What is a Threat Actor?

Cybersecurity is a significant part of any business as attacks can be varied in both method and intensity. In order to best fight against cybersecurity attacks, it is important to understand what a threat actor is and what motivates them so that you can build security infrastructure designed to stop attacks before they cause any damage to your organization. 

A threat actor, also referred to as a malicious actor or bad actor, is an entity, either an individual or an organization, that is responsible for any incident that impacts your organization’s security. The incident can be intentional or accidental, and attacks can be both malicious and benign. Threat actors can be divided into one of two main categories: external or internal. While many people are familiar with hackers and how they can breach a system, that is only one type of threat actor. 

An external threat actor is the most common and often causes the most severe negative impact. That is why most threat intelligence services focus on external actors and work to build protection into the IT infrastructure of different organizations. Internal threat actors, on the other hand, can be either partners or insiders that have some level of trust within the organization. 

No matter which category a threat actor falls into, their main focus is to exploit weaknesses in the networks and systems in order to carry out disruptive attacks. Most will look for any potential vulnerabilities and attack as many systems as possible for the highest chance of success.

Threat Actor Motivations

So what exactly motivates a threat actor to target an organization? Well, the motivations are as varied as the methods that can be used and the types of threat actors, but there are a few key motivators that drive them. The majority of threat actors are motivated by financial gain. Using ransomware, attackers can extort anywhere from a few hundred dollars to millions depending on the size of the organization and the type of data they breach. Ransomware is one of the most common and most effective tools used by threat actors to fund their attacks.

Another potential motivation is political in nature. State-sponsored attackers and cyber terrorists aim to disrupt service and harm the governments of whichever country is in opposition to them and their ideology. While there can be an element of financial gain, the primary motivation is simply to cause as much disruption as possible. And because these particular threat actors are most likely operating outside of the country they are targeting, politically motivated attackers are the most difficult to locate and investigate.

Other threat actors, referred to as white hat hackers, search for vulnerabilities in a system for fun or research purposes. These threat actors do not intentionally cause harm, and will often notify organizations when they find a vulnerability so that the organization can patch the system. This can help identify issues before malicious actors can breach the system and steal personal data. Some threat actors also just want notoriety, so their attacks are not designed to be damaging, but simply to make the point that they have the capability of exploiting weaknesses. Although not all threat actors aim to cause harm, they all use the same methods. 

The final threat actor motivation is revenge. Actors that are driven by this motivator may purposely leave behind information about themselves so that the organization knows who attacked the system. In this case, the attack will be specific to the organization instead of a broad attempt to look for and exploit cybersecurity weaknesses.

There is often an overlap of motivations when threat actors work, but it is important to be aware of the most likely reasoning behind an attack. When you understand the motivation behind a threat actor, you can better plan for potential attacks and build a security infrastructure that is designed to defend against specific threats.

Threat Actor Targets

Unless the motivation is political or revenge-driven, most threat actors are indiscriminate in which organizations they choose to target. Most often, a threat actor will just look for any vulnerability that they can exploit, not target specific people and organizations. In fact, they will likely target as many systems as possible, since these attacks tend to be more about quantity than quality. Therefore, all businesses should consider themselves targets of threat actors.

Depending on the skill level and sophistication of attacks, threat actors may target either large or small businesses. Large businesses typically provide higher rewards, making them tempting targets for attackers with enough time and resources to conduct a specialized attack. Small businesses are popular targets due to their perceived weaker security.

Types of Threat Actors

Just as there are different motivations, there are also different types of threat actors. Each type is driven by a different goal and has different levels of technical skill behind its attacks. The types of threat actors include cyber terrorists, state-sponsored, insiders, hacktivists, script kiddies, and internal user mistakes. 

Cyber terrorists tend to target the infrastructure of governments or organizations that support government functions. The goal is to harm a country’s residents and businesses through economic or physical harm. These attacks can disrupt entire communities and halt productivity.

Similarly, state-sponsored threat actors aim to disrupt the productivity of governments. These attackers are backed by the government of an opposing country and attack the infrastructure, potentially trying to gain remote control of the system.

Hacktivists also target governments, but they may target businesses as well. They choose their target because the target’s ideology is in opposition to that of the hacktivist. These threat actors are less likely to be motivated by financial gain, instead working to damage the infrastructure for their own political motivations. Hacktivists can work as individuals or groups and be either external or insiders. 

Insiders are one of the most common types of threat actors. Because they are either employees or hired contractors with legitimate access to the system, an insider can be extremely difficult to detect. Insiders are often paid by competitors to steal trade secrets and cause damage to their employers.

Script kiddies are one of the least sophisticated types of threat actors. They use codes and malware that are free to download for anyone to use. A script kiddie usually does not know how to exploit the vulnerabilities themselves, and so they use a code developed by others to harm productivity or steal data.

Finally, there are internal user mistakes. This type of threat actor is unintentional, but just as damaging to an organization’s security. The most common way that these mistakes lead to a breach in the system’s security is through phishing attacks that employees unknowingly open and allow malware to be added to the environment.

Differences Between Threat Actors, Attackers, and Hackers

The definition of a threat actor is intentionally broad and can apply to both external and internal threats. A threat actor is anyone, or any organization, responsible for a security incident that affects the cybersecurity of another organization. A hacker is anyone that gains unauthorized access to computers, whether by figuring out a password or writing a custom program that can break into security software. An attacker similarly attempts to access data without the proper organization and will use any means to cause havoc within the system. Both hackers and attackers have some technical skill sets, but threat actors do not always have the same.

The Threat Stops Here

Any business or organization is susceptible to attacks from threat actors, but there are a few methods that can help you avoid threat actors and prevent security incidents before they happen. One important tool is education. Make sure your employees know what to look for and how to avoid common tactics that threat actors use. Identifying these can help your employees avoid interacting with threat actors at all, denying the attacker the chance to exploit any weaknesses.

Multi-factor authentication, or MFA, is another useful tool and can help stop an attack in its tracks if an employee does fall for something like a phishing attack. MFA tools ensure that only authorized users can access the system. 

Network monitoring is a proactive approach to cybersecurity and is especially great for stopping insider threat actors. Some network monitoring is required for compliance standards, but you can add additional monitoring capabilities to catch any attackers before they cause damage. Intrusion detection and prevention are automated tools that monitor the environment and work to automatically contain a threat as soon as it is identified. Your organization can use a combination of these methods to stop attacks before they steal valuable data or harm your productivity. 

You are not alone when it comes to defending your organization against cyber threats. Ontinue is one of the leading experts on threat actors and can help you identify potential weaknesses and implement measures to avoid threat actors. We have the resources you need to defend your organization and keep your cybersecurity up to date. Learn more about Ontinue can do for your organization. Request a demo today!