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Understanding and Testing Exploitability in Computer Systems

Understanding and Testing Exploitability in Computer Systems


In the world of computer security, the concept of exploitability is critically important. The term refers to vulnerabilities in a system that attackers can exploit. These weaknesses allow unauthorized access, data theft, malware deployment, or harm.

In today’s society, technology plays a crucial role. Technology is important in today’s society. IT professionals, security researchers, and everyday users need to understand system flaws and how to test for vulnerabilities.

This article discusses what exploitability means and the different types of exploits. It also explains how various systems use exploitability. Additionally, it provides examples of how you can test for exploitability on your own.

What is Exploitability?

Exploitability involves discovering and exploiting vulnerabilities in a system’s defenses. This allows for unauthorized actions, like taking over a server, accessing a database, or installing malware. Users do not intend to do these actions. An exploit occurs when someone uses a bug, glitch, or vulnerability to make computer hardware or software act unexpectedly.

Understanding exploitability is crucial for conducting vulnerability assessments and penetration testing (pen testing). These practices require probing a system’s defenses to identify weaknesses that attackers could exploit. By simulating real-world attack scenarios, security professionals can assess system resilience and recommend mitigations to bolster defenses.

Many different types of exploits, but some of the most common include:

  • Buffer overflow software that manipulates memory to run arbitrary code.
  • SQL injection attacks that send malicious database queries
  • Cross-site scripting (XSS) that injects client-side scripts into web pages.
  • Privilege escalation exploits that allow users to gain elevated permissions.

All types of malware use flaws in the way systems functioning. Small mistakes in coding or configuration can cause major security vulnerabilities.


Let’s look at a simple example to understand how exploitability works. Consider a program that takes user input and passes it to another function without validating it first:

void vulnerable_function(char *user_input) {
char buffer[10];
strcpy(buffer, user_input);

This code has a clear buffer overflow vulnerability. If the user inputs more than 10 characters, it will overflow the buffer and overwrite other parts of memory. An attacker can create an input that changes the return address on the stack. This input can make the program run the attacker’s malicious code.

This is just one example, but the same basic principles apply to all types of exploitable bugs. The system makes an assumption about the data it will receive (like the max size of an input), but doesn’t enforce those assumptions. The attacker is then free to violate those assumptions to make the system behave in unintended ways.

Exploitability in Different Systems

One can exploit more than one type of technology. Virtually every kind of IT system has had exploitable vulnerabilities discovered, including:

  • Operating systems like Windows, macOS, and Linux
  • Web servers and application frameworks
  • Database management systems
  • Network devices like routers and firewalls
  • Internet of Things (IoT) and embedded devices
  • Virtualization platforms and cloud services

Anywhere there is complex code running, there is the potential for exploitable bugs to creep in. Defenders have to protect many areas, while attackers only need to find one way to get in.

Tools of the Trade

To start testing for exploitability in systems, you’ll need some essential tools. Penetration testing distributions such as Kali Linux and Parrot OS are popular choices. They come with a variety of security tools already installed. You should also be comfortable with utilizing Bash and command line interfaces.

Some of the most important tools for finding exploits are:

  • Network mappers and port scanners like Nmap
  • Web application scanners like Burp Suite and OWASP ZAP
  • Fuzzers like AFL and honggfuzz to find input parsing bugs
  • Reverse engineering tools like IDA Pro and Ghidra
  • Exploit development frameworks like Metasploit

The best way to practice exploiting vulnerabilities is to do it in a safe test lab environment. You can create this environment yourself, for example, by using virtual machines or an isolated subnet. Never test exploits against systems you don’t own or have explicit permission to attack.

Examples and Walkthroughs

Let’s walk through a few examples of exploiting vulnerabilities hands-on. We’ll start by using SQL injection to dump some data from a test database.

Initially, ensure you possess a susceptible web application for practice purposes. You can deploy a purposely vulnerable app like OWASP WebGoat, bWAPP, or DVWA.

After you’ve successfully set it up, navigate to the login page. In the username box, enter a single quotation mark (‘) and then click submit. If you get an SQL error, you know the field is vulnerable to injection.

Now we can make better use of it. Attempt to input something like:

admin' --

If the query looks like this on the backend:

SELECT * FROM users WHERE username='INPUT' AND password='INPUT'

Then our injection will turn it into:

SELECT * FROM users WHERE username='admin' -- AND password=''

The double dash comments out the rest of the query, so it will ignore the password check and log us in as admin! From there we can start trying more advanced injections to enumerate tables and columns and dump all the data.

We can do something similar to exploit XSS. Find an input field that shows your input on the page without processing, then try inputting HTML and JavaScript:


If that pops up an alert box, you’ve found an XSS vulnerability! You can use this to steal cookies, modify the page, or redirect users to malicious sites.

A more advanced exploit would be something like a buffer overflow. Suppose you’ve discovered a software that fails when you provide it with an extended input. You can use a fuzzer to send it hundreds of different inputs to pinpoint the exact length that triggers the crash:

for i in {1..100}; do printf 'A%.0s' $(seq 1 $i) | program; done

Once you have found the number of bytes that causes the crash, you can examine the memory dump in a debugger. This will help you determine if you are able to overwrite the return address or other critical memory structures.

If you’re ready, you can start building a payload. This involves strategically placing memory addresses to manipulate the execution flow. This way, you can execute your personal code.

Summary and Conclusion

We’ve covered a lot of ground in this article on exploitability. We discussed exploits, which are ways to take advantage of vulnerabilities in systems.

We discussed how attackers can exploit vulnerabilities in different systems. We also discussed some tools used for exploiting. Additionally, we showed examples of finding and exploiting bugs.

Identifying flaws in technology doesn’t require advanced skills. With some simple knowledge and paying close attention, anyone can find areas to improve in their life or work.”

Of course, with this power comes great responsibility. Only test systems that you have permission to access. Never use these techniques to cause harm or damage to real systems.

As our world becomes increasingly digital, exploitability will only continue to grow in importance. Both attackers and defenders need to deeply understand these concepts. Hopefully this article has helped you take your first steps in learning to hack systems safely and ethically.

For businesses looking to take their database and data warehouse security to the next level, DataSunrise offers a range of innovative solutions. Their team of experts is ready to provide an online demonstration, showcasing how DataSunrise’s state-of-the-art tools can significantly improve your organization’s data protection measures.


DML: Data Manipulation Language

DML: Data Manipulation Language

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