Cyberattack vs. Cyber Threat vs. Cyber Risk

The terms “cyberattack,” “cyber threat,” and “cyber risk” are closely intertwined and often used interchangeably. But they don’t all mean the same thing.

A cyberattack is an offensive activity, whereas a cyber threat is the likelihood of a specific attack occurring. Lastly, a cyber risk typically measures the probability and impact of potential damages due to a security breach.

For example, a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) cyberattack is a cyber threat to organizations with online retail websites. The associated cyber risk is usually a loss of revenue and costly domain downtime.

Cyberattacks are never-ending and ever-evolving. If you want to stay ahead of their risks and outcomes, understanding the differences between their stages is crucial. In this article, we’ll talk about the slight but important differences between cyber risk, cyber threat, and cyberattack.

That way, you can adequately prepare and take any proactive measures.

Read on for an in-depth look at these definitions and more.


What is a Cyber Risk?

Any danger of financial loss, disruption, or damage to an organization’s reputation caused by the failure of its IT systems is classified as a cyber risk. Such risks can manifest in various ways, including:

  • Intentional and unauthorized security breaches to get into private systems.
  • Unintentional or unavoidable security breaches.
  • Poor system integrity posing operational IT hazards.

Poorly managed cyber risks can expose your organization to several cyberattacks, causing anything from data loss to financial ruin. Additionally, businesses frequently find themselves amid a public relations nightmare trying to retrieve stolen assets, prevent further theft, and recover their professional reputation.

Cybercrime is always hiding around the next corner, whether you’re a small business or a multibillion-dollar company. Without the proper precautions, entities are much more susceptible to such cyberattacks.

What is a Cyber Risk Assessment? 

A cybersecurity risk assessment identifies system, data, hardware, or any other vulnerabilities that could be exploited by cybercriminals and then determines the numerous risks that could affect any IT assets.

The broader and more complex your digital operations, the higher your cyber risk. Here are some factors that can contribute to increased cyber risk:

  • Employees or consumers accessing systems remotely
  • Employees utilizing company-owned gadgets at home or on the road
  • Giving employees administrative privileges on the company network or PCs
  • A Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policy
  • Public access to business premises (without an ID card)
  • Employees using unsecured computers to access bank accounts and make money transfers
  • Failing to upgrade passwords regularly
  • Network failures resulting in critical data loss
  • Failing to assess and update your company’s cybersecurity policies regularly

Every company faces the possibility of a cyber breach at some point But knowing your risk level—and how cyberattacks can materialize—can help you plan an effective response.


What is a Cyber Threat?

A cyber threat is the possibility of a cyberattack that attempts to damage, disrupt, or gain unauthorized access to your company’s system or confidential data. Cyber threats can originate from within an organization or from third-party cybercriminals.

However, the danger is in the attacker’s intent and the possible impact. While many cyberattacks are minor annoyances, others are more serious, even posing a risk to human life.

Cybersecurity threats can be classified into three broad categories based on intent: financial gain, disruption espionage, or corporate espionage.

Malicious actors have a wide range of attack strategies at their disposal. Popular cyber threats include:

  • Malware: Malicious software that carries out a specific task on a target device or network, such as corrupting data or seizing control of a system.
  • Phishing: A social engineering attack where a victim is tricked into divulging confidential information or taking another action, such as downloading a malicious link.
  • Man in the Middle (MitM) attack: When an attacker takes up a position between the sender and the recipient of electronic messages and intercepts them, sometimes modifying them while en route.
  • Trojan attack: A type of malware that enters a target system looking like something else, such as a standard piece of software, but then releases dangerous code inside the host system.
  • Ransomware attack: Where data on the victim’s system or device is encrypted, and a ransom is demanded in exchange for the user regaining access to the data.
  • Denial of Service (DDoS) attack: Where an attacker intentionally overloads an organization’s system, causing it to fail.

What is a Cyberattack?

The term “cyberattack” is typically defined as the malicious act of stealing, destroying, exposing, disabling, or altering data via unauthorized access to computer or network systems.

A cyberattack also refers to a politically motivated attack by nations or non-state organizations such as terrorists. Furthermore, this term includes cybercrime—criminal behavior carried out in cyberspace, although the definition changes as cybercrimes become more sophisticated and widespread.

Information and communication technologies (ICTs) are frequently used in cyberattacks to amplify conventional crimes such as intellectual property theft, harassment, and fraud. In addition, other types of crime, such as identity theft, have exploded in cyberspace.

Hacking and distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks are examples of new cyberattacks executed using ICTs. Cyberattacks have evolved in recent years, posing a more significant cybersecurity threat to national security.

Attacks can have a variety of motivations, ranging from sabotage and espionage to theft, fraud, and ‘hacktivism,’ among others. Additionally, attacks can be targeted, such as the Stuxnet virus attack on Iran’s nuclear systems. They can also be untargeted, such as phishing attacks destined for numerous email addresses.

Cyberattacks exploit flaws in computer systems and data networks or fool individuals into gaining unauthorized access to steal, destroy, or manipulate data and systems. In general, these attacks take one of three forms:

  • Attempts to breach confidentiality and gain access to sensitive information.
  • Changing, manipulating, or compromising data and computer systems to attack an organization’s integrity.
  • Maliciously prohibiting or restricting access to data or systems by legitimate owners.

When a Cyber Risk Becomes an Active Cyberattack

Understanding the difference between threats and risks is crucial to comprehend your organization’s risk posture. A company can conduct a more comprehensive cyber risk assessment when the implications are better understood.

Moreover, knowing the differences between a cyber risk, threat, and attack enables better communication between security teams, the C-suite, and vendors, which aid in risk mitigation.

Cyberattacks are difficult to predict ahead of time, if not impossible. You may, however, better prepare for a cybersecurity breach by periodically assessing the risks and threats. 

For example, unpatched software, social engineering, and poor password management are currently the leading causes of data breaches. The first step in determining the risk to your assets is to identify threats accurately.

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