A threat actor is an individual or group of individuals seeking to breach or otherwise undermine an organisation’s systems and data security. Threat actors may be involved in direct data theft, phishing, compromising a system by vulnerability exploitation, or creating malware. Security infrastructure is designed to detect and contain attacks by threat actors.

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Types of Threat Actors and Their Motivations

There are several types of threat actors. Typically, each type has a specific goal, whether it’s financial, espionage or simply to destroy your data. Understanding the different types of threat actors helps you build better detection methods and investigate possible attacks.

Financially Motivated Actors

The vast majority of threat actors are financially motivated, regardless of their preferred mode of attack. They may distribute banking Trojans or other forms of malware to directly steal from financial websites, or they may use phishing to steal credentials and log in to bank or brokerage accounts. Some threat actors seek to profit by stealing data and either selling it or charging money to return it. And some highly sophisticated actors make use of ransomware to lock up an organisation’s IT infrastructure until a payment is made.

Cyber Terrorists

Cyber terrorists can target businesses, governments, or a country’s infrastructure. They are given the name for the disruption they can cause to entire communities. A cyber terrorist’s goal is usually to harm a country’s residents and businesses, resulting in economic and physical harm.

Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) Actors

Advanced persistent threat (APT) actors are commonly aligned with a country’s government and may be backed by that government either financially, with other resources, or may even be officially a part of the government. State-sponsored threats are generally targeted and motivated by espionage, looking to support the intelligence gathering priorities of their aligned government organisations. At times, these cyber actors may use malware to gain access to a target’s accounts or target an opposing country’s infrastructure and steal information. APT actors target a variety of sectors across the globe.


Hackers sometimes target governments and businesses based on opposition to their target’s ideology. “Anonymous” is a popular hacktivist group made up of people from all over the world, but other hacktivists might work alone. These threat actors are generally not financially motivated, seeking to damage data or infrastructure for political reasons. They can be external or insider threats focused on performing malicious activities and disrupting normal business productivity.


Many corporations make the mistake of trusting any activity from employees or hired contractors. For example, an insider threat could be a newly disgruntled employee or a person who purposely targets a business or government. Competitor governments or businesses pay insiders to steal intellectual property and trade secrets, but some insider threats aim to simply do damage to their employer. Insider threats have become more common in recent years, inflicting the most damage and being the most difficult to detect since they have legitimate access to infrastructure and data.

Script Kiddies

Not every threat actor is a skilled attacker. Many scripts, code repositories, and malware are freely downloadable for anyone to use. These threat actors are colloquially known as “script kiddies” since they usually don’t have the technical skills to code or exploit vulnerabilities. Even without coding and hacking skills, script kiddies can still harm an organisation’s productivity and private data. A script kiddie can also unknowingly add malware to the environment, thinking they are downloading tools they can control.

Internal User Mistakes

Insider threats don’t always have malicious intent, but the damage they cause can be just as bad as intentionally targeting the business with an attack. Usually, unintentional damage from an insider threat is associated with phishing. External attackers send phishing emails to insiders, tricking them into opening a malicious attachment or accessing a web page that tricks a targeted employee into divulging their credentials. Because the employee has legitimate access to data, insider threat actors can reveal extensive sensitive data to an attacker.


Because most attacks are financially motivated, threat actors target businesses and governments with plenty of money. Some threat actors target individuals, but these attacks rely on volume as the amounts of money involved tend to be relatively small.

Small and large businesses are targeted by threat actors. Unlike individuals, businesses also have numerous employees and contractors who contribute to the risks of a data breach due to human error. Insider threats often cause a data breach or ransomware infection, but external threat actors can also cause data breaches.

Threat actors take more time to target specific businesses, often performing reconnaissance to gather information about a target before launching an attack. For example, threat actors use spear-phishing techniques to improve their chances of compromising a high-privileged user account or trick an accounting person into sending money to the attacker. An attacker could be a disgruntled employee, an employee paid off by a competitor to steal data, or an external threat actor attempting a compromise for a data breach.

Governments are targets for state-sponsored threat actors, using the same exploits as threat actors targeting businesses. But these attackers often have better monetary backing and usually work in groups. They are just as dangerous and can cause severe downtime for government agencies, aiming to disrupt country infrastructure and harm residents.

Why Should Businesses Care?

Security infrastructure is expensive, but the cost of a successful cyber attack can be astronomical. Most businesses store customer information and have at least one compliance regulation that they must follow. Being non-compliant often results in fines should the business suffer a data breach because of a non-compliant vulnerability. Most compliance regulations require organisations to have reasonably secure infrastructure to protect consumer data.

Losing data and paying for non-compliance violations aren’t the only consequences of ignoring threat actors. After a data breach, the damage to your brand could have long-term consequences. If consumers lose trust in your brand, the organisation could see a drop in customer sales and a loss in customer loyalty. Litigation costs are also long-term as class action and consumer lawsuits are a real possibility. These lawsuits could last years after the initial data breach.

Data protection requires daily updates and continual maintenance. Cybersecurity infrastructure must stay updated because the cybersecurity landscape changes daily and threat actors continue to change their methods to overcome current defences. Threat intelligence systems focus on the evolution of cybersecurity and changes in threat actor methods. These systems are integral to proper defences for any organisation to ensure that their data is protected from current and future threats.

How to Stay Ahead of Threat Actors

Current cybersecurity standards advise corporations to transition from a reactive to a more proactive approach to data security. Proactive controls monitor, detect, and automatically contain a threat before it leads to a data breach. Older security models gave information to analysts to review a possible data breach, but intrusion detection, prevention, and monitoring are much better at lowering risks and keeping data secure.

Administrators can take several measures to stop threat actors and the attacks they launch from stealing data. A few ways corporations can leverage Proofpoint to help:

  • Education: Employees must know what to look for when they receive suspicious emails, and security awareness training programmes are a great way to do this. Empowering employees to identify threat actors, malicious messages and malicious websites will help them learn how to avoid interacting with them.
  • Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA): Threat actors focus many of their initial attacks using phishing emails. If an employee falls for a phishing attack and divulges credentials, MFA can stop an attacker from continuing their campaign.
  • Network monitoring: Monitoring tools are required for some compliance standards, but they also play a critical role in proactive cybersecurity. Monitoring employee activity will help prevent threats from careless, compromised or malicious insiders.
  • Intrusion detection and prevention: Automated tools with artificial intelligence technology activity monitor an organisation’s environment and automatically contain a threat before it leads to a data breach.

Proofpoint offers several services that track threat actors and monitor your environment and activity. Proofpoint’s Targeted Attack Protection (TAP) provides visibility into an organisation’s environment, an attacker’s objectives (e.g., deploying ransomware or trying to gain access to endpoints), an attacker’s technique (e.g., macro or a PowerShell script), and progression (e.g., employees who clicked a malicious link).

Managed services provide organisations with enterprise-level security operation centre resources to help administrators protect from external and internal threat actors. Technology is just one component of good cybersecurity. Trained experts and analysts are required to configure the technology, maintain it, and take action from alerts. Proofpoint gives your organisation the technology to stop threats and educate employees on managing their cybersecurity infrastructure.

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