Your IP: Unknown · Your Status: ProtectedUnprotectedUnknown

Skip to main content

Cybersecurity vulnerabilities: An extensive guide

Cybersecurity vulnerabilities put sensitive data, money, and safety at risk. Hackers are always ready to take advantage of security flaws through which they can gain access to private information. In this article, we cover all major types of cybersecurity vulnerabilities and explain how you can protect yourself against them.

Cybersecurity vulnerabilities: An extensive guide

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

What is a cybersecurity vulnerability?

A cybersecurity vulnerability is a weakness in the security of a digital system, application, or network. These security vulnerabilities can be exploited by malicious actors, resulting in data breaches and financial losses.

A vulnerability could be anything from a weak password to an operating system that hasn’t been updated with the latest security patches. Identifying vulnerabilities can help security professionals improve network and device safety before bad actors have a chance to take advantage of them.

Vulnerability vs. cybersecurity attack

A vulnerability and an attack are not the same thing. A cyber vulnerability is a weak spot in a line of cybersecurity defense. An attack is the action a hacker takes to exploit that vulnerability.

For example, if a company employee uses a weak password to protect their email, that weak password is a vulnerability. A hacker can then target that weakness with a brute force cyberattack, allowing them to gain access to the employee’s account. From there, they could steal data or launch further cyberattacks on the victim’s colleagues by sending emails from their account.

This is just one example, but it demonstrates the difference between vulnerable weaknesses and the attacks that spawn from them.

Types of cybersecurity vulnerabilities

While almost any cybersecurity weakness could be classed as a vulnerability, we’ll explore some of the most common types here.

System misconfigurations

If a system is misconfigured, it could be open to exploitation. System misconfiguration refers to a situation in which a device, server, or network has been set up incorrectly, or without adequate security protocols in place. For example, if you set up a website where users can search for information on a database, correct security configuration would involve setting up input validation and parameterized queries with prepared statements. Failure to do so would mean your system was misconfigured, and would now be vulnerable to SQL injection attacks.

Out of date or unpatched software

If you don’t keep your software up to date, vulnerabilities could emerge in apps and operating systems. Updates often include patches for operating system flaws and other bugs, and though it’s tempting to hit the “Update later” button, doing so could put you at risk.

Missing or weak authorization credentials

Passwords, biometric login data, and other authentication systems are a vital part of any security system. A weak password or an account that isn’t protected with two-factor authentication or password encryption is a cybersecurity risk. Credential theft can also lead to other devices being targeted. If a hacker gains access to your passwords, they can launch phishing attacks from your accounts against your contacts.

Malicious insider threats

Not all malicious actors operate outside of the companies and organizations they target. Sometimes the risk is internal, as is the case with insider threats. An insider threat can be posed by someone who works within an organization, like a business, and uses their user privileges to launch cyberattacks, or to feed information to hackers on the outside.

Missing or poor data encryption

Another common cybersecurity vulnerability is unencrypted, or poorly encrypted, data. Encryption involves scrambling data into incomprehensible code, which can only be decrypted back into its original format with a specific encryption key. Stored data can be encrypted, as can data in transit (for example, if you use a VPN to encrypt your internet connection or send data via a transfer service with end-to-end encryption). If encryption is not used, or if the encryption protocols are weak, stolen data can be easily viewed by hackers.

Zero day vulnerability

Even if you keep all your software up to date with the latest patches, zero day vulnerabilities can still put you at risk of xxx. A zero day vulnerability is a bug or weakness that has not been discovered by cybersecurity experts yet, so no fixes have been generated. Essentially, a zero day vulnerability is any cybersecurity vulnerability that has not yet been found by penetration testers or security experts. While many zero day vulnerabilities remain hidden until hackers find them, intelligence agencies have even been accused of allowing zero day exploits for government purposes, as they can help with cover information gathering.

Vulnerable APIs

Application programming interfaces (APIs) are systems that allow separate programs or applications to communicate and interact with each other. If an API has been poorly configured or lacks adequate security, a hacker could hijack the API, stealing data or launching DDoS attacks against other applications. Maintaining safe APIs is a vital part of application security.

Examples of cybersecurity vulnerabilities

Here are real-world examples of cybersecurity vulnerabilities that were exploited to launch cyberattacks.

  • SolarWinds (2020): In this attack, hackers targeted the software supply chain of SolarWinds, a major IT management software company in the US. They inserted a backdoor into SolarWinds’ software updates, which were then unknowingly distributed to thousands of organizations, including government agencies.
  • WannaCry Ransomware (2017): The WannaCry ransomware attack was a global cyberattack which exploited the EternalBlue vulnerability in Microsoft Windows. Hackers used this exploit to rapidly spread the ransomware across hundreds of thousands of computers in over 150 countries.
  • Equifax Data Breach (2017): In a major data breach, hackers exploited a vulnerability in the Apache Struts web application framework to access Equifax’s database. This breach exposed sensitive personal information, including the social security numbers of more than 140 million individuals.
  • NotPetya/ExPetr Ransomware (2017): The NotPetya/ExPetr ransomware attacks primarily targeted organizations in Ukraine, before quickly spreading globally. This malware took advantage of the EternalBlue exploit, like WannaCry, and used a compromised update from some Ukrainian tax software to spread.

Causes of cybersecurity vulnerabilities

Cybersecurity vulnerabilities are caused by a variety of factors, from human error to poor system design.

  • Lack of software updates and patch management. If you have no system in place to manage or automate updates, you’re more likely to postpone or forget about them. Most device operating systems come with features for automatic updating, but people sometimes turn this off, putting themselves at more risk.
  • Lack of awareness. Many cybersecurity vulnerabilities arise from simple ignorance. Many people aren’t aware of the risks they face online and don’t know how to protect themselves and their devices.
  • Human error or negligence. Even if you know about the cybersecurity threats you face online and have an understanding of how you can protect yourself, human error and simple laziness can easily lead to vulnerabilities. A lot of devastating malware, including the notorious Emotet, ultimately rely on humans making the mistake of downloading infected files.
  • Bad system design. Many data breaches and attacks are the result of bad design on the part of developers. If people setting up a website or server network cut corners or rely on cheap, substandard encryption methods, anyone using those services could be at risk, even if they themselves are taking all necessary precautions.

What is cybersecurity vulnerability management?

Cybersecurity vulnerability management is the process of monitoring systems for vulnerabilities, assessing risks, and proactively limiting threats. The term can refer to an overall strategy of vulnerability assessments, penetration testing, and threat detection, or to specific pieces of software, sometimes referred to as vulnerability managers.

An organization can use a vulnerability manager — a centralized software interface through which they can assess and respond to potential risks — to keep their networks and infrastructure safe. Security teams are always racing to identify vulnerabilities before cybercriminals do, and a management tool can help them do this more effectively.

How to detect cybersecurity vulnerabilities

For companies, network administrators, and app developers, a number of methods are available to detect cybersecurity vulnerabilities.

Perhaps the most effective option is penetration testing, a process in which white hat hackers target their own systems and software to find weaknesses. Alternatively, if an organization doesn’t have an in-house penetration testing team (or if they want to get additional support) they can run a bug bounty program, and pay out a reward to freelance hackers who find and report vulnerabilities.

How to protect against cybersecurity vulnerabilities

Whether you’re an individual internet user or the security lead within a company, the following steps can help you limit the threat of cybersecurity vulnerabilities.

  • Use strong passwords: The longer a password is, the more time it will take to crack. Make sure you and your colleagues are using passwords with ten or more characters, combining a variety of numbers, letters, and special characters. The complexity of passwords is referred to as password entropy, and as a rule a password is more secure the greater its level of entropy. If you struggle to remember more complex passwords, use a password manager.
  • Don’t postpone software updates: Whenever updates are available, install them. If possible, set your systems and apps to automatically update as new versions become available. If you’re keeping your software up to date, you’re at less risk from bugs and exploits.
  • Maintain awareness of emerging threats: Mitigating security vulnerabilities is a lot easier if you understand what threats you currently face online. Staying aware of the latest news about hacks, malware, and exploits will make it easier to keep yourself safe. As previously discussed, ignorance is a major risk factor.
  • Use a VPN: A VPN, or virtual private network, encrypts internet traffic and hides your public IP address. Using a VPN makes you less vulnerable to man-in-the-middle attacks and data snooping, and can limit the threat of DDoS attacks. With NordVPN, you can also benefit from Threat Protection Pro, a powerful suite of tools that can scan downloads for malware, provide URL trimming, block ads, and limit online trackers, using the latest threat intelligence to keep users safe.


Online security starts with a click.

Stay safe with the world’s leading VPN