While most popular operating systems are designed to keep the data on your computer secure, the people who design these systems sometimes make tiny errors that may go completely unnoticed by most users, and may leave you and your PC open to a cyber attacks.
This is called a computer exploit; and criminals are always looking to take advantages of a vulnerability in a system or software in order to exploit it with malicious intent, enabling them to gain access to your machine or network.
Here’s our guide to the different types of computer exploits, and how to keep yourself safe from potential vulnerabilities in 2021.
Types of Computer Exploits
‘Exploits’ is an extremely broad term, and these vulnerabilities can take many different forms.
At the highest level, there are two kinds of computer exploits:
- Known Exploits
- Unknown or Zero-Day Exploits
Known exploits are known to the creators of the software or system. They’ve come to their attention either through users or through their own development team’s quality-control process. These vulnerabilities are usually patched in short order via a software update.
Zero-Day attacks take advantage of unknown exploits — meaning there’s currently no solution or documentation of them. A large chunk of malware attacks target unknown exploits because known exploits are usually fixed quickly or can be defended easily with an antivirus program.
Exploits can be further classified by the type of vulnerability they target or the method they use to gain control of a machine or network. Some common kinds of attacks are:
- SQL injection
- Brute force attacks
- Dictionary attacks
- Session hijacking
- Network mapping
The exact mechanics and causes of these exploit attacks are complex and not of much use to regular users. It’s the software developers who most need to understand how to fix and defend against them.
But regardless of type of computer exploit, the goal is usually the same: to gain access to a machine or infect it with malware.
The malware could be revenue-driving adware or a program to turn your machine into a zombie as part of a larger botnet, or collection of remote-controlled computers.
Thankfully, there are a few simple steps most users can take to lower their chances of being targeted by a computer exploit attack.
How to Protect Yourself Against Computer Exploits
You didn’t design the software you use on your computer, so there’s not much you can do about it if it has a vulnerability, right?
Well, yes and no.
You likely can’t diagnose the issue and go into the software’s code to fix it, but you can follow some good safety guidelines to keep your machine out of harm’s way:
Keep All Software Up to Date
When it comes to known vulnerabilities, software companies and programmers will often provide an update or patch to fix the issue as quickly as possible. That doesn’t do you much good, though, until you install the update!
The majority of cyber attacks still exploit known vulnerabilities on systems that haven’t been patched or updated yet. When your OS or software is bugging you to download the latest update, don’t delay.
Determine the Severity of Vulnerabilities and Prioritize
On the enterprise level, organizations may have thousands of different systems, apps, and softwares running behind the scenes. Patching and updating all of them could be a nightmare, not to mention it could cause serious downtime.
The answer is not to ignore the updates, however. Simply prioritize the known exploits in terms of severity and patch as quickly as your team is able.
Only Use Trusted Software
Not all software comes from Fortune 500 corporates with huge teams of programmers and security experts. Vulnerabilities in small, homemade WordPress plugins, for example, have been known to cause major problems for website owners.
Only install plugins from trusted sources that have a track record of updating their builds to patch vulnerabilities — a good rule-of-thumb for any software you run.
Minimize the Impact of Zero-Day Attacks
Take measures to make your system as invulnerable as possible.
You should consider backing up important files on an external drive, for example, to combat ransomware attacks. You might also think about isolating crucial computers from the rest of the network (in a family or office setting) to protect it in the case of an infection.
Install a Powerful Antivirus
Antivirus software is critical to keeping you safe from known exploits, but some of the very best on the market can actually protect you from unknown or zero-day exploits as well.
With real-time scanning, top antivirus providers can new detect threats in an instant and neutralize many of them.
Exploits are Complex but Safety is Simple
The nitty-gritty of computer exploits is complicated and even the most elite teams of software developers in the world can’t help but put out programs with tons of vulnerabilities they’ll later have to patch.
The best thing you can do as a computer user is to run those patches and updates as frequently as possible. Usually, new versions of software or operating systems contain critical security updates you shouldn’t ignore.
If you keep your machine up to date, use a powerful antivirus, and practice safe web browsing behavior, there’s no guarantee you won’t still be the victim of an attack, but you’ll lower your chances significantly.