What is a Threat Actor? Motivations, Targeting and Staying Ahead

Everywhere you turn, bad actors are lurking who want to steal your valuable data. At Critical Start, our Cyber Threat Intelligence (CTI) team scours the clear and dark web and a variety of open and paid cyber sources, keeping a pulse on emerging threats across marketplaces, chats, and other platforms to help organizations like yours protect themselves against cybercriminals.

So, what exactly is a threat actor? What are the different types, and what motivates them? To know them, is to beat them – and make sure you’re always one step ahead.

What is a Threat Actor

A cyber threat actor is an individual or a group that uses online platforms or technology to carry out malicious activities. These activities can range from simple nuisance attacks, such as sending spam emails, to more complex and sophisticated operations that can cause significant damage to businesses, governments, and individuals.

Cyber threat actors can use a variety of techniques to carry out their attacks, including malware, phishing scams, and ransomware. They can also exploit vulnerabilities in computer systems and networks to gain access and steal sensitive information.

Some common types of cyber criminals include:


Hackers are individuals or groups who use their technical expertise to gain unauthorized access to computer systems, networks, and data.

Hackers target victims for a variety of reasons, including financial gain, political activism, or personal satisfaction. Some hackers, known as black hat hackers, engage in illegal activities for personal gain or for the thrill of it. Others, known as white hat hackers, use their hacking skills for defensive purposes, such as finding vulnerabilities in systems and helping organizations fix them. Still, others, known as gray hat hackers, may engage in both illegal and legal activities. Ultimately, the reasons for hacking can vary depending on the individual hacker and their motivations.

Nation-State Actors

Nation-state actors are individuals or groups who are sponsored by a government to conduct cyberattacks against other countries or organizations.

Nation-state threat actors are sponsored by a government to carry out cyber-attacks against other countries or organizations. They are highly trained, stealthy and often target the nuclear, financial, or technology sectors for intelligence. These threat actors may be government intelligence agencies or military, and are protected by their nation’s legal system. In some cases, a state may use outside organizations for their attacks, allowing them to deny responsibility. In addition to collecting intelligence, nation-state threat actors may also attack critical infrastructure or attempt sabotage.


Insiders are individuals who have legitimate access to an organization’s computer systems but use that access to carry out malicious activities.

Insider threats are difficult to identify and prevent because they originate from within an organization. An insider threat is an individual with legitimate access to an organization’s systems and data who uses that access to commit malicious activities. These threats can be employees, consultants, board members, or anyone else with privileged access. According to the 2021 Verizon Data Breach Investigations Report, insider threats were responsible for over 20% of data breaches. These breaches often result from privilege abuse, which can be difficult to identify. Insider threats don’t typically trigger cybersecurity alerts because they don’t need to force access to systems.

Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) Groups

APT groups are highly sophisticated and organized groups that conduct long-term, targeted attacks against specific organizations or individuals. These groups are often sponsored by a nation-state and are focused on gathering intelligence or conducting sabotage. They may be motivated by political, military, or economic goals.

Cyber Terrorists

Cyber Terrorists are individuals or groups who use the internet to carry out acts of terrorism, such as disrupting critical infrastructure or spreading propaganda. They may be motivated by political or ideological beliefs.

While there may be some overlap between cyber terrorists and APT groups, they are not the same thing. Cyber terrorists are typically motivated by ideology, while APT groups are often sponsored by a government and motivated by political or economic goals.

Threat Actor Targeting

Most threat actors are indiscriminate in choosing their targets. They look for vulnerabilities to exploit rather than individual people. In fact, mass scammers and automated hackers attack as many systems as possible and spread between networks like an infection.

Cybercriminals known as big game hunters target large, high-value organizations or high-profile individuals. These attackers take time to study their target and conduct a specialized attack that is more likely to succeed often using ransomware to encrypt the victims’ data and demand a payment in exchange for the decryption key. Victims are chosen based on their ability to pay the ransom and the likelihood that they will do so to avoid disruptions to their business or negative publicity. Common targets include large corporations, banks, hospitals, government agencies, and individuals with sensitive data, such as trade secrets or personal information.

Threat Actor Motivation

Threat actors come in many forms and can have different motivations for their attacks. For example, a cybercriminal may be motivated by financial gain, while a hacktivist may be motivated by a political or social cause. Nation-state actors may be sponsored by their government to conduct cyber espionage, or sabotage against other countries or organizations.

Insider threats may be following the lead of other cybercriminals by selling information to competitors. They may also be more personally motivated; if they have a grudge against their company or boss, they could attempt to compromise the network in retaliation.

Regardless of their motivations, all threat actors pose a risk to individuals and organizations. They can use various techniques, such as malware, phishing scams, and ransomware, to carry out their attacks. By understanding the different types of threat actors and their tactics, individuals and organizations can take steps to protect themselves and prevent attacks.

Staying Ahead of the Threat

It is important for organizations and individuals to be aware of the threats posed by cyber threat actors and to take steps to protect themselves, such as by implementing strong security measures and regularly updating their software and systems.

Some other best practices for protecting against threat actors include:

  • Strengthening your cybersecurity infrastructure by looking to a Managed Detection and Response (MDR) provider, where you can respond to events faster with 24x7x365 SOC support
  • Regularly updating software and systems, and encouraging your workforce to do the same
  • And educating employees about the dangers of phishing scams and other tactics used by threat actors

By staying aware and vigilant, individuals and organizations can reduce their risk of falling victim to a cyber-attack. To speak to an expert about how you can prevent breaches and stop business disruption, contact us today.

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