Network Security: Exploits vs. Vulnerabilities

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In this digital age, digital information can be more valuable than gold. Decades ago, criminals could steal your money by daring bank heists. Today, all it takes is a few careless mistakes, weak cybersecurity measures, and persistent hackers. And it’s not just your money they can take: they can also take your identity and sensitive information to use for their advantage.

This makes cybercrime and hacking very serious issues. In the United States alone, cybercrime has led to half a million jobs lost and almost $100 billion in losses every year. For the average person to avoid this, having a strong antivirus program installed in their computers and following simple but effective cybersecurity tips can be enough to make them a difficult target for everyday hackers.

But for those who want to take their cybersecurity an extra step further, they might want to know about network security vulnerabilities and exploits. Here’s the difference between vulnerabilities and exploits and cases when you (especially if you have high-level digital assets or a business to run) you should take care in case of either.

Exploits vs Vulnerabilities

What is the difference between vulnerabilities and exploits? Generally speaking, vulnerabilities are some kind of weakness found in software systems, while exploits are attacks that take advantage of vulnerabilities. But what does this mean exactly?

Put simply, vulnerabilities are a weakness in software systems, while exploits are attacks made to take advantage of vulnerabilities. Exploits can’t exist without vulnerabilities, but vulnerabilities could exist without exploits. The difference between these security concepts is vital to understanding how they function and how they play off of each other, so you could protect your system.

What are Vulnerabilities?

Vulnerabilities are essentially weak points in software code that could sneak in during an update or when creating the base of the software code. They’re commonly found in more complex and older software systems than newer applications such as SaaS (software as a service) apps, but they’re still pretty much common.

However, it’s crucial to note that people could likewise create vulnerabilities, especially when configuring privacy settings, software, hardware, social media, and email accounts. This means that certain behaviors of people could easily create opportunities for hackers and could, therefore, be considered as vulnerabilities.

To illustrate, an employee who downloads files from dubious sources using the company computer might inadvertently download malicious software that could compromise the company’s entire network.

How Malicious Users Spot Vulnerabilities

Woman using laptop

Attackers or malicious users search for vulnerabilities by utilizing automation scans and tools that consistently search the web for weak points they could leverage.

The reason for this is that regardless of how they access a system, if they could access it in some way, they could then steal sensitive information or extort money, depending on the hacker’s objectives. While targeted attacks could and do occur, a majority of them are due to opportunities, because that’s what hackers are — opportunists who are always on the hunt for vulnerabilities to exploit.

What are Exploits?

Vulnerabilities are open doors that exploits could use to access a target system. Simply put, an exploit needs a vulnerability to succeed. This means that without vulnerabilities, there wouldn’t be exploits. Exploits depend on oversights and mistakes, such as unpatched servers and out-of-date software, to achieve their goals.

How Exploits Work

Exploits are software programs that were specifically designed to attack systems with vulnerabilities. If an exploit succeeds in exploiting a vulnerability in a target system’s database, for instance, it could provide its author with the ability to gather information from the compromised database. This exploit is commonly known as a data breach.

Some exploits are designed to specifically attack vulnerabilities on applications or systems to obtain control over servers or computer systems. Do note that in some cases, exploits don’t need software to achieve their goals. For instance, scams that involve social engineering a person or employee into revealing sensitive or critical information are perfect examples of exploits that don’t require software and hacking skills.

Cybersecurity Tips for Personal Use

  • Install Anti-Virus and Firewall Programs. One of the most popular forms of cybersecurity protection, having an anti-virus and firewall program installed can prevent any private information from getting stolen or inaccessible by viruses and hackers. Use an anti-virus software from trusted vendors; this may be expensive, but it’s necessary for an added layer of protection.
  • Protect your passwords. Avoid using the same password for all your social media accounts, bank accounts, and other online sites you visit. Don’t make your password easy to guess; ideally, your password should be a combination of upper and lower-case letters, number, and symbols – the longer the password, the better. If these passwords are difficult to remember, either write them down and store this list in a place difficult for others to find, or use a password management tool to help automatically fill in passwords safely.
  • Use Multi-Factor Authentication. Sometimes, persistent hackers may eventually find your password. For an added layer of protection, activate a two-factor or multi-factor authentication for websites that provide it. This provides a second layer of verification by sending your phone a code or requiring you to provide a fingerprint authentication. So, even if a hacker finds their way to your password, they cannot go any further if they do not have data only you should have.
  • Be wary of phishing scams. Phishing scams are when hackers send you phone calls or emails scamming you into giving information like your passwords, birthdays, or more. If the email comes from a different source, has a lot of grammatical errors, or are asking you to click a suspicious-looking link, do not click it. If the email claims to be from your bank, call the bank’s official number to verify.
  • Never give out credit card information. Never upload pictures of your credit card. If you receive a call from someone claiming to be from your credit card provider, do not give any of your credit card information.

Cybersecurity Tips for Businesses

  • Keep your software up to date. Outdated software, operating systems, and applications may be prone to ransomware – viruses that steal data or lock out data and won’t give access until the user pays a ransom. Turn on automatic updates and regularly check for newer versions of a program.
  • Train your employees. Almost 43 percent of data loss for businesses come from employees who maliciously or carelessly leave your business’ network vulnerable to cybercriminals and hackers. This could be from them losing work tools, leaving their login credentials open, and clicking on malicious links. To prevent this, give your employees training in basic cybersecurity practices. When an employee leaves the company, make sure they can no longer access sensitive company data using their credentials.
  • Perform risk assessments. Your business’ IT department can do this, or you can opt to have it outsourced by a reputable third-party organization. This can help you analyze the threats and gaps in security and what can steps can be taken to prevent cybersecurity breaches.
  • Back up your files regularly. Ransomware and malware can block you from files and data crucial to your business’ operations. Instead of paying to remove the ransomware, make sure your business has a backup by regularly saving your files into a safe cloud storage database or in physical backups like hard-drives.
  • Limit your employees’ access. It’s hard to control your cybersecurity measures when your employees can access databases or your business’ data from any computer or internet-accessible device outside of the company. If applicable, it may be more practical to limit access to these databases to computers, laptops, and other gadgets that cannot be taken outside of the office.

Cybersecurity is a serious issue that all private individuals and businesses should take note of. Be smart when browsing the internet to avoid losing sensitive data or private information to these hackers.

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