In the 1950s, the word “cyber” referred to cybernetics – the science of understanding the control and movement of machines and animals. This was followed by “cyber” standing for “computerized.”
The 1990s brought around a new cyber-related term. The word “cyberspace” emerged to define an invented physical space that some people wanted to believe existed behind the electronic activities of computing devices.
Modern Cyber Threats
Today, the term is almost exclusively used to describe information security matters. Because it’s hard to visualize how digital signals traveling across a wire can represent an attack, we’ve taken to visualizing the digital phenomenon as a physical one.
A cyber attack is an attack that is mounted against us (meaning our digital devices) by means of cyberspace. Cyberspace, a virtual space that doesn’t exist, has become the metaphor to help us understand digital weaponry that intends to harm us.
What is real, however, is the intent of the attacker as well as the potential impact. While many cyberattacks are mere nuisances, some are quite serious, even potentially threatening human lives.
Why Protect from Cybersecurity Threats?
Cyber threats are a big deal. Cyber attacks can cause electrical blackouts, failure of military equipment, and breaches of national security secrets. They can result in the theft of valuable, sensitive data like medical records. They can disrupt phone and computer networks or paralyze systems, making data unavailable. It’s not an exaggeration to say that cyber threats may affect the functioning of life as we know it.
The threats are growing more serious, too. Gartner explains, “Cybersecurity risks pervade every organization and aren’t always under IT’s direct control. Business leaders are forging ahead with their digital business initiatives, and those leaders are making technology-related risk choices every day. Increased cyber risk is real — but so are the data security solutions.”
The US government is taking cyber threats seriously but appears to be moving too slowly to mitigate them. The White House’s Office of Management and Budget revealed that of the 96 federal agencies it assessed, 74 percent were either “At-Risk” or “High Risk” for cyber attacks. They needed immediate security improvements.
The US government has experienced numerous crippling data breaches in the last few years. Examples include the massive breach of the Federal Office of Personnel Management and the theft of secret US Naval codes. Both attacks have been attributed to Chinese state intelligence agencies.
Types of Cybersecurity Threats
Cybersecurity threats come in three broad categories of intent. Attackers are after financial gain or disruption espionage (including corporate espionage – the theft of patents or state espionage).
Virtually every cyber threat falls into one of these three modes. In terms of attack techniques, malicious actors have an abundance of options.
10 Most Common Types of Cyber Threats
Software that performs a malicious task on a target device or network, e.g. corrupting data or taking over a system.
An email-borne attack that involves tricking the email recipient into disclosing confidential information or downloading malware by clicking on a hyperlink in the message.
A more sophisticated form of phishing where the attacker learns about the victim and impersonates someone he or she knows and trusts.
“Man in the Middle” (MitM) attack
Where an attacker establishes a position between the sender and recipient of electronic messages and intercepts them, perhaps changing them in transit. The sender and recipient believe they are communicating directly with one another. A MitM attack might be used in the military to confuse an enemy.
Named after the Trojan Horse of ancient Greek history, the Trojan is a type of malware that enters a target system looking like one thing, e.g. a standard piece of software, but then lets out the malicious code once inside the host system.
An attack that involves encrypting data on the target system and demanding a ransom in exchange for letting the user have access to the data again. These attacks range from low-level nuisances to serious incidents like the locking down of the entire city of Atlanta’s municipal government data in 2018.
Denial of Service attack or Distributed Denial of Service Attack (DDoS)
Where an attacker takes over many (perhaps thousands) of devices and uses them to invoke the functions of a target system, e.g. a website, causing it to crash from an overload of demand.
Attacks on IoT Devices
IoT devices like industrial sensors are vulnerable to multiple types of cyber threats. These include hackers taking over the device to make it part of a DDoS attack and unauthorized access to data being collected by the device. Given their numbers, geographic distribution, and frequently out-of-date operating systems, IoT devices are a prime target for malicious actors.
A data breach is a theft of data by a malicious actor. Motives for data breaches include crime (i.e. identity theft), a desire to embarrass an institution (e.g. Edward Snowden or the DNC hack), and espionage.
Malware on Mobile Apps
Mobile devices are vulnerable to malware attacks just like other computing hardware. Attackers may embed malware in app downloads, mobile websites, or phishing emails and text messages. Once compromised, a mobile device can give the malicious actor access to personal information, location data, financial accounts, and more.