Chinese hackers behind most zero-day exploits during 2021

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Chinese hackers behind most zero-day exploits during 2021 attacks

Threat analysts report that zero-day vulnerability exploitation is on the rise, with Chinese hackers using most of them in attacks last year.

Zero-day vulnerabilities are security weaknesses in software products that are either unknown or have not been fixed at the time of discovery

Zero-day disclosures are of particular interest to hackers because they have a wider exploitation window until vendors address the flaws and clients start applying the updates.

Number of recorded zero-day exploits
Number of recorded zero-day exploits ​​​​​​​(Mandiant)

Typically, this window of opportunity lasts for at least a couple of days, and since not all admins apply security updates immediately, the number of vulnerable targets remains high for a while.

2021 zero-day landscape

According to an analysis from cybersecurity firm Mandiant, last year there were 80 cases of zero-days exploited in the wild, 18 more than 2020 and 2019 combined.

Most of them were attributed to cyberespionage operations from state-backed actors.

However, the company found that one out of three malicious actors exploiting zero-day vulnerabilities was financially motivated, a statistic that continues a growing trend from previous years.

Zero-day attack sources
Zero-day attack purpose (Mandiant)

In terms of threat actors, China tops the list with eight zero-days used in cyberattacks in 2021, followed by Russia which used two, and North Korea with one.

Map of zero-day exploitation
Map of zero-day exploitation (Mandiant)

The most notable case was that of Hafnium, a Chinese state-sponsored hacking group that utilized four zero-day vulnerabilities on the Microsoft Exchange servers to access email communications of Western organizations.

Mandiant also recorded an uptick in ransomware operatives exploiting zero-day flaws to breach networks and deploy their file-encrypting payloads.

One prominent example of this activity was that of HelloKitty ransomware operators, who exploited a zero-day bug in SonicWall SMA 100 VPN appliances.

The most targeted vendors in 2021 zero-day attacks were Microsoft, Apple, and Google, accounting for over 75% of all attacks.

As BleepingComputer reported recently, the number of mobile OS zero-days targeting Android and iOS is also on an ascending trend, going from under five in 2019 and 2020 to 17 in 2021.

Most targeted vendors (by 0-days) in 2021
Most targeted vendors (by 0-days) in 2021 (Mandiant)

What to expect in 2022

Last year saw a record break in zero-day exploitation, and current evidence indicates that it will be worse this year.

“We suggest that significant campaigns based on zero-day exploitation are increasingly accessible to a wider variety of state-sponsored and financially motivated actors, including as a result of the proliferation of vendors selling exploits and sophisticated ransomware operations potentially developing custom exploits” – Mandiant

Google’s Project Zero team on Tuesday published a report on the same topic, underlining that the rise in zero-day exploitation is partly a result of greater visibility and detection and not necessarily an increase of activity or attacks’ complexity.

As the report details, only two out of 58 new zero-days Project Zero disclosed in 2021 exhibit technical excellence and uniqueness, which could point to software security maturity.

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