What is a Threat Actor?

What is a Threat Actor

Threat actors are any individuals or groups that present a security risk and use digital tactics to breach an organization’s cybersecurity defenses. Cybercriminals often infiltrate corporate networks in order to steal sensitive data and demand ransom in exchange.

Threat actors sometimes engage in cyber espionage for financial or political gain, while others use their skills to cause disruption or cause sabotage.

What is a threat actor?

Threat actors are individuals, groups or nation states who launch cyber attacks against computers and IT networks to cause as much damage as possible – from defacing websites and stealing data to disrupting business operations and damaging reputations.

Different threat actors pursue various goals, from financial gain to social justice. Career cybercriminals often target businesses for financial gain using popular attack techniques like phishing, ransomware and malware; hackerstivists are another common threat actor that targets government organizations and other entities with the intention of social justice activism; while Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) actors represent the pinnacle of cyber skill and sophistication; carrying out lengthy attacks for their own gain or that of their country or region.

Threat actors conduct reconnaissance by surveying the Internet for vulnerabilities they can exploit. Furthermore, they may use compromised devices known as bots which they control remotely in order to deliver malware or steal data.

Threat Actor Targets

Threat actors use various motivations, skillsets and resources to exploit vulnerabilities in information systems to launch various cyberattacks against vulnerable targets. Attackers could either operate alone or form part of an organized crime ring or cyber threat organization.

Cyber threat actors typically pursue financial gain as their motivation. For instance, they may distribute malware that steals credentials to access banking or brokerage accounts or profit from ransomware attacks by locking an organization’s IT infrastructure until payment is made – often times for ransom.

Threat actors with political motivations seek to harm companies, governments or individuals’ reputations by stealing confidential data, disclosing it via data breaches and manipulating social media to spread misinformation and distrust. Attacking IoT devices such as fitness trackers or smart home technologies to interfere with physical safety of victims may also fall under their purview.

State-sponsored threats and hacktivists often launch sophisticated cyberattacks with the intention of gaining competitive advantages or disrupting operations of their targets, which necessitate organizations adopting robust cybersecurity measures in order to combat this risk and stop its success.

Types of Threat Actors

There are a wide variety of threat actors involved in cyberattacks. Their motivation, skill sets, resources, attacks tools and targets vary widely depending on who’s conducting them; cybercriminals tend to be among the most prolific threat actors as they target businesses for data or ransomware theft using popular attack techniques like phishing, malware or ransomware to gain entry to corporate networks and gain control.

Nation-states or highly adept organized crime groups may also pose threats, using sophisticated techniques to avoid detection or attribution. Trolls who intentionally attack computer systems for entertainment purposes also qualify as threat actors.

Hacktivists are another group of threat actors who carry out ideologically driven cyberattacks with the purpose of spreading their beliefs or raising awareness for social justice initiatives, disrupting critical infrastructures or services for political purposes or costing companies financially if their attacks go undetected. Such attacks can have significant repercussions both financially and to brand and business reputations.

1. Cybercriminals

Cybercriminals are motivated primarily by financial gain. Using their skills, cybercriminals leverage personal information such as login credentials and credit card numbers stolen by hackers for sale on the black market or to target organizations in ransomware attacks against healthcare providers or entertainment companies for ransom. Cybercriminal groups such as Shadow Brokers (a hacking group responsible for leaking NSA tools) Carbanak and WannaCry are examples of highly sophisticated threat actors with substantial funds to use their cybercrime methods effectively against targets; other examples may include Shadow Brokers as well as Carbanak and WannaCry gangs.

Ideologues often turn to cyberattacks as an instrument for furthering their political or ideological causes. Targeted organizations, websites, and systems may be targeted in order to promote an agenda or expose perceived injustices – these attacks often lead to significant damage both to reputation and operations as well as financial loss for all parties involved.

Thrill seekers are individuals who engage in malicious cyberattacks for fun. Their goal may be to see how much sensitive data they can infiltrate or to gain knowledge on the various operating systems, while some have even developed into modern trolls who spread false information, disrupt the network or otherwise cause disruptions or harm through falsehoods or disruption.

2. Nation-state actors

Nation-state actors are cyber criminals backed by their governments that launch attacks against organizations and individuals for espionage, data theft and system disruption purposes. Attack methods may include ransomware distribution, spear phishing campaigns and business email compromise (BEC) schemes as well as more advanced techniques like altering web pages to spoof systems or disable systems and hacking into critical infrastructure networks.

Nation state actors are adept at operating covertly and evading detection by cybersecurity teams, with their operations having an enormous impact on geopolitics – they may steal industrial secrets, interfere with political processes or conduct massive disinformation or propaganda campaigns; they could also cripple systems powering entire nations, leading to blackouts or economic upheaval.

CISA refers to this threat actor as an advanced persistent threat (APT). APTs are well-funded, organized and highly skilled threat actors primarily targeted intellectual property theft; however they could potentially target critical infrastructure as well – for instance Russia’s cyberattack against Ukraine targeted energy systems to weaken it in order to make it vulnerable against military invasion from Russian military invasion forces.

3. Hacktivists

Hacktivists are generally driven by political or social causes and use cyberattacks to bring attention to them. While they tend to be less sophisticated than cybercriminals or nation-state threat actors, hactivists still can cause significant damage.

These threat actors often engage in large data breaches and other forms of attacks, including doxing (the act of disclosing personal information to the public), to achieve political, religious or anarchist goals. Hacktivist groups such as Syria Electronic Army (SEA) may support Syrian President Bashar Al Assad by attacking U.S. media outlets and private-sector organizations; for example they even released a false tweet regarding an explosion at White House that they claim caused President Barack Obama injuries.

These threats may be hard to detect and defend against, yet organizations should take them seriously. Organizations can protect themselves by taking strong cybersecurity measures such as educating infrastructure users on best practices for cybersecurity and making sure all systems are up-to-date and protected by updating all necessary software patches; additionally they should install security software which detects potential vulnerabilities before hackers exploit them.

4. Insider threats

Malicious insiders typically seek financial gain by selling sensitive information to hackers, third-party organizations or even competitors. An opportunistic insider might leak sensitive data for revenge purposes or embarrass a company by doing so; similarly disgruntled employees could attempt to damage a company’s reputation and steal intellectual property as reprisals against its leadership.

Employees often become the victims of insider threats due to their access to sensitive data and systems that cannot be reached from external actors. Such threats may be malicious or accidental in nature and pose significant damage risk.

Negligent insiders unwittingly expose an organization to threats by breaching security and IT policies – such as downloading malware or clicking phishing links – which puts it vulnerable against attacks from outside. Other examples of negligent insiders could include forgetting to secure devices properly, misplacing portable storage devices containing sensitive information or misconfiguring systems.

5. Cyberterrorists

People commonly associate “threat actor” with criminals responsible for ransomware attacks or selling sensitive personal data over the dark web, but there are various forms of threat actors that exploit weaknesses in digital spheres in order to cause damage; this includes cybercriminals, idealogues such as hacktivists and terrorists as well as insider threats or internet trolls.

Cyberattacks typically aim for financial or reputational gain; hackers who target financial institutions can even steal millions in just one attack! Furthermore, cyberattacks may damage reputations by spreading false or misleading information and thus damaging them further.

Terrorism often makes use of cyberattacks for ideological or political purposes, with attacks often targeting nuclear plants in Poland to spread fear by making it appear that radioactive water was leaking out. Not only are their objectives met, but many attackers also attempt to conceal their activities by hiding data they collect through hacking attacks, making attribution of these incidents much harder for security teams.

Different Threat Actor Tactics and Techniques

Threat actors employ various tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) to breach computer systems. For instance, threat actors might employ various tools to perform lateral movement within a network and exfiltrate data from it.

Thrill seekers are threat actors that attack systems for the purpose of experimentation, often without possessing serious hacking expertise; nevertheless, their attacks can still cause substantial damages and financial loss.

1. Malware

Malware, or malicious software, is designed to gain entry to computers and networks without their knowledge and gain entry without permission from their victims. Once infiltrated, cyber criminals can gain access and steal sensitive information as well as disrupt business operations and cause significant financial losses for companies that become infected.

Malware such as viruses, Trojan horses, worms and rootkits operate undetected, disguising themselves as useful programs and evading detection by disguising themselves as essential programs. While viruses infiltrate computers by hiding in operating systems and software files, worms replicate quickly across networks while Trojan horses pose as legitimate programs such as music players; rootkits allow attackers to avoid detection while opening backdoors into infected systems;

Cybercriminals are driven by financial gain and employ phishing attacks, fake URLs and other social engineering techniques to convince victims into taking actions that compromise security. Employees with grievances against their companies often retaliate by stealing data or attacking applications in response to being denied promotion opportunities; hacktivists use cyberattacks with political or ideological motivations which may have devastating real-world ramifications.

2. Ransomware

Threat actors that prioritize ransomware attacks often aim to turn a profit by stealing data from businesses and demanding payment as ransom. Furthermore, they employ banking Trojans or phishing to gain entry to online bank or brokerage accounts.

An attack using ransomware typically begins by entering through social engineering techniques such as email phishing with malicious attachments, drives-by downloads or vulnerabilities in the perimeter. Once in, it rapidly spreads using lateral movement across networks until all systems, applications and data centers have been infiltrated by it.

Once hackers have encrypted all of the data, they demand a ransom in exchange for decrypting it. A growing trend among ransomware attacks is “double extortion,” in which attackers first steal data before threatening to encrypt it again if their demands aren’t met. One key strategy for mitigating risk from ransomware attacks is having solid backups in place and having a strong security program with network segmentation capabilities and data flow controls to safeguard against untrusted environments that should help lower risks associated with attacks.

3. Social engineering

Social engineering refers to manipulating victims into divulging sensitive data or taking unwise actions that allow threat actors to gain full access to an organization’s computer systems without detection by security controls and antivirus software. Attackers typically utilize this tactic as a way of bypassing security controls and bypassing antivirus protection software detection mechanisms.

Social engineers operate both online and in physical environments, including tailgating, which involves attackers following authorized employees into buildings to piggyback on their access cards, or watering hole, where malware attacks infect websites that target specific groups with malware that will eventually infiltrate and unknowingly infect those groups’ computers.

Other examples of social engineering attacks include impersonation, which was famously depicted in Frank Abagnale’s novel and film Catch Me If You Can. Modern attacks also frequently employ Trojans – malware disguised as seemingly benign software solutions such as virus scanners or updates – which trick users into downloading and installing them.

4. Phishing

Phishing is a type of cyber attack in which attackers use deceptive means to deceive victims into divulging sensitive information. It is one of the most frequent forms of attacks and can be used to steal data, money or access to an organization’s computer network. Attackers typically utilize email, text messaging services, voice calling services and social media as vectors for these types of phishing scams.

Hackers can leverage information they have about a victim to create more convincing phishing emails through spear phishing attacks. This strategy is more effective than mass campaigns as hackers have the capability of crafting more realistic messages aimed specifically at one company’s employees – perhaps using their names to personalize attacks more.

Spear phishing can also involve techniques such as Boarding Employee Compromise (BEC) and Chief Executive Officer Fraud (CEO fraud). For instance, attackers might send an email purportedly sent by a C-level executive asking employees at lower levels to transfer funds or provide information; their aim could even be made more convincing by creating fake CEO email accounts to make it seem legitimate. Furthermore, link manipulation techniques like link shortening can be employed by criminals to disguise the true destination of malicious URLs.

5. Advanced persistent threats

Cybercriminals have increasingly turned to advanced persistent threats (APTs) as an avenue of breach, theft and remaining undetected on networks for extended periods of time. APTs require considerable resources as well as patience and skill for proper implementation.

An APT typically comprises multiple phases and can last months or years. Criminals use this time to learn how to bypass cybersecurity defenses and avoid detection, as well as conduct multiple attacks within one campaign to extract as much data from targeted networks as possible.

Once malware has been successfully installed on a system, APTs can be managed remotely to move from system to system and locate and exfiltrate important data. They may even establish multiple points of entry if one of their initial access routes becomes closed by incident response teams.

Many threat actors rely on APTs to steal sensitive information and take over systems without authorization, compromise systems and steal financial data. Such attacks may be conducted by nation states for espionage purposes or organized crime groups for financial or competitive advantage; hackerstivists also frequently employ APTs with this goal in mind or as political or social protest.

6. Denial of service attacks

Denial of service (DoS) attacks are attempts by threat actors to restrict legitimate users’ access to services and information systems by flooding hosts/networks with numerous false service requests in an effort to overload and eventually crash them.

Cybercriminals are motivated primarily by financial gain. They use identity theft techniques such as credit card or login credentials theft to acquire sensitive data that they sell on the black market or use hacking to extort money, cause damage or disrupt services.

Governments or state-sponsored entities may engage in cyber espionage to gain competitive edge, collect intelligence or advance national or geopolitical goals. Individuals or organized groups may use cyber terrorism for ideological or political motives – raising awareness for causes they support while creating public inconvenience – with governments acting as their intermediary in this activity.

7. Backdoor attacks

Backdoor attacks give cybercriminals an effective tool to gain unfettered access to infected devices and systems, harvesting credentials at will, stealing sensitive information, or even shutting it down with ransomware attacks.

Backdoor attacks may take the form of either software or hardware vulnerabilities. Software backdoors may have been deliberately designed by software developers for troubleshooting or testing purposes – yet these backdoors have often been exploited by bad actors as part of an attack strategy.

Hardware backdoors can be hidden within computer chips or other forms of hardware, making it harder for hackers to exploit as it requires physical access to an individual device.

Backdoor attacks are increasingly being utilized by cyberspies working for rival nation states. Hackers using such techniques can spy on power grids, water filtration plants and missile systems among other critical infrastructure. Furthermore, they may steal intellectual property, extract ransom payments from victims, extort ransom money or perform other cybercrimes; typically these attacks come accompanied by malicious bots which perform various actions for attackers.

8. Hacktivists

Hacktivism is a form of cyber activism that uses computer hacking skills to advance an activist agenda. Examples of hacktivism activities include information leaks (when someone with access to classified intel discloses that data publicly) and website defacement, along with virtual sit-ins like distributed denial of service attacks that flood websites with so much traffic that it shuts down, as well as computer viruses or worms designed to spread political protest messages.

Hackers engaged in these activities may see themselves as virtual vigilantes fighting for justice, freedom and human rights; regardless of their motives and outcomes, illegal accessing of private information as well as various cybercrimes remain illegal acts.

To protect themselves against hacktivists, companies must make sure their cybersecurity systems are up-to-date, employ safe log-in credentials, and deploy security software. In addition to that, it is also wise to educate infrastructure users on best practices like avoiding social engineering and two-factor authentication as well as employ vulnerability scanning tools and incident response platforms as additional preventative measures against these types of attacks.

Sam is an experienced information security specialist who works with enterprises to mature and improve their enterprise security programs. Previously, he worked as a security news reporter.