What is a Cyber Threat?

A cybersecurity threat is the increased chance of a malicious attempt against an organization’s network and computer security.  Cyber threats can exploit a system’s vulnerabilities and cause a breach, system damage, data theft, computer virus launch, and instability within a company’s digital environment.   

Cybersecurity threats are not solely outside attackers trying to locate and breach vulnerabilities.  They can also be internal threats.  Cyber threats have a wide range of sources, from actual deployed threat programs to human error and social engineering. 

Threat vs Vulnerability vs Risk


The chance of a malicious attack, malware, virus deployment, or a threat actor exploiting a vulnerability inside your system. 


A weakness in applications, networks, or infrastructure that exposes sensitive data and assets to threats. 


Is the potential for damage or loss of data or digital assets, resulting from a cyber threat attack.

Types of Cyber Threats

Cyber threats come in many different attack styles, from malicious software to exploiting human nature.   


One of the most well-known types of cyber threat, malware, is malicious softwareThis software is designed to be intrusive and capable of stealing data and destroying computer systemsMalware has different versions depending on the attack technique. 


One of the fastest growing and longest lasting attack-styles, ransomware attack vectors are popular amongst criminals because it’s very effective and easy to implementRansomware infiltrates systems and software and restricts access to data by locking the systemsInstructions are given about payment, however, once the ransom is paid, additional data theft can occur for additional paymentsEven if a company complies with the criminals, there’s no guarantee the systems or data will be unlocked or undamagedStolen data from ransomware can be exploited repeatedly after a breach has been established. 

Discover the terrifying truth about ransomware >


Spyware software is designed to stay on your computer, gather information about you, and forward that information to a third-party.  Not all spyware is malicious, some can monitor your data for commercial usage, like advertising cookie trackingCriminal spyware surveils activity, creates data breaches, and profits from stolen private data without user consent.


Worms are a type of malware that uses self replication to spread to other computersWorms stay active while replicating and exploiting automatic portions of an operating system while remaining invisible to the user.  This malware’s only goal is to replicate onto as many computer systems as possibleWorms require no human interaction to spread, which is different than how computer viruses spread.


Trojan horse malware hides as a “harmless file” and once engaged it unpacks its payloadThere are different ways this type of attack can be used to deliver a variety of harmful attack stylesOne of the more successful and often replicated trojan horse attacks was the Zeus trojan horse (or Zbot)This attack was a high-profile cybercrime against the United States Department of Transportation.  This particular trojan horse stole data from the US Government and was used to breach online commerce giants as well as some of the biggest financial institutions.  Copycat cyberattacks are still carried out because of the scale of success the initial attack achieved.

  • Backdoor Trojans – This trojan attack type allows criminals to remotely access a computer.  Typically, this is so they can upload, download, and execute their files.
  • Exploit Trojans - Specifically targeted machines get infected with these trojans, which are code designed to take advantage of a known weakness in the software, opening the door for cyber criminals.
  • Rootkit Trojans -This variety of trojan attack hides malware already infecting a system, increasing the ability to cause the maximum amount of damage.
  • Banker Trojans – This is a specifically designed trojan attack that targets banking information, usually personal information and online banking transactions.
  • Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) Trojans – DDoS trojans execute a programmed attack that floods requests from multiple sources with the intent of disabling a network or computer system by overloading it.
  • Downloader Trojans -These are files written to download additional malware, often including more Trojans, onto a device.
Social Engineering Attacks

Social engineering relies on human interaction, deception, and gaining a person’s trust to get access to pertinent systems for an attackPerson-to-person manipulation is the key, finding the right individual with the necessary credentials for the targeted system.  There are a number of common attacks that are still very successful.

  • Phishing & Spear Phishing: Phishing is a wide range attackAn attacker sends out a spam email scam to thousands of random email addresses at the same timeCriminals use a “ticking clock” urgency to help manipulate the target into following the email’s instructionsThis directs them to open an unsecure attachment, web link, or tricking them into entering their personal information, such as credit card or social security numberThe goal is that within those thousands of emails sent, there is at least one successful response. 
    Spear phishing is a more direct attack methodLike phishing, it sends out scam emails, however, these emails are socially engineered to appear as if they’re a personal or business source.  Scammers can use social media accounts to gain information about their intended target and they’re able to “personalize” a message directed at themThis makes the success rate much higher because the target believes they’re responding to a personal contact.
  • Baiting: Phish bait is a cyber “bait and switch” schemeAn email sent from a real company, which looks like a legitimate communication.  The scammer is actually using that as a decoy to trick the target into believing what they’re responding to is actually from the reputable company.  Emails are sent from that company but under the supervision of a compromised system, which the bad actors use as camouflageThey mine the responses from these emails for the requested sensitive information and then exploit that info.
  • Vishing: This method goes one step further, where the criminal makes a voice over internet call to the targetInstead of the standard scam email, this bad actor tries to get private, personal information directly over the phone.
  • Smishing: Cell phones are susceptible to malware just like computersSMS texts can be used as phishing attacks, known as “smishing” and can infect phonesScam links and corrupt attachments can be sent from an unknown number with the hope that the victim will open them, exactly like email phishing.
Supply Chain Attacks

A cyberattack that mimics a company’s outside partner or supplier can trick that supplier’s customersThey use the already established business relationships and credibility to attack their customers as a groupThis is a supply chain attack, an attack that targets the weakness of an entire supply chain rather than individuals or single companiesThese attacks compromise a vendor, gain access to their customer list, and launch an attack against them.   
This system can use malware to steal data, alter records, delete files, and even spy on customers and deploy harmful software against them.

Man in the Middle (MITM)

“Man in the middle” attacks happen when a perpetrator positions themselves between two users or applications.  This method passes the data through the criminal in between the  communication lines, similar to eavesdropping.  Sensitive information is “handed off” to the criminal in the middle, who duplicates it, and then passes it to the reputable recipient.

Denial of Service Attack (DoS)

A Denial of Service attack is used to overwhelm the attack target with a massive influx of internet traffic, which would overload the system and crash itDenying services through false internet traffic prevents customers and business from resuming transactions per usualThese attacks can be from disgruntled employees or customers, hacktavists making a statement, or criminals looking for extortion or a ransom. 

Injection Attacks

When an attacker forces randomized coding, queries, or programs inputted into an application to cause an unforeseen coding malfunction, this is considered an injection attackThis attack is meant to force open the public facing application (like an online form or log-in box) when a large volume of automated, randomized coding is put into those information boxesThis coding can disrupt the standard entry point and create programming reactions that can cause problems and uncover vulnerabilities that bypass security measures.

  • SQL Injection: Structured Query Language (SQL) injection attacks are when an attacker exploits an application entry point causing it to damage itself.  The attack finds programmatic defects by injecting coding or characters into the input sectionsThis can create undiscovered, unexpected reactions and may result in the application divulging additional vulnerabilities and sensitive data.  It’s incredibly difficult to defend an SQL injection attack once the targeted application is launchedPen testing, using dynamic application testing, and a black box fuzzer tool can help uncover these application code abnormalities before it’s deployed to the public.

What are Insider Threats?

This is one of the biggest reasons cybersecurity is bypassed.  An insider threat is anyone inside the organization that knowingly or unknowingly helps cyber criminals get through security measures.  These insiders already have credentials and access to sensitive data and systems, with the right cyberattack tactics, they can be compromised and manipulated to reach pertinent information.   

Organizational cybersecurity strategies tend to keep most of the focus on outside threats.  Security professionals have a hard time determining between a malicious insider and normal internal activity.  These insiders know the enterprise systems and processes, and as current users they have an advantage because of this knowledge. 

Types of Insider Threats


An authorized used that intentionally works with an outside cybersecurity attacker is known as a collaborator.  They leak sensitive information to external criminals and company rivals to sabotage their organization for financial gain or revenge.  

Lone Wolf

Independently acting, lone wolves aren’t influenced by malicious external manipulation.  They’re often very dangerous to an organization since they have higher privilege security access. 

Careless Insider Threats

A careless insider is an inadvertent security threat.  Human error and poor judgement are usually the biggest contributors since these threats are a result of phishing and social engineering.  It leads to stolen credentials and unintentional security exposures to external security attacks. 


An outsider that has gained security access is known as a mole.  This threat actor may pose as a vendor or partner and gain elevated authorization that they are not qualified to have. 

Emerging Cyber Threats

The evolution of technology is expanding faster and faster.  With this expansion comes an increase of cyber threats looking to exploit the newer vulnerabilities that emerge.  Government agencies, public infrastructures, supply chains, IoT and Bluetooth devices are all being increasingly targeted.  Multi-threat, advanced attacks are being launched through known and unknown cybersecurity attack methods.  These new attack targets include cloud-based systems and peripheral devices. 

Pandemic/Remote Work

The pandemic created a bigger, newer way for workforces to collaborate and work remotely.  But, with the work from home workforce growing, so are the cybersecurity threats.  Vulnerabilities that may not exist in a traditional workspace may now be accessible to cybercriminals.  Organizations need to have the right portfolio of cybersecurity solutions and tools to help secure and enforce the right privileged security access.

Learn how to deal with access risks across an expanded workforce >

Increase use of IoT devices

Internet of Things (IoT) devices have expanded to nearly 5 billion devices, which make up about 30% of all user endpoints.  However, these devices may not be properly maintained by manufacturers, which can lead to roughly half of them having critical vulnerabilities.  Without the proper layer of security solutions, cyber threats can use these devices’ weaknesses to access organizational networks and data assets.

Read the blog: The Most Dangerous Cyberattacks Aren't What You Expect >

Cloud usage

The Cloud connects organizations and users across any distanceIt’s incredibly useful for information storage and sharing but uploading sensitive organizational information on the internet still has risks.  Cloud misconfiguration and interface protocols can make it easier for a cyber threat to access pertinent data and damage an organization with widespread malware.  Cloud security solutions have to create a multi-layered cybersecurity environment that’s flexible to protect cloud storage, on-site storage, or a hybrid of both.

Who is Responsible for Cybersecurity Threats?

Cyber threats come from any criminal individual or organization that aims to cause damage to infrastructures, extort companies, or profit from sensitive, private data.  These are the bigger cyber threat groups: 

  • Cyber Terrorists: The goal of this group is to cripple critical infrastructures.  These terrorists attack national security, disrupt economies, inflict damage on private civilians, and try to knock out resources that could cause bodily harm.  Cyber attacks on municipalities such as water, gas, electrical, the essential services people need, are one of their top targets.
  • Cybercriminal Organizations: Motivated by monetary gain, these organizations look for a criminal payday.  This group attempts to employ cybersecurity break-in tactics.  They use phishing, spam, spyware, malware, and online scams to steal pertinent, sensitive, private information.  Then, they use this extorted information for profit.
  • Criminal Hackers: Criminal hackers target companies and can use different attack styles.  Motives for these attacks can be personal gain, monetary gain, revenge, or even political hacktivism.  These malicious hackers develop new cyber threats to grow their criminal activity and even attempt to gain notoriety in the criminal hacker community.
  • Insider/Company Employees: Employees have the easiest access to company assets and sometimes they can abuse their credentials.  Insiders have the ability to steal sensitive data, damage internal systems, and use privileged information for their own gain.  Contractors, suppliers, partners, or any outside contact who have security clearance may target the company they work for.
  • Rival Nations: There are always nations that have tension between them.  “Hostile” countries launch cyber attacks against one another.  They can target companies, institutions, infrastructures, government branches, and try to interfere with communications, created national security disorder, and overall damage the opposing country. 

What Happens if a Cyber Threat Goes Undetected?

Undetected cybersecurity threats can camp out in your system accumulating “dwell time”.  Dwell time is the amount of time an unnoticed cyber threat intrusion sits within a compromised systemA cybercriminal that breaches an organization’s system typically has, on average, 249 to 323 days of undetected time to steal data, spread malware, and cause damageBy the time the cybersecurity threat is discovered inside the system, the damage is doneThis can result in compliance fines, sensitive data theft and exposure, system functionality damage, and organization credibility loss. 

How to Defend Against Cybersecurity Threats

There are multitudes of ways to defend against cyber threats, including good cyber hygiene and basic security best practices.  Many of these solutions aren’t complex or expensive.  They can be simple yet overlooked methods to keep your organization secure and with smaller or limited IT teams, these can be incredibly helpful resources. 

Turn on multifactor authentication. Adding additional hoops to security sign-ins helps deter a cyber attacker.

Strong passwords equal strong security. Numbers, uppercase letters, symbols make it difficult to replicate or guess a password. In the same token, change passwords regularly and do not share them.

Update software, applications, and operating systems regularly. Newer versions close cybersecurity threat holes that may have been discovered.

Don’t get phished, think before you open links. 90% of cyber-attacks are from suspicious links that have been clicked. This isn’t just a warning for email links, scammers can text and voice call as well with this fake information. If you’re in doubt of an email, call, or text legitimacy, ignore, report, block it.

Keep privacy settings at the highest level and do not use location sharing features. The less personal information available, the harder it is for a social engineer or bad actor to mimic an employee.

Error on the side of caution when it comes to any suspicious activity. You can always verify credentials, but you cannot stop a breach after it has happened. It’s better to be secure than sorry.

Check sensitive data and account records regularly and note any unauthorized transactions or changes.

Antivirus, anti-malware, and firewalls detect and block threats, minimizing access and damage.

Back up your sensitive files and data regularly. Should an attacker breach and attempt to steal or hold it for ransom, you’ll have that data saved from damage or restrictions.

Practice principle of least privilege access controls

Manage supply chain risks

Run regular cybersecurity audits, scans, and testing

Cyber attackers use deception, stealth, and fear to extort pertinent information and data. These simple solutions, along with the right cyber threat management portfolio of advanced offensive cybersecurity tools can make it increasingly difficult for a cybercriminal to exploit a cybersecurity threat.

Cyber Threat Management Solutions from Digital Defense

Fortra Vulnerability Manager 

Reduce cyber threat targets with the most comprehensive, accurate, and easy-to-use SaaS vulnerability management solution. 

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Web Application Scanning

Don’t leave any open doorways on the web.  Easily conduct dynamic testing with accurate assessment results, even if your web apps change. 

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Active Threat Sweep

Cybersecurity threats move fast and quietly.  Active threat sweep can quickly and reliably assess active threats in your network using powerful, patented technology. 

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Penetration Test 

Find cyber threat weakness points for correction before they are exploited.  Proven and exhaustive penetration testing locates and identifies cyber security weaknesses. 

Learn More > 

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