The heavy tails of vulnerability exploitation

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contributionAcademicpeer-review

7 Citations (Scopus)


In this paper we analyse the frequency at which vulnerabilities are exploited in the wild by relying on data collected worldwide by Symantec’s sensors. Our analysis comprises 374 exploited vulnerabilities for a total of 75.7 Million recorded attacks spanning three years (2009-2012). We find that for some software as little as 5% of exploited vulnerabilities is responsible for about 95% of the attacks against that platform. This strongly skewed distribution is consistent for all considered software categories, for which a general take-away is that less than 10% of vulnerabilities account for more than 90% of the attacks (with the exception of pre-2009 Java vulnerabilities). Following these findings, we hypothesise vulnerability exploitation may follow a Power Law distribution. Rigorous hypothesis testing results in neither accepting nor rejecting the Power Law Hypothesis, for which further data collection from the security community may be needed. Finally, we present and discuss the Law of the Work-Averse Attacker as a possible explanation for the heavy-tailed distributions we find in the data, and present examples of its effects for Apple Quicktime and Microsoft Internet Explorer vulnerabilities.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationEngineering Secure Software and Systems - 7th International Symposium, ESSoS 2015, Milan, Italy, March 4-6, 2015.Proceedings
EditorsF. Piessens, J. Caballero, N. Bielova
Place of PublicationDordrecht
Number of pages16
ISBN (Electronic)978-3-319-15618-7
ISBN (Print)9783319156170
Publication statusPublished - 2015
Externally publishedYes
Event7th International Symposium on Engineering Secure Software and Systems (ESSoS 2015) - Milan, Italy
Duration: 4 Mar 20156 Mar 2015
Conference number: 7

Publication series

NameLecture Notes in Computer Science (including subseries Lecture Notes in Artificial Intelligence and Lecture Notes in Bioinformatics)
ISSN (Print)03029743
ISSN (Electronic)16113349


Conference7th International Symposium on Engineering Secure Software and Systems (ESSoS 2015)
Abbreviated titleESSoS 2015


Dive into the research topics of 'The heavy tails of vulnerability exploitation'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this