A threat actor is any inside or external attacker that could affect data security. Anyone can be a threat actor from direct data theft, phishing, compromising a system by vulnerability exploitation, or creating malware. Security infrastructure detects, contains, and eradicates threat actors and their various attacks.
Types of Threat Actors
There are several types of threat actors, people who build malware and perform attacks on your infrastructure and applications. Typically, each type has a specific goal, whether it’s financial or simply to destroy your data. Understanding the different types of threat actors helps you build better detection methods and investigate possible attacks.
Cyber terrorists mainly target businesses, governments, or a country’s infrastructure. They are given the name for the disruption that these threat actors can cause entire communities. A cyber terrorist’s goal is usually to harm a country’s residents and businesses, resulting in economic and physical harm.
Like cyber terrorists, state-sponsored threat actors are usually backed by a country’s government and paid to attack an opposing country’s infrastructure. The difference between a cyber-terrorist and a state-sponsored threat actor is that a state-sponsored threat actor usually wants to extort a government or steal proprietary secrets. They might use ransomware or rootkits to gain remote control of critical machines used to operate infrastructure. State-sponsored actors also target businesses and vendors that support government infrastructure and aim to disrupt productivity.
Hackers sometimes target governments and businesses based on their 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.
Not every threat actor is a skilled attacker. Many scripts, code repositories, and malware are freely downloadable for anyone to use. The threat actors are called script kiddies since they usually don’t know how 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 threat actors don’t always have malicious intent, but their damage 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.
The type of threat actor targeting your business also has specific motivations. The motivation might not seem important when you build security infrastructure, but understanding attackers helps you develop better planning. The security tools you install are built to defend against specific attacks and target specific threat actors.
For many attackers, the primary focus is financial gain. Ransomware is a valuable tool for threat actors to extort money from targeted businesses and governments. Ransomware targeting individuals may demand a few hundred dollars in Bitcoin, while ransomware targeting businesses and governments typically demands millions in payment. Once ransomware encrypts files, businesses cannot recover their data without either paying the ransom or restoring files from backups. Ransomware is common and effective, so security infrastructure must be built to detect and stop ransomware.
Political motivation fuels state-sponsored attackers and cyber terrorists. These motivations might have an element of financial gain, but the main goal is to disrupt business services and cause harm to governments. Attackers are usually outside the country they are targeting, so they are hard to locate, investigate, and indict on criminal charges.
Some attackers do it entirely for fun or research. Finding vulnerabilities in software is a job for some threat actors, but these white hat hackers will not cause harm intentionally. White hat hackers inform organisations when a vulnerability is found to help them identify issues and patch their systems before attackers steal data. Attackers who do it for fun use the same methods as other attackers but can do enough damage to impact business productivity.
Threat actors hacking for fun might also want notoriety, making them easier to target if they leave a calling card. Others do it for revenge, which could lead to better identification if the attacker makes mistakes and leaves an audit trail. Most attackers aim to hide their activities, but attackers seeking revenge or notoriety might purposely leave information about themselves.
Motivations may overlap, too. State-sponsored attackers might do it for political purposes but also might want financial gain. Ransomware can extort businesses and governments for millions of dollars, but it also cripples business productivity and can potentially shut down governments for weeks.
Because most attacks are financially motivated, threat actors target businesses and governments with plenty of money to pay ransoms or ones that can pay to get their data back. Some threat actors target individuals, but these attacks rely on volume instead of targeting quality businesses with plenty of revenue.
Attackers know that individuals have fewer funds than businesses. Most attacks like ransomware target individuals and ask for small amounts. Threat actors also target individuals for financial data or identity theft. Businesses and individuals must be aware of threats, but businesses are specifically targeted for large data breaches and high ransom payments.
Small and large businesses are targets of 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 using various vectors are also a cause for 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 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 being the victim of a data breach is even more expensive. Most businesses store customer information and have at least one compliance regulation that they must follow. Being non-compliant comes at a high cost of paying fines should the business become the victim of a data breach from 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 are not the only two 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 for 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 approach to data security to a more proactive approach. 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 to steal 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 programs 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 would 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 infrastructure. Monitoring employee activity will stop insider threat actors with malicious intent or mistakes.
- 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. Good 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.