What is a threat actor?
A threat actor is an individual or group that exploits vulnerabilities or uses deceptive tactics to harm digital devices, systems, or networks. Threat actors execute cyberattacks, such as phishing, malware attacks, and ransomware. Threat actors can range from amateur criminals like script kiddies to sophisticated nation-state actors, each possessing varying levels of skill, resources, and complexity in their attack methods.
What are the types of threat actors?
Threat actors are typically classified based on their motivations and, to a smaller extent, their level of sophistication:
- Nation-State Actors: Highly advanced threat actors sponsored by governments to advance national interests by engaging in cyber espionage, cyber warfare, and other malicious activities.
- Criminal Groups: Motivated by profit, these actors engage in activities like identity theft, financial fraud, and the distribution of ransomware.
- Hacktivists: Threat actors driven by ideological or political motivations, aiming to promote their cause by disrupting services or leaking sensitive information.
- Insiders: Individuals within an organization who, intentionally or unintentionally, compromise security, often driven by revenge, curiosity, or financial incentives.
What are examples of threat actors?
Here are some examples of various types of well-known threat actors:
- Lapsus$: A global, extortion-focused threat actor group notorious for targeting some of the most highly-resourced companies in the world.
- REvil: A Russian-speaking criminal group that ran a Ransomware-as-a-Service (RaaS) operation on the dark web, targeting high-profile organizations.
- Anonymous: A decentralized hacktivist group known for its attacks on governments and corporations.
What is the motivation and capabilities of threat actors?
Threat actors have varying goals when selecting and attacking their victims. Criminal groups are driven by financial gain, while state-sponsored hackers seek sensitive information ranging from login credentials to financial information and medical record data. Some attacks are politically motivated to destabilize a region or country.
The capabilities of a threat actor depend on two main factors:
- Technical skills, ranging from basic (script-kiddies) to highly advanced (nation-states)
- Resources: Nation-states have significant resources while smaller criminal groups or individual threat actors may have limited resources
Who do the threat actors target?
Threat actors can target anyone to steal sensitive information, including:
- Individuals: Mainly targeted for identity theft and financial fraud
- Businesses and Corporations: Businesses are targeted for sensitive corporate data, customer information, and intellectual property
- Critical infrastructure: Terrorist groups and nation-states may target critical infrastructure to cause disruption, damage, or fear
What tactics and techniques does the threat actor use?
Understanding threat actors’ identities, behavior, campaigns, infrastructure, and patterns of life is extremely valuable to building a strong defensive strategy. Threat actors may use various tactics and techniques depending on their target and their own level of expertise. With that said, social engineering attacks like phishing are very popular among most threat actors. Hacktivists may launch DDoS attacks to disrupt their targets. Sophisticated threat actors like nation-states are also known as Advanced Persistent Threats (APT), since they typically aim to achieve persistence in their victim’s networks that span months, allowing them to conduct espionage and extract sensitive data.
How to protect against threat actors
It’s crucial to understand how threat actors attack their victims from all angles in order to stay protected.
- Keep software up to date. Software updates often include security patches that can help protect against known vulnerabilities.
- Use a layered security approach. Strong passwords and MFA are essential for protecting accounts from unauthorized access. In addition, monitoring for compromised web sessions and invalidating stolen session cookies is essential to prevent attack methods like session hijacking.
- Block phishing emails. Create a list of compromised email addresses and passwords that then can be used to block phishing emails from being delivered to employees’ inboxes to prevent a bad actor from stealing sensitive information.
- Monitor your networks and systems for suspicious activity. Checking for unauthorized access attempts, malicious traffic, and data breaches can help identify and respond to attacks quickly.
- Have a plan in place for responding to security incidents. This plan should include steps for identifying, containing, eradicating, and recovering from incidents. In the case of malware infections, see this example incident response plan.
How does SpyCloud help defend against threat actors?
SpyCloud helps organizations effectively stop malicious activities before they become a big problem by illuminating what criminals know about your business and customers. By fortifying your defenses with the same data in criminals’ hands, you can better protect your valuable digital assets and maintain the cyber resilience of your organization’s infrastructure. SOC analysts can also leverage SpyCloud Investigations to de-anonymize threat actors who are harming individuals and businesses.