Network security

Network Security: Vulnerabilities vs. Exploits

What is the difference between vulnerabilities and exploits? You should be able to answer this question if you’re taking the CompTIA Network+ N10-007 exam and planning to pass it with flying colors.

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?

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 Exploits depend on oversights and mistakes, such as unpatched servers and out-of-date software, to achieve their goals.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.

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.

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