Cybersecurity in Plain English: What is a Threat Actor?

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I’ve written a blog series like this for many companies I’ve worked for, now I’m doing it on my own blog for everyone to read. Please drop me questions you’d like answered to me via Twitter/X/whatever it’s called this week @miketalonnyc – I’d love to get you answers explained without the jargon! 

hacker in hoodie

A common question that I hear from both non-technical professionals and experienced cybersecurity pros is, “What’s the difference between a hacker and a threat actor?” Let’s dive into this topic and spell things out – youmight be surprised that those two terms are different, though related to each other. 

A hacker is simply anyone who uses a system for something other than its intended purpose. While we most commonly associate the term with people who use technology in unexpected ways, in fact just about everyone who reads this is a hacker. When you drink coffee to alter the way you transition from just waking up to fully alert, you are hacking you body by introducing a chemical that alters the way your body would naturally perform that process – one example of the phenomenon known as “bio-hacking.” Hacking – in and of itself – is not a harmful or threat activity, it’s merely finding a different (and presumably more effective) way of doing something that uses tools and techniques that aren’t explicitly designed for that purpose. 

Specifically in the technology world, a hacker is someone who utilizes hardware and/or software in a way that it wasn’t designed to be used. Modern examples of hackers are researchers who attempt to subvert hardware and software defenses with the express purpose of making those systems more secure by identifying and closing security gaps. Penetration testers are also examples of hackers – using the tools and techniques which would otherwise be considered threat activity, but with the express permission and authorization of the organization being tested to identify and quantify security weaknesses. 

In short, hackers are everywhere, and primarily do what they do either in order to prove it can be done without causing damage or disruption, and/or to actually make systems better overall. The modus operandi of a hacker is not to perform a criminal act without express permission, but rather to ensure that anyone attempting to perform a criminal act can be blocked, discovered, identified, etc. 

So, if hackers break things and perform threat-like activities, how are they different than threat actors? Well, I’m not a lawyer, so I can’t speak to the legal definition, but I can speak to the practical difference: intent. Threat actors perform operations against technology with the express purpose of disrupting operations, destroying systems, stealing data, extorting an organization, etc. In other words, a threat actor differentiates themselves from a hacker because they are performing these actions in furtherance of a goal already considered to be a criminal act. They have no intent to make the cybersecurity resilience of an organization better. They don’t intend to advise or counsel an organization on potential or actual security gaps. They’re doing it to cause harm and/or make money illicitly – and typically for no other reason. Yes, there are threat actors who perform their operations to highlight a political issue, and there are threat actors who will falsely purport to be “helping” companies by exposing security flaws – but that is clearly and demonstrably not their goal in doing what they do. The disruption, harm, extortion, or espionage that occurs is their primary goal, and cannot be overlooked for any other factor in the threat activity itself. 

Some of the earliest examples of threat actors were “phone-phreaks” who realized that by playing a specific tone into a public pay-phone, the phone would believe the user was an Operator and allow for free long-distance calls. While the tone had a legitimate purpose, that purpose was most definitely not to allow just anyone to make free calls, and therefore was being used fraudulently. This is a great way to explain the difference between a hacker and a threat actor: A hacker would recognize this could be done, then inform the phone company and provide all the evidence so the company could close the gap. A threat actor doesn’t inform the phone company, and instead performs acts of theft of services for their own benefit alone.

To sum up, threat actors are indeed a sub-set of hackers. The difference lies in intent. Hackers look to make things better – by improving a process or closing a security gap. A hacker may make money doing what they do, but they make that money as a result of services, bug bounties, or publication of research. They will also take necessary steps to ensure that intrusions are minimized, data retrieved is destroyed, etc. Threat actors have the primary goal of harming someone or something, or financially benefiting from the act alone through techniques like extortion. There will always be some gray area between these groups, as one is a sub-set of the other, but the intent of the person or group performing the operation can be used to determine which group they belong in.  

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