Threat Actor, Hacker, Attacker – What's the Difference?
Let’s look at the common definitions for each of our personas that target our businesses, governments, and even our personal technology.
According to Tech Target, “a threat actor, also called a malicious actor, is an entity that is partially or wholly responsible for a security incident that impacts – or has the potential to impact – an organization's security.”
According to TechTerms.com, “While this term originally referred to a clever or expert programmer, it is now more commonly used to refer to someone who can gain unauthorized access to other computers. A hacker can "hack" his or her way through the security levels of a computer system or network. This can be as simple as figuring out somebody else's password or as complex as writing a custom program to break another computer's security software.”
According to Wikipedia, “A cyberattack is any offensive maneuver that targets computer information systems, computer networks, infrastructures, or personal computer devices. An attacker is a person or process that attempts to access data, functions, or other restricted areas of the system without authorization, potentially with malicious intent. ” Thus, an attacker is the individual or organization performing these malicious activities, regardless of the method deployed.
Why is there a Distinction Between Threat Actor, Hacker, and Attacker?
A threat actor – compared to a hacker or attacker – does not necessarily have any technical skill sets. They are a person or organization with malicious intent and a mission to compromise an organization’s security or data. This could be anything from physical destruction to simply copying sensitive information. It is a broad term and is intentionally used because it can apply to external and insider threats, including missions like hacktivism.
Hackers and attackers are technical personas or organizations intentionally targeting technology to create an incident and, hopefully (for them, not you), a breach. They can be solo individuals, groups, or even nation-states with goals and missions to destabilize a business, government, to disseminate information, or for financial gain.
The difference between an attacker and hacker is subtle, however. Hackers traditionally use vulnerabilities and exploits to conduct their activities and have the technical skills to create or deploy malware used during their nefarious activities. Attackers can use any means to cause havoc. For example, an attacker may be a disgruntled insider who deletes sensitive files or disrupts the business by any means to achieve their goals. They could simply unplug a key system. A hacker might seek to perform the same goal, but they use vulnerabilities, misconfigurations, and exploits to compromise a resource outside of their acceptable roles and privileges using technology and malware as their primary tools.
Does the Difference Matter?
Yes! Understanding the differences between threat actor, hacker, and attacker is important.
BeyondTrust solutions are designed to protect against all three types of malicious users:
- Threat Actors: BeyondTrust’s password management solutions manage all privileged identities, log all activity in the form of session recordings or keystroke logging, and monitor applications to ensure threat actors do not gain inappropriate access. In addition, BeyondTrust solutions manage and document all privileged sessions just in case threat actors (such as insider threats), do infiltrate the enterprise, enabling the ability to pause or terminate sessions, and providing an unimpeachable audit trail for forensics and compliance.
- Hackers: BeyondTrust’s Endpoint Privileged Management solutions are designed to remove administrative privileges from applications and users. The solution ensures hackers cannot inappropriately elevate privileges, or launch child processes that could contain malware, during a session. This closes the gaps a hacker can use to compromise your environment since almost success breaches need privileges during some part of the cyberattack chain.
- Attackers: BeyondTrust’s Secure Remote Access solutions are designed to secure all major remote access protocols that could be targeted by attackers. With all sessions being brokered, audited, and secured from native protocol tampering, organizations can mitigate the risks of an attacker using a legitimate remote access session to perform unauthorized activities.
The next time you see an article on a breach or incident, think about the offending persona and how they conducted their nefarious activity.
This blog was first published on May 17, 2017 and has been refreshed with updated definitions and content on August 16, 2022.
Morey J. Haber, Chief Security Officer, BeyondTrust
Morey J. Haber is the Chief Security Officer at BeyondTrust. He has more than 25 years of IT industry experience and has authored four books: Privileged Attack Vectors, Asset Attack Vectors, Identity Attack Vectors, and Cloud Attack Vectors. He is a founding member of the industry group Transparency in Cyber, and in 2020 was elected to the Identity Defined Security Alliance (IDSA) Executive Advisory Board. Morey currently oversees BeyondTrust security and governance for corporate and cloud based solutions and regularly consults for global periodicals and media. He originally joined BeyondTrust in 2012 as a part of the eEye Digital Security acquisition where he served as a Product Owner and Solutions Engineer since 2004. Prior to eEye, he was Beta Development Manager for Computer Associates, Inc. He began his career as Reliability and Maintainability Engineer for a government contractor building flight and training simulators. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering from the State University of New York at Stony Brook.