How we protect users from 0-day attacks


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Apr 24, 2016
Zero-day vulnerabilities are unknown software flaws. Until they’re identified and fixed, they can be exploited by attackers. Google’s Threat Analysis Group (TAG) actively works to detect hacking attempts and influence operations to protect users from digital attacks, this includes hunting for these types of vulnerabilities because they can be particularly dangerous when exploited and have a high rate of success.

In this blog, we’re sharing details about four in-the-wild 0-day campaigns targeting four separate vulnerabilities we’ve discovered so far this year:
The four exploits were used as a part of three different campaigns. As is our policy, after discovering these 0-days, we quickly reported to the vendor and patches were released to users to protect them from these attacks. We assess three of these exploits were developed by the same commercial surveillance company that sold these capabilities to two different government-backed actors. Google has also published root cause analyses (RCAs) on each of the 0-days.

In addition to the technical details, we’ll also provide our take on the large uptick of in-the-wild 0-day attacks the industry is seeing this year. Halfway into 2021, there have been 33 0-day exploits used in attacks that have been publicly disclosed this year — 11 more than the total number from 2020. While there is an increase in the number of 0-day exploits being used, we believe greater detection and disclosure efforts are also contributing to the upward trend.

Over the last decade, we believe there has been an increase in attackers using 0-day exploits. Attackers needing more 0-day exploits to maintain their capabilities is a good thing — and it reflects increased cost to the attackers from security measures that close known vulnerabilities. However, the increasing demand for these capabilities and the ecosystem that supplies them is more of a challenge. 0-day capabilities used to be only the tools of select nation states who had the technical expertise to find 0-day vulnerabilities, develop them into exploits, and then strategically operationalize their use. In the mid-to-late 2010s, more private companies have joined the marketplace selling these 0-day capabilities. No longer do groups need to have the technical expertise, now they just need resources. Three of the four 0-days that TAG has discovered in 2021 fall into this category: developed by commercial providers and sold to and used by government-backed actors.

Meanwhile, improvements in detection and a growing culture of disclosure likely contribute to the significant uptick in 0-days detected in 2021 compared to 2020, but reflect more positive trends. Those of us working on protecting users from 0-day attacks have long suspected that overall, the industry detects only a small percentage of the 0-days actually being used. Increasing our detection of 0-day exploits is a good thing — it allows us to get those vulnerabilities fixed and protect users, and gives us a fuller picture of the exploitation that is actually happening so we can make more informed decisions on how to prevent and fight it.

We’d be remiss if we did not acknowledge the quick response and patching of these vulnerabilities by the Apple, Google, and Microsoft teams.