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Definition: An exploit is a piece of software, a chunk of data, or a sequence of commands that takes advantage of a bug or vulnerability in software or systems to cause unintended behaviour or to gain control over system resources.

Exploits play a central role in cyber security as they are the tools that attackers use to gain unauthorised access or control over computer systems. Once a vulnerability is discovered in software, an exploit can be developed to leverage the weakness, allowing an attacker to steal data, disrupt services, or infiltrate networks. The discovery and mitigation of exploits are ongoing challenges within the field of cyber security. The term can also refer to the act of successfully leveraging a vulnerability in this way (e.g., “to exploit a system”).

The prevention and detection of exploits are vital. This is typically achieved through security measures such as regular system and software updates, vulnerability scanning, and the use of security solutions like antivirus and intrusion detection systems that are designed to recognise and block exploitation attempts.

Key Characteristics:

  • Leverages Vulnerabilities: Exploits use known or unknown weaknesses or flaws in systems and software.
  • Can Be Used Maliciously: Often associated with malicious activity, but can also be used by security researchers to demonstrate and test systems’ security.
  • Requires Immediate Remediation: Once an exploit becomes known, it’s critical to patch the vulnerability to prevent future abuse.
  • Varied Complexity: Exploits can range from simple and widely known to complex and crafted for targeted attacks.


  • Real-World Example: In the WannaCry ransomware attack of 2017, cybercriminals exploited a vulnerability in Microsoft Windows’ Server Message Block (SMB) protocol to encrypt data and demand ransom payments.
  • Hypothetical Scenario: A security researcher discovers that a popular operating system allows for privilege escalation due to improper input validation. They create an exploit to demonstrate this security flaw during a penetration test.

Related Terms:

  • Vulnerability: A flaw or weakness in a system’s design, implementation, or operation and management that could be exploited to violate the system’s security policy.
  • Zero Day Exploit: An attack that occurs before the vulnerability is known to the software vendor and thus has no patch available.
  • Patch: A corrective update to a software or system aimed at resolving vulnerabilities that could be exploited.

What is the OWASP Top 10: Download our flash cards to find out.

Inside you will find a description of the most common web vulnerabilities.

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