As security professionals, we read articles all the time about the most recent breaches, and the forensic investigations and arrests that follow. It is rare that that largest of breaches go unsolved but they can take years to prosecute based on extradition laws and whether a nation state was involved. During the course of these events, we learn about incidents, breaches and whether it was a threat actor, hacker or even attacker that caused the malicious activity.
The question is... What is the difference? Don’t they all mean the same thing? The truth of the matter is that they don't, and many times they are used incorrectly in reporting a breach or cybersecurity incident.
Threat Actor, Hacker, Attacker – What's the Difference?
Let’s take a look at the common definitions for each of our personas.
- Threat Actor: 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.”
- Hacker: According to Wikipedia, “In computing, a hacker is any skilled computer expert that uses their technical knowledge to overcome a problem. While "hacker" can refer to any computer programmer, the term has become associated in popular culture with a "security hacker", someone who, with their technical knowledge, uses bugs or exploits to break into computer systems.
- Attacker: According to Wikipedia, “In computer and computer networks an attack is any attempt to destroy, expose, alter, disable, steal or gain unauthorized access to or make unauthorized use of an asset.” Thus, an attacker is the individual or organization performing these malicious activities.
Why is there a Distinction?
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 incident and hopefully (for them, not you) a breach. They can be solo individuals, groups, or even nation states with goals and missions anywhere in the world looking to destabilize a business, government, to disseminate information, or for financial gains.
The difference between an attacker and hacker is subtle however. Hackers traditionally use vulnerabilities and exploits to conduct their activities. Attackers can use any means to cause havoc. For example, an attacker may be a disgruntled insider that deletes sensitive files or disrupts the business by any means to achieve their goals. A hacker might do the same thing but they use vulnerabilities, misconfigurations, and exploits to compromise a resource outside of their acceptable roles and privileges.
Does the Difference Matter?
Yes! The difference between the three is so important. BeyondTrust solutions are designed to protect against all three types of malicious users:
- For a Threat Actor, BeyondTrust’s PowerBroker privileged access management solutions manage privileges, log all activity in the form of session recordings or keystroke logging, and monitor applications to ensure that a threat actor does not gain inappropriate access, and document all sessions just in case they do (insider threats).
- For a Hacker, BeyondTrust’s Retina enterprise vulnerability management solutions are design to identify vulnerabilities in operating systems, applications and infrastructure to ensure that they can be remediated in a timely manner. This closes the gaps that a hacker can use to compromise your environment, including automated patch management for Windows to streamline the workflow for security patches (external threat).
- For an Attacker, BeyondTrust’s PowerBroker privileged access management solutions remove unnecessary administrator (or root) rights on applications and operating systems, and document any changes to Active Directory, File Systems, Exchange or MS SQL to ensure that their destructive tasks do not occur or are documented per the attack they are trying to commit.
A combination of all BeyondTrust solutions not only prevents outsider attacks, but limits privileges to assets and users, thereby inhibiting the lateral movement of actors, hackers and attackers if they manage to somehow gain unapproved access to your environment.
The next time you see an article on a breach or incident, think about the offending persona and how they conducted their nefarious activity.
Morey J. Haber, Chief Security Officer at BeyondTrust
Morey J. Haber is the Chief Security Officer at BeyondTrust. He has more than 25 years of IT industry experience and has authored three books: Privileged Attack Vectors, Asset Attack Vectors, and Identity 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.