Understanding Zero-Click Attacks

Published by Berkan K. on February 2

book 4 min read

So, have you ever heard about the so called Zero-Click attacks? The name simply gives it away. They are exploits requiring absolutely no action from a user in order to infect them making them stand out due to their stealth and sophistication.

What Are Zero-Click Attacks?

Zero-click attacks are very sophisticated cyber exploits that do not require any interaction from the target to succeed as. Unlike conventional attacks that rely on tricking users into clicking a malicious link or downloading an infected file, zero-click attacks exploit vulnerabilities in software or user devices that can be activated without the user’s knowledge. This could simply involve sending a specially crafted message that automatically executes malicious code upon being received by the target’s device.

What Are the Attack Mechanisms?

Zero-click attacks can be carried out through various vectors, but some of the most common include:

  • Network Protocols: By exploiting vulnerabilities in network protocols, attackers can send malicious packets to a target’s device, compromising it without any user interaction.
  • Software Bugs: Zero-click attacks often take advantage of bugs in software applications or operating systems. These can include buffer overflows, use-after-free vulnerabilities, and other flaws that can be exploited remotely.
  • Messaging Platforms: Exploitation of flaws in image rendering, video playback, or other media processing functions.

By crafting payloads that exploit these vulnerabilities, attackers can gain unauthorized access to devices, steal sensitive information, or even take full control over the system without any direct action from the victim. Sounds too crazy to be true, right? Well, let’s see some examples.

Recent Examples

Recent years have seen several high-profile zero-click attacks that highlight the growing sophistication of cyber threats. One of the most notorious is the Pegasus spyware developed by NSO Group, which used zero-click vulnerabilities in smartphones to spy on journalists, activists, and political leaders globally. A similar example is the FORCEDENTRY exploit also developed by NSO Group against Apple’s iMessage service, which allowed attackers to deploy the Pegasus spyware without any user interaction.

Another example is the WhatsApp vulnerability exploited by attackers in 2019 to install surveillance software on phones simply by calling the target’s number, even if the call was not answered.

The Challenge with Zero-Click Attacks

The main challenge in combating zero-click attacks lies in their stealth and sophistication. These attacks leave minimal traces, making them difficult to detect and trace back to their origins. Moreover, they often exploit zero-day vulnerabilities (flaws unknown to the software vendor until the attack occurs) leaving no opportunity for preventing. This invisibility and unpredictability make zero-click attacks a particularly challenging issue to deal with for cybersecurity professionals.

Can We Even Defend Ourselves?

Well yes but actually no

So, can we even defend ourselves since this exploit is so sophisticated that it need no user interaction in order to accomplish? Well, despite the nature of zero-click attacks, there are strategies and measures that can be implemented both for individuals and organizations. These are simply:

  • Keep your operating system, firmware, and apps on all your devices updated.
  • Only download apps from official stores.
  • Delete any apps you no longer use.
  • Avoid “jailbreaking” or “rooting” your phone since doing so removes protection provided by Apple and Google.
  • Use strong authentication to access accounts, especially critical networks.
  • Use strong passwords – i.e., long and unique passwords.
  • Regularly backup systems.
  • Enable pop-up blockers or prevent pop-ups from appearing by adjusting your browser settings. Scammers routinely use pop-ups to spread malware.

Moreover, the cybersecurity community continually works to identify and patch vulnerabilities, sharing knowledge and tools to defend against these threats. While no defense can guarantee complete protection, a layered approach combining technical solutions, awareness, and vigilance can significantly reduce the risk of these zero-click attacks.

Hello, I'm a 23-year-old Software Engineer based in Denmark, specializing in Cybersecurity and
Fullstack Development.

Beyond programming, I enjoy sharing my journey and insights through writing, aiming to contribute to the tech community and inspire like-minded professionals.

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