Threat Actor, Hacker, Attacker

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.

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:

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. BeyondTrust can help defend against all three personas. For more information, including a personalized demo, contact us today.