad actors exploit them before developers become aware, leaving no time — "zero days" — for a patch or update to fix the issue.

Their discovery and the subsequent race to fix them before widespread exploitation requires constant vigilance and innovation in safeguarding against unforeseen threats.

Understanding zero-day vulnerabilities

A zero-day vulnerability represents a software flaw unknown to the software vendor or developer. Bad actors exploit zero-days, often causing significant damage before detection.

The following examples are notable zero-days:

Compare a zero-day to an n-day vulnerability, which has been exploited but now has a patch available. The "n" signifies the days elapsed since a Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVE) identifier was assigned, highlighting a critical window during which attackers, leveraging the CVE list, can exploit these known vulnerabilities.

Zero-day vulnerabilities, unknown until exploited, pose serious security risks. When patched, they become n-day vulnerabilities, which are still dangerous due to unpatched systems. This emphasizes the need for quick, effective responses and vigilant security in CI/CD environments to mitigate evolving threats.

Best practices to mitigate the risks of zero-day vulnerabilities

Finding the vulnerable components

Early identification of vulnerable components within the software development life cycle (SDLC) is essential to enhance security measures against both zero-day and n-day vulnerabilities.

While zero-day vulnerabilities are unforeseen threats that will not be detected by software dependency scanning, our focus shifts toward n-day vulnerabilities — those known issues that have been identified and patched but may not yet be applied across all systems.

The following actions related to scanning help with the vulnerability-identification process in an SDLC:

  • Regular scans for n-day vulnerabilities: Scan applications regularly to identify and subsequently address known vulnerabilities, reducing the window of opportunity for attackers. This is a critical step in keeping vulnerability reports accurate and up to date.

  • Active development integration: For applications in active development, incorporate scanning directly into the CI/CD process to catch vulnerabilities for every build.

  • Continuous monitoring for legacy applications: Enable continuous monitoring to reevaluate scans daily for new policy violations in legacy applications.

  • Proactive notification system: Implement a robust notification system for critical vulnerabilities to ensure swift action. Regularly update contact lists to include key personnel such as project owners, developers and security staff.

The transition from zero-day to n-day highlights the continuous need for effective DevOps and automation solutions to ensure vulnerabilities are patched promptly across all systems.

Implementing proactive security measures

To enhance security within your DevOps processes, consider the following elements of a "shift left" approach:

  • Preventive tools: Use tools to protect applications from the outset by blocking vulnerable components.

  • Education: Train development teams in secure coding practices to minimize vulnerabilities.

  • Software bills of materials (SBOMs): Maintain up-to-date SBOMs for greater visibility into dependencies.

  • Security integration: Use tools for both consolidated alert management to streamline vulnerability responses and ensure tool compatibility for seamless integration with DevOps workflows, thus maintaining productivity.

This streamlined strategy reinforces a proactive security posture while ensuring seamless workflow integration, balancing agility with comprehensive security measures.

Additionally, incorporate the following tactics to further augment your security posture:

  • Vulnerability hunting: Allocate time for security teams to conduct thorough vulnerability assessments, using automated tools for broad vulnerability scanning or human-led penetration testing efforts for in-depth analysis.

  • Bug bounty programs: Establish programs that incentivize the discovery and responsible disclosure of new vulnerabilities by external researchers or ethical hackers.

Incorporating these tactics allows organizations to proactively search for and mitigate zero-day threats, complementing the preventive measures and response strategies already in place.

Responding to an event

Responding effectively to zero-day vulnerabilities requires a strategy tailored to the severity of the threat and your organization's risk posture.

Implementing appropriate measures can range from low to high disruption, based on the specific scenario:

  • Remediation only: Assign actions for low-risk vulnerabilities, causing minimal disruption.

  • Block the component: Use tools like Repository Firewall for slightly higher-risk vulnerabilities without stopping current use.

  • Break builds for critical applications: For significant risks, prevent usage in critical apps by enforcing strict policies.

  • Break builds for every application: A high-level response for substantial risks affecting all applications.

  • Purge your repository: The most drastic measure for extreme risk scenarios, removing the component entirely.

Each response is designed to mitigate risk while considering the impact on operational continuity.

Handling incidents

Effective incident handling involves a series of strategic steps aimed at preparing for, responding to and recovering from incidents that exploit unknown vulnerabilities, such as the following steps:

  • Develop a playbook: Create a comprehensive plan for zero-day events, ensuring it’s distributed to all stakeholders with a clear action checklist.

  • Establish communication: Set up a central communication hub for transparency and collaboration that is accessible to all involved parties.

  • Nominate a captain: Choose a leader to coordinate efforts, facilitate information sharing and oversee postmortem analysis.

This approach streamlines the incident-handling process, ensuring a structured and efficient response to zero-day vulnerabilities.

Securing tomorrow with a zero-day defense

To confront the challenges posed by zero-day vulnerabilities, consider a blend of technological solutions, team education and proactive security practices.

A comprehensive strategy that encompasses early detection, proactive defenses, strategic incident response and robust incident handling forms the backbone of a resilient security posture.

This multifaceted approach not only enables teams to anticipate and neutralize threats before they manifest but also ensures a swift and coordinated reaction to unforeseen vulnerabilities, safeguarding the integrity of development processes.

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Written by Aaron Linskens

Aaron is a technical writer on Sonatype's Marketing team. He works at a crossroads of technical writing, developer advocacy, software development, and open source. He aims to get developers and non-technical collaborators to work well together via experimentation, feedback, and iteration so they can build the right software.