What is a Threat Actor?
A threat actor is a term given to describe an entity that can potentially attack an organization’s digital infrastructure or network. This includes professional cybercriminals and cyber gangs, nation-state actors/state-sponsored groups, advanced persistent threat actors, hacktivists, malicious insiders, and even trolls.
Generally, threat actors will look for vulnerabilities in a target’s IT environment to gain access to high-value systems and data for either financial or political motivations.
The exact goal depends on the modus operandi of the attacker.
Types of Threat Actors
As mentioned above, threat actors come in many different shapes and sizes.
This category refers to threat actors who commit cybercrime to make money. Cybercriminals often target computers and other IT systems with low-hanging fruit techniques like phishing or exploiting software vulnerabilities to infect the devices with viruses, malware, ransomware, and spyware.
While most cybercriminals look for simple exploits to systems, more experienced cyber gangs can use more advanced techniques to achieve their objectives.
Nation-State Actors / State-sponsored groups
These threat actors are groups working with authorization and funding from a nation-state government to conduct espionage activities or target a foreign nation’s critical infrastructure.
While some countries work with nation-state actors to disrupt other countries for political reasons, others, like North Korea, work with cybercriminals as a way to make money. The significant funding provided to nation-state actors makes them one of the most difficult entities for organizations to defend themselves against.
Hacktivists are politically motivated threat actors looking to disrupt a target’s IT operations or leak data to achieve a political or social goal. One of the most famous examples is Anonymous, a hacking group that reportedly originated on 4Chan.
Another example is the IT Army of Ukraine, a volunteer group of individuals who’ve agreed to engage in disruptive cyber operations against the Russian state. Hacktivist groups often look to Denial of Service (DoS) and Direct Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks to cause their targets downtime or look to leak data to the public.
Malicious insiders are any threat actors that reside inside an organization. This includes employees, contractors, or anyone with access to IT infrastructure or protected information.
Employees can become malicious if they’re disgruntled and want to get back at an employer or make a profit.
In some cases, ransomware gangs and other entities will offer to pay insiders to gain initial access to an environment. Malicious insiders are difficult to defend against because many security teams overlook the potential for attacks to take place from within.
It’s worth noting that some threat actors are simply trolls who want to disrupt their entertainment. One example was a group of teenagers that used a DDoS attack on Sony’s PSN in 2014.
These threat actors range in experience, but most rely on basic exploits to cause maximum impact.
How Common are Threat Actors? Why are They a Problem?
Threat actors are a pervasive threat to modern organizations. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) 2022 Internet Crime Report estimates that over $10.3 billion was lost to cybercrime in 2022, up from $3.4 billion in 2021.
Regarding data breaches, the Identity Theft Resource Center discovered 1,802 total compromises in 2022, impacting over 422,143,312 victims.
Information leaked by threat actors in these breaches included the name, social security number, date of birth, home address, driver’s license, medical history, bank account number, and medical insurance of customers.
These breaches are problematic because they expose customers’ details to cybercrime and are costly for the end user organization.
In fact, according to IBM, the average cost of a data breach is $4.45 million, largely due to operational disruption and downtime.
5 Threat Actor Tools to Be Aware Of
When looking to target an organization, threat actors have several core tools they rely on to achieve their aims. Some of these are as follows:
Many threat actors will use phishing scams, malicious attachments, and infected files on file-sharing sites to infect user’s devices with viruses. These viruses produce self-replicating code, which can spread to other computers and networks.
Once again, these are transmitted through phishing scams, email attachments, and compromised files on file-sharing sites.
Ransomware is an extremely popular form of malware that enables a hacker to encrypt the victim’s files. Once the files are encrypted, the hacker will issue a ransom note, threatening to delete or leak the data if the user doesn’t pay up.
Ransomware is transmitted the same way as most malware.
Phishing is a cybercrime where a hacker sends email, SMS, or voice messages to trick users into sharing sensitive information by directing them to a fake login form or downloading an infected attachment.
Phishing is often used to infect user’s devices with malware.
Denial of Service and Distributed Denial of Service Attacks
DOS and DDoS attacks, where an attacker attempts to overwhelm a network or server with traffic, are a go-to choice for hackers who want to cause operational disruption and leave users unable to access critical services.
Hackers will often look to exploit vulnerabilities in unpatched software and applications to try and gain an entry point to a user’s environment. Serious vulnerabilities can give attackers the ability to remotely execute code.
How to Defend Against Threat Actors
Most of the time, defending against threat actors comes down to following cybersecurity best practices. Some basic steps you can take to defend against threat actors are listed below:
- Enable multi-factor authentication. Activate multi-factor authentication on user accounts so hackers can’t log in with stolen credentials.
- Install antivirus and anti-malware software. Install antivirus and antimalware software to endpoints so that you can identify, remove, and prevent malware infections.
- Regularly patch software. Periodically patch apps, systems, and software to reduce the number of vulnerabilities that exist throughout your environment and decrease the chance of a threat actor being able to use an exploit to gain entry.
- Security awareness training. Educate employees on cybersecurity best practices with security awareness training to reduce the chance of being caught off guard by an attacker or leaving key systems and data at risk. This training can cover how to detect phishing emails, report attacks, and select strong passwords.
- Enterprise security solutions. Deploying cybersecurity tools like network monitoring platforms, Extended Detection and Response (XDR), Managed Detection and Response (MDR), Security Orchestration, Automation and Response (SOAR), and Security Incident and Event Management (SIEM) can help enhance your ability to detect and respond to threat actors.