Google, Mandiant Share Data on Record Pace of Zero-Day Discoveries

Google and Mandiant separately called attention to a dramatic surge in the discovery of in-the-wild zero-day attacks and warned that nation-state APT actors, ransomware gangs and private mercenary exploit firms are burning through zero-days at record pace.

According to data from Google’s Project Zero outfit, there were 58 in-the-wild zero-day discoveries last year, the most ever recorded since the company started tracking the problem.

A separate report from Mandiant said its threat intelligence team monitored a whopping 80 zero-days exploited in 2021, more than double the previous record seen in 2019. 

“As an industry we’re not making 0-day hard,” Project Zero’s Maddie Stone said in a note documenting the attacks seen in 2021. “Attackers are having success using vulnerabilities similar to what we’ve seen previously and in components that have previously been discussed as attack surfaces,” Stone added. 

[ READ: Secretive Israeli Exploit Company Behind Wave of Zero-Days ]

Stone, who tracks some zero-day activity on a public spreadsheet, said the noticeable increase shows that defenders are getting better at detecting and disclosing in-the-wild attacks but called on all vendors to adopt “industry standard behavior” to go public when there is evidence of exploitation before patches or mitigations are available.

Stone also called on all affected vendors and security researchers to share exploit samples or detailed descriptions of the exploit techniques seen in attacks and for the industry to focus on mitigating memory corruption vulnerabilities.

Out of the 58 in-the-wild zero-days observed by Project Zero in 2021, Stone noted that 39 vulnerabilities (67%) were memory corruption vulnerabilities.

“Memory corruption vulnerabilities have been the standard for attacking software for the last few decades and it’s still how attackers are having success. Out of these memory corruption vulnerabilities, the majority also stuck with very popular and well-known bug classes,” Stone added.

Mandiant researcher James Sadowski said his company’s data shows state-sponsored APT groups as the primary actors exploiting zero-day vulnerabilities but warned of a noticeable surge in financially motivated crime groups using zero-day exploits.

[ READ: Sophisticated APT Group Burned 11 Zero-Days in Mass Spying Operation ]

”The proportion of financially motivated actors — particularly ransomware groups — deploying zero-day exploits also grew significantly, and nearly 1 in 3 identified actors exploiting zero-days in 2021 was financially motivated,” Sadowski said, noting that threat actors exploited zero-days in Microsoft, Apple, and Google products most frequently, likely reflecting the popularity of these vendors. 

Zero Days

Among nation state-backed threat actors, Mandiant said Chinese groups consistently lead the way in the deployment of malware via zero-day exploitation. 

“From 2012 to 2021, China exploited more zero-days than any other nation. However, we observed an increase in the number of nations likely exploiting zero-days, particularly over the last several years, and at least 10 separate countries have likely exploited zero-days since 2012,” according to the Mandiant data.

Mandiant said it also observed private vendors emerging as “significant exploit brokers” in 2021. 

“We identified at least six zero-day vulnerabilities actively exploited in 2021, potentially by customers of malware vendors, including one reportedly exploited in tools developed by two separate vendors. In 2021, at least five zero-day vulnerabilities were reportedly exploited by an Israeli commercial vendor,” the company said.  

Related: Secretive Israeli Exploit Company Behind Wave of Zero-Day Exploits

Related: Microsoft Raises Alarm for New Windows Zero-Day Attacks

Related: Sophisticated APT Group Burned 11 Zero-Days in Mass Spying Operation

Related: Apple Says WebKit Zero-Day Hitting iOS, macOS Devices

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Ryan Naraine is Editor-at-Large at SecurityWeek and host of the popular Security Conversations podcast series. He is a journalist and cybersecurity strategist with more than 20 years experience covering IT security and technology trends.
Ryan has built security engagement programs at major global brands, including Intel Corp., Bishop Fox and Kaspersky GReAT. He is a co-founder of Threatpost and the global SAS conference series. Ryan’s career as a journalist includes bylines at major technology publications including Ziff Davis eWEEK, CBS Interactive’s ZDNet, PCMag and PC World.
Ryan is a director of the Security Tinkerers non-profit, and a regular speaker at security conferences around the world.
Follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanaraine.

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