2021 Has Broken the Record For Zero-Day Hacking Attacks

According to multiple databases, researchers, and cybersecurity companies who spoke to MIT Technology Review, 2021 has had the highest number of zero-day exploits on record. “At least 66 zero-days have been found in use this year, according to databases such as the 0-day tracking project – almost double the total for 2020, and more than in any other year on record,” the report says. From the report:

One contributing factor in the higher rate of reported zero-days is the rapid global proliferation of hacking tools. Powerful groups are all pouring heaps of cash into zero-days to use for themselves – and they’re reaping the rewards. At the top of the food chain are the government-sponsored hackers. China alone is suspected to be responsible for nine zero-days this year, says Jared Semrau, a director of vulnerability and exploitation at the American cybersecurity firm FireEye Mandiant. The US and its allies clearly possess some of the most sophisticated hacking capabilities, and there is rising talk of using those tools more aggressively.

Attackers are exploiting the same types of software vulnerabilities over and over again, because companies often miss the forest for the trees. And cybercriminals, too, have used zero-day attacks to make money in recent years, finding flaws in software that allow them to run valuable ransomware schemes. “Financially motivated actors are more sophisticated than ever,” Semrau says. “One-third of the zero-days we’ve tracked recently can be traced directly back to financially motivated actors. So they’re playing a significant role in this increase which I don’t think many people are giving credit for.”

While there may be an increasing number of people developing or buying zero-days, the record number reported isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, some experts say it might be mostly good news. No one we spoke to believes that the total number of zero-day attacks more than doubled in such a short period of time – just the number that have been caught. That suggests defenders are becoming better at catching hackers in the act. You can look at the data, such as Google’s zero-day spreadsheet, which tracks nearly a decade of significant hacks that were caught in the wild. One change the trend may reflect is that there’s more money available for defense, not least from larger bug bounties and rewards put forward by tech companies for the discovery of new zero-day vulnerabilities. But there are also better tools. Defenders have clearly gone from being able to catch only relatively simple attacks to detecting more complex hacks, says Mark Dowd, founder of Azimuth Security. “I think this denotes an escalation in the ability to detect more sophisticated attacks,” he says. Further reading: Emergency Software Patches Are on the Rise