A threat actor is a person or entity that has the ability or intent to impact the security of other individuals or companies. In cyber security and threat intelligence, a threat actor is a broad term for any individual or group of individuals that attempts to or successfully conducts malicious activities against enterprises, whether intentionally or unintentionally.
Threat actors can be internal or external to the organization being targeted, and they may or may not possess the technical skillsets needed to infiltrate and compromise networks and corporate data.
Threat actors with the technical skills to target and breach corporate security networks often fall into the category of hackers and security attackers, but the threat actor term itself is a broad one that also encompasses security incidents initiated through negligence, mistake, or social espionage.
Four Main Types of Threat Actors
With such a broad definition, it can be helpful to think of threat actors in distinct groups that take different approaches in compromising corporate security. Recorded Future breaks down threat actors into four major categories:
Cyber criminals – Hackers and attackers that use techniques like phishing and ransomware when targeting individuals and corporations, typically in attempts to generate money from their cybercriminal activities.
Hacktivists – Threat actors that are typically motivated by political or social causes more than monetary gains in committing acts of “hactivism.” Hacktivists are more likely to take sites and networks down via DDoS and similar attacks or commit other acts of cyber vandalism as opposed to extorting businesses or individuals for money.
State-Sponsored Attackers – These threat actors are well-funded and well-organized cyber espionage entities that commit their activities with the backing of governments or similar large entities. State-sponsored attackers typically focus on infiltrating larger organizations with the intent to steal massive amounts of mission-critical and other sensitive data.
Insider Threats – Threat actors that intentionally or unintentionally provide sensitive corporate data to others, either by mistake, by not following security policies and best practices, by being duped or deceived by a cybercriminal, or by criminally obtaining and sharing information with cyber criminals for money or revenge.
Defending Against Threat Actors
Knowing your enemy can be vital when it comes to securing a corporation’s critical data, and applying threat intelligence with the different types of threat actors in mind is a crucial step to avoiding security breaches and minimizing the damage a breach can cause.
Additionally, with so many types of threat actors and potential motives and attacks, protecting against security threats requires a multi-pronged, continually evolving approach that involves diligent application and adherence to security best practices and policies — across the entire organization.
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