Top 3 Adversaries in Cyber Security

Three employees investigating a cyber attack at an organization

A cyber threat adversary is any individual that poses a digital security risk to an organization. There are three main types of cyber security adversaries: cyber criminals, insiders, and state-sponsored actors. Knowing them and understanding how they operate will help employees recognize potential threats and take appropriate measures to mitigate risks.

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.”

Sun Tzu

#1: Cyber Criminals

Cyber criminals are just like regular criminals. The only difference is they use a computer instead of a knife or gun. They are primarily motivated by financial gain and care very little about how they will get it or who they will hurt in the process.

Cyber criminals can act alone, but they are often organized in groups. Each group has a unique modus operandi. Some cyber gangs like to specialize in certain types of attacks or target specific industries.

Common Attacks in Cyber Security

  • Phishing: This involves sending deceptive emails that appear to come from trusted sources, tricking recipients into revealing sensitive information like passwords or credit card numbers. Phishing can also lead to malware infections by encouraging victims to click on malicious links or download harmful attachments.
  • Malware: Malicious software, or malware, is designed to damage, disrupt, or gain unauthorized access to computer systems. Types of malware include viruses, worms, Trojans, and spyware. Malware can be used to steal data, monitor user activity, or disable systems.
  • Ransomware: Ransomware attacks involve encrypting a victim’s data and demanding a ransom payment in exchange for the decryption key. This type of attack can paralyze an organization’s operations and lead to significant financial losses.

Cybercrime, particularly ransomware, has become a huge issue, with the number of active ransomware gangs doubling from 29 in Q1 2023 to 55 in Q1 2024. In response, the FBI, CISA, and other government organizations regularly release updates and warnings to help the public and businesses.

One relatively recent and notable example is the ransomware attack on a UnitedHealth Group subsidiary, which exposed 1 in 3 Americans to potential identity theft. The attack cost the company $872 million in disruption costs alone. If we count the incident response costs, including any ransom paid to the attackers, the figure will likely exceed $1 billion.

This is just one of countless examples of how devastating cyber attacks can be, both for organizations and their customers.

#2: Insider

An insider is the opposite of an external adversary. Sometimes, employees and other persons with authorized access to an organization can pose a significant security risk. 

Unlike external adversaries in cyber security, insiders already have access to the organization’s systems, data, and premises. This access makes it easier for them to bypass many security measures designed to protect against outside threats. Although insiders may have legitimate reasons for their access, they can still pose risks, either intentionally or unintentionally.

There are several types of insiders:

  • Malicious Insiders: These individuals intentionally exploit their access to harm the organization. Their motivations can include financial gain, revenge, or corporate espionage.
  • Negligent Insiders: Employees who unintentionally cause security breaches due to carelessness or lack of awareness. This can include mishandling sensitive information, falling for phishing attacks, or failing to follow security protocols.
  • Compromised Insiders: Individuals whose credentials have been stolen or compromised by external attackers. These insiders may unknowingly facilitate an attack.

Perhaps the most widely popular example of an insider adversary is Edward Snowden, an NSA contractor who exposed a wealth of classified information in 2013. The data leak unveiled many national secrets and government programs, posing a threat to national security and eroding public trust in the government.

Businesses can also suffer the same consequences due to insider threats. That’s why it’s important to implement strategies like access controls to limit access to sensitive data and systems based on job roles and the principle of least privilege. Job rotation also reduces the risk of any one individual having too much access for too long.

#3: State-Sponsored Actors

Another type of adversary that typically targets larger governmental organizations is state-sponsored actors, also known as nation-state hackers. These adversaries in cyber security are backed by a nation’s government and have significant resources at their disposal. They often possess advanced technical skills and sophisticated tools, enabling them to conduct highly targeted and persistent attacks.

Their primary motivations include conducting espionage and sabotage on behalf of the government that sponsors them in an effort to gain geopolitical advantage.

This type of attacker aims to establish a foothold in the target system for a longer period and remain undetected, becoming an Advanced Persistent Threat (APT). This prolonged access enables them to gather as much sensitive data as possible.

With significant technical resources, state-sponsored actors often exploit zero-day vulnerabilities – previously unknown security flaws that developers have not yet patched.

How can Employees Defend against Adversaries in Cyber Security?

Employees play a critical role in protecting their organization from various types of adversaries in cyber security. Here are some practical tips and best practices employees should follow:

  • Use strong passwords and multi-factor authentication (MFA)
  • Recognize phishing emails and avoid clicking on suspicious links and attachments
  • Installing the latest software and OS updates

To become truly proficient in these and other practices, employees need regular security awareness training. Regular training will keep them informed about the latest cyber threats and trends, establishing a proactive mindset towards cyber security in their daily work routines.

Empowering Workforce Against Adversaries in Cyber Security

Employees are the first line of defense against adversaries in cyber security and play a crucial role in maintaining a strong cyber security posture. Security Quotient encourages every reader to take an active role in protecting their organization by staying informed, following best practices, and reporting any suspicious activities.

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