To create a robust defense strategy, you have to know what you’re up against. What better way to do this than to put yourself in the mindset of cyber threat actors.
Before you can start to protect your organisation, it’s essential you understand the adversary, their motivations, and their goals.
In cyber security, this adversary is defined as a cyber threat actor.
You need to delve deep into what they are trying to achieve, so that you can start putting the correct measures in place to keep your business secure.
Whilst lots of cyber attacks are fuelled by financial gain, there are other reasons why threat actors want to be inside of your network.
We’ll be covering these motivations in detail further down the blog, so keep reading to find out more, and most importantly, how you can protect your security system from these unwanted intruders.
But first things first.
Let’s start by drilling down into what cyber threat actors are, and what they do.
What Are Cyber Threat Actors?
Cyber threat actors are individuals or a group of individuals who locate and attack technological vulnerabilities through systems, networks, domains, devices, and other potentially breachable windows.
They then use this stolen data and access to accomplish a variety of goals, most commonly for financial gain.
Cyber threat actors use a variety of tactics to see their aims through and to penetrate a security system.
This includes vulnerability exploitation, ransomware attacks, phishing scams, credential stuffing, and DDoS attacks, which we’ll cover in more detail below.
A group of threat actors is commonly referred to as a “collective” or “syndicate” as they work together to achieve their end goal.
Threat Actor vs Cyber Threat Actor
It’s important to understand the difference between threat actors and cyber threat actors in case you come across these terms in different scenarios.
Threat actors is a more general term and relates to all individuals, or groups, who are motivated by a cause, and take illicit actions to put these thoughts into practice.
Typically, threat actors are divided into two categories:
Those whose methods manifest physically (i.e. physical security) and those that manifest as cyber attacks (i.e. cybersecurity).
However, there is cross over as threat actors who intend physical harm, such as violent non-state actors (VNSA), might communicate digitally, and as such, possess a certain cyber element to their tactics.
Why Should You Care About Cyber Threat Actors?
In February 2022, it was reported that software vulnerabilities became the most common attack vector for Ransomware attackers. These vulnerabilities are discovered through broad scanning of the internet. That means regardless of what sector you work in, or the size of your business you are an attractive target simply because you have online systems.
Without even realising it, you hold lots of important information on your system, which could be very dangerous if it falls into the wrong hands.
Whether that’s the personal information of your employees, or details of business transactions, it’s important to keep this data safe and secure.
Malicious cyberthreat actors are continuously looking for new ways to infiltrate an organisation’s network, and you and your computer could be their way in. Even if you think you’re tech savvy, and can filter out potentially dangerous activity, cyber attacks have cunning ways of getting through undetected.
A cyber threat actor will look at various ways to target the organisation you are working for, and they’ll be extremely clever in their approach. They might send you a phishing message and trick you into sharing sensitive credentials by cleverly wording the text.
Before you know it, you’ve accidentally granted them access to your network, and they can delve deeper into the system without anyone being any wiser – until it’s too late.
Having an awareness about the various types of cyber threat actors and how they go about their dirty business keeps you one step ahead.
Types of Cyberthreat Actors
There are different types of cyberthreat actors, and it’s important you have an awareness of them so you can be more cyber offensive.
Below, we take a look at types of cyberthreat actors in more detail, as well as what their motivations are.
Cyber terrorists have evolved as part of a wider, global problem that has dominated countries for decades. These types of cyber threat actors are usually intent on disrupting critical services to cause severe disruption and harm. Like physical terrorists, they will choose high profile targets and publicly claim responsibility for their attacks.
Motivation: Cause harm and high-profile disruption
These types of cyberthreat actors are funded, directed (often covertly), or sponsored by nations.
Historically, they’ve been known to steal and exfiltrate intellectual property, sensitive information, and even money to further their nation’s espionage causes.
The tactics will differ depending on the speciality of the group, but many include spear phishing or social engineering as initial attack vectors. Apart from disrupting operations or stealing funds, they will often also have espionage capabilities.
Targets of these attacks include state institutions, critical infrastructure, and large companies who possess technological secrets or important assets
Motivation: Theft, espionage, or any other activity that furthers the interests of a particular nation
You can’t escape crime, especially on the internet.
These types of cyberthreat actors steal sensitive data, money, and personal information. Since their goal is financial gain, the data they take usually ends up on the black market or is sold to the highest bidder.
Cybercriminals are also known to use ransomware, password stuffing, remote access exploits, keyloggers, and phishing to extort businesses and individuals directly.
Motivation: Financial gain
These types of cyberthreat actors are often motivated by ideological activism. Their primary focus is to bring awareness to a certain subject and to ‘expose’ businesses, nations, or agencies who they believe are wrongdoing.
The majority of hacktivist groups attempt to draw public attention to what they believe is an important issue or cause using propaganda, as opposed to causing damage to critical infrastructures.
For instance, the majority of information leaked by WikiLeaks was a result of hacktivists who wanted to expose information they felt should be public.
Motivation: Exposing secrets and disrupting organisations that are deemed evil.
Some cyber attackers don’t possess enough skills or experience to design their own penetration tools to get inside your network. ‘Script kiddies’ are newcomers to illegal online communities, and as such, tend to engage in areas of cybercrime with a low barrier to entry.
This is where ‘Script Kiddies’ come in, as they use tools developed by other cyber attackers to penetrate a cybersecurity system.
They usually do not understand how programming languages work, but are able to download and use scripts written by others.
Motivation: Attack computer systems and networks to inflict as much damage as possible
When it comes to finding the culprit of a cyber attack, you don’t always need to look far.
Some threat actors can be lurking within your workforce, or they can manipulate someone on the inside to help them achieve their cause/goal.
Insiders are a particular threat to any organisation’s cybersecurity and can be difficult to manage, due to the level of access they’d have when working from within.
Motivation: Work inside an organisation to overthrow its cybersecurity framework, expose secrets, or exact revenge.
Internal User Error
Whilst all of the cyber threat actors outlined above have malicious and deliberate intentions, this is not always the case.
Sometimes, there are internal use errors which are accidental. However, the damage they cause is quite extensive and can leave a network highly vulnerable.
Even simple user errors can result in catastrophic consequences because of their elevated permissions within an organisation’s network. One very common mistake of these individuals is forgetting to change default credentials. Without realising, the organisation now has a wide open door for cyber threat actors.
These threat actors can either be incompetent or negligent which puts an organisation at risk through carelessness. Negligent insiders are often familiar with security policies and IT best practices but choose to ignore them.
Relying on human operators to protect your cybersecurity will always bring a level of risk. Cavalry by TLR is an automated solution, which periodically scans your network to find weaknesses and vulnerabilities.
It enhances the role of your team, and ensures you stay one step ahead.
Motivation: Not malicious, usually unintentional
Common Motivations of Cyber Threat Actors
Now that we’ve explored different types of cyber threat actors, let’s take a look at some of the most common motivations.
We’ve briefly touched on these above, but we’re going to drill down into more detail so that you can better understand the mindset of a cyber threat actor.
This will help you put yourself in their shoes, so that you are better prepared for a cyber attack.
Political, Economic, Technical, and Military Agendas
Hacktivists and Government-based Actors both share these types of motivations when it comes to penetrating a security system.
From the outset, they have a set objective/target in mind when they start planning an attack and know exactly what they want to achieve.
In addition, the data stolen is rarely seen available for sale on the black market which can suggest that a cyberattack was orchestrated/sponsored by another country.
Financial gain is the most frequent motivation for cyber criminals.
These types of cyberthreat actors won’t usually care about penetrating a specific organisation or business as they’re purely focussed on monetary value.
In addition, they won’t care about the discoverability of the crime as their main focus is to steal assets that they can convert into money as quickly as possible.
Some cyberthreat actors are motivated by reputation and will actively seek targets that will help them gain more recognition.
In fact in some cases, these cyber threat actors will ignore the opportunity to attack non-visible targets as they want those that will attract maximum attention.
Interestingly, we have even observed one collective attack another for notoriety. These attacks are often conducted because a new group wants to garner some reputation or take market share. The details of these battles is discussed in dark web forums, and quite a thrilling read.
Getting revenge is a pervasive human trait; it’s also a common motivation for many cyber threat actors.
These individuals (or groups) are usually employees or previous employees who are seeking revenge on an organisation.
This makes them very dangerous as they will have intimate knowledge about an organisation’s systems, networks, and even defenses.
A threat actor might be motivated by various causes, depending on what they would like to gain from the attack.
For example, they might want to get revenge on a company they have worked for previously whilst still having a political agenda.
Cyber threat actor tactics, techniques, and procedures
To penetrate your security system, cyber threat actors have a range of tactics up the sleeve!
Find out more below…
DDos stands for distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack.
This is a malicious attempt to disrupt the normal traffic of a targeted server, service, or network by flooding it with internet traffic.
These attacks have the biggest impact when utilising numerous compromised computer systems as sources of attack traffic. DDoS attacks are often pivoted to allow cyber threat actors to steal data from the victim.
Social engineering methods are generally used by cyber threat actors to gain initial entry into a network or resource.
This type of attack is very clever, as it takes advantage of human beings within a cyber environment.
Phishing is a common form of social engineering and involves sending communications such as phishing email that seems to be from a reputable source.
As such, an unsuspecting person receives this email, and can accidentally grant access to cyber criminals.
Ransomware is a type of malware and involves cyber threat actors encrypting a victim’s data and then holding it ransom.
Extortionist ransomware refers to the practice of publishing, or threatening to publish, stolen data from an infected server. The idea is that this will put pressure on the victim to pay the ransom, as they don’t want their information exposed.
This type of ransomware means that backing up data no longer reduces the threat of ransomware attacks.
Why You Need to Think Like Cyber Threat Actors
Understanding cyberthreat actors helps you map out your defense strategy so that you can outmaneuver attackers more successfully.
The more you understand cyberthreat actors, the better prepared you will be as you can stay one step ahead. This proactive approach improves your organisations cyber readiness as you’re not sitting back waiting for it to happen.
Instead, you’re delving deep into the mindset of a cyber threat actor to analyse your IT infrastructure from their point of view. This will inform the creation of your cyber defense strategy so that you can deter threat actors much sooner in the attack process.
At TLR, we’re committed to making you cyber offensive.
From security training, to penetration testing and vulnerability scanning, to incident response, we help your team understand cybersecurity, and most importantly to understand the defense tactics. We know this can be a daunting thought, and often there’s a lot of stigma attached to understanding cybersecurity.
But there doesn’t need to be.
To find out more about how we can help, get in touch with our team of experts.