What is a threat actor?

Threat actors constantly seek ways to gain entry into your business network. With more companies moving toward remote work policies and cloud-based software systems, threat actors have found new routes into these systems that they exploit for malicious gain.

Threat actors are financially motivated to steal your information and extort you for money or disrupt key processes like wire transfers. They use techniques such as phishing attacks, ransomware, and malware to gain unauthorized entry into your system.

Threat actors are individuals or groups that exploit vulnerabilities in computer systems to cause harm, often for financial gain. While most people associate the term with cybercriminals, its scope encompasses anyone seeking to do damage digitally - from criminals, ideologues, thrill seekers, and insiders to Internet trolls.

Threat actors use malicious software (malware) to access sensitive information and steal funds while disrupting operations and damaging brand reputations. As the threat landscape changes rapidly, data protection policies must adapt accordingly.

Risk to individuals and companies of potential threats is measured by an individual's "threat surface," or the scope of devices or systems which threat actors could compromise. Individuals' threat surface is determined by their choices in online vendors and services; more personal data shared across the internet increases vulnerability to theft or exposure via a data breach.

Threat actors range from organized crime groups to nation-states and employ an array of TTPs (tactics, techniques, and procedures) in their attacks.

Threat actors can enter environments through various attack vectors, such as direct access, wireless networks, email, social media posts, removable media storage, or the supply chain. With the increase of software and infrastructure "as-a-service" products in corporate environments has provided threat actors with new avenues of entry; for instance, these "as-a-service" products often allow elevated access for suppliers into IT environments of their customers, giving way to the potential compromise of suppliers allowing access into further parts of an organization's IT infrastructure.

Types of threat actors

Each type of threat actor varies in their goals, techniques, and targets; for instance, cybercriminals might attempt to steal data from an organization and sell it on the black market or use ransomware attacks against its employees and customers to make money. On the other hand, nation-state actors pursue larger goals, such as seeking military secrets, economic intelligence, or any information to advance their country's interests.

Threat actors vary widely in sophistication and capability; some are highly adept, such as advanced persistent threats (APTs), while others possess either minimal experience or none at all. The distinction is often determined by how quickly or easily threat actors enter targets' information systems, networks, or internet-exposed endpoints.

Threat Actor

Individuals and organizations face risks from Internet exposure that can be mitigated through security best practices tailored to the specific needs of their target. Unfortunately, threat actors frequently adapt their attack methods and take advantage of vulnerabilities to exploit.

Cybercriminals are among the most prevalent threat actors. Individuals or teams working independently often target financial gain with techniques such as phishing, ransomware, and malware attacks - as seen with Cobalt Group reportedly responsible for an attack against law and investment firms using targeted phishing campaigns in 2017 that targeted Cobalt Group's name specifically. Hacktivists represent another form of threat actor that isn't focused on financial gains but instead seek to bring awareness or disrupt services/institutions they view as harmful; for instance, WikiLeaks did just this with its motivation being, for example.

Threat actor targets

Threat actors come in various forms, but all share one goal: exploiting vulnerabilities in your cybersecurity infrastructure. From cybercriminals and hacktivists to individuals and even nation-states - each can use different attack techniques and methods but most commonly employ social engineering - which involves sending you or an employee an illicit message that convinces them to reveal their credentials.

Attackers may seek to gain entry to data or cause disruption and physical destruction, extort money directly or through ransomware attacks, and use any stolen information as black market commodities or sell it off to other threat actors.

Other threat actors, such as hacktivists and hobbyists, aren't motivated by financial gain; rather, they focus more on exploiting vulnerabilities within your company. But even though their motivations might not include financial gain, they still require access to your network and systems; malware downloaded from the dark web or open code repositories can aid their attacks, even though these individuals don't possess as much technical skill as cybercriminals, they still pose a significant threat to business security gaps and may harm operations.

Nation-state threat actors often use digital attacks for espionage and disruption against other companies, governments, or institutions - either to gain military secrets, harm the reputations of companies or governments or harm the economies of other countries.

Thrill-seekers are threat actors that hack networks and systems purely for entertainment, whether that means taking what they can from them or testing out how well their attacks work. No matter their motives, thrill-seekers pose an imminent risk to computer systems by disrupting them with malware, stealing information, exposing vulnerabilities for more sophisticated attacks in the future, or exploiting vulnerabilities themselves.

Threat actors vs. cybercriminals

Cybercriminals are criminals with financial motives to steal money and data from your business, often through ransomware attacks and other malware-driven breaches.

Hackers sometimes target credit card numbers, social security numbers, and bank account information to commit fraud, identity theft, and more. They sell this data at auctions or expose it on black markets - these threats make headlines regularly.

Threat actors operating from within an organization to bypass cybersecurity measures and access confidential data are known as threat actors, who may include disgruntled employees or those hired by competitors to steal data and cause disruptions. Detecting these insider threats may be more difficult as they can blend in among your staff.

Nation-state threat actors, sponsored by their nation-state, often conduct attacks against other nations and institutions for intelligence collection. Furthermore, they have also been known to disrupt critical infrastructure or attempt sabotage.

Finally, there are hacktivists and cyber terrorists who use cyber attacks to advance political or ideological agendas; WikiLeaks attacks provide an example of hacktivism.

Thrill seekers are another type of threat actor that exploits vulnerabilities in computer systems and networks to cause harm or gather as much data as they can infiltrate. Their increasing prevalence among cybersecurity professionals is caused by their willingness to test the limits of systems to cause incidents for profit - this has turned them into modern-day trolls.

Protect Yourself from Threat Actors

Threat actors may often be associated with cybercriminals; however, their definition can also include any person or group attempting to gain entry to cybersecurity systems for malicious reasons, including hackers, thrill seekers, trolls, terrorist organizations, and even nation-states.

Threat actors' attacks are usually driven by an intent to obtain sensitive data and interfere with business operations, with individual targets or groups targeted for financial or political gain depending on motivations. Although their attack methods vary in complexity and skill level, all threat actors possess enough intelligence and ability to exploit security vulnerabilities to cause significant damage.

Most people are familiar with ransomware attacks that threaten to delete data without payment from victims, a popular tactic among cybercriminals who gain unauthorized entry to an organization's network and then use this access for illegal activities such as selling their stolen information on dark web marketplaces or engaging in other illegal acts.

Drive-by downloads are another common means of gaining entry to businesses' information without their knowledge, where malware is secretly installed on a computer system without their knowledge or consent. This may happen via clicking on infected websites or email attachments; click-jacking is also common practice.

Threat actors also specialize in attacking certain businesses or institutions, like banks and healthcare providers. One infamous threat actor known as The Cobalt Group's primary goal is stealing money by hacking ATM systems and SWIFT networks - whether this involves individuals or groups motivated by political or ideological agendas is unknown.

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