Cyber Risk vs Cyber Threat: Are They The Same Thing?

After the term “cyber threat” began to enter common usage, its meaning became a bit fuzzy. The same goes for “risk” — we’ve all heard the term thrown around, but do we really know what it means and how it is used in IT? In this post, we will attempt to clarify these terms and their relationships.

In today’s world, organisations must have high-level data security. Ensuring that client and vendor data isn’t compromised is crucial. When customers, clients and vendors sign up to do business with you they expect that their information is deemed important enough for you to do everything in your power to keep it safe. Many clients with sensitive information will also require you to have a clear and thorough data security policy before doing business with you.

That begs the question: “How confident are you regarding your organisation’s IT security processes?” Data security issues that may impact your organisation consists of many components of which we will be investigating two in this blog article:

  • Risk
  • Threat

Cyber risk and cyber threat are often used interchangeably. They are, in fact two distinct terms and carry different meanings and implications within the cyber security world.

What is a risk?

A risk can be defined as the potential for loss, damage or destruction of an asset as a result of a threat exploiting a vulnerability. In simple terms, risk refers to the assessment of potential threats to an organisation’s security and vulnerabilities within its network. Cyber risks include:

  • Compliance posture
  • Hacking
  • Vulnerability
  • Reachability of an organization’s systems and data to outside actors and hackers.
  • Financial losses
  • Legal implications

Cyber risk can also include risk of financial loss, reputational damage or disruption of an organisation resulting from the failure of it’s IT systems. Poorly managed cyber risks can leave you open to a variety of cybercrimes, with consequences ranging from data disruption to economic destitution.

It can be summised that risk involves a combination of threat probability and loss/impact. Consider the following scenario to illustrate: an organisation has an SQL injection vulnerability causing a sensitive data theft threat. The impact of such a threat is significant financial and reputational loss. The probability of an attack is considered high. Therefor, this scenario is considered a high-risk situation.

What is a threat?

Typically, IT security staff have no direct control over threats. As a direct result in this digital economy, the emphasis is placed on vulnerabilities and control failures as factors in cyber risk assessments. But, unfortunately, it’s becoming more and more difficult to remove every vulnerability without vetting the impact and likelihood that they will be exploited.

A threat can be defined as anything that can exploit a vulnerability, intentionally or accidentally, and obtain, damage or destroy an asset. In other words, a threat is what an organisation is defending itself against.

Cyber threats are constantly evolving, and organisations must take steps to protect themselves against black market hackers, state-sponsored cyber criminals, and other nefarious individuals and groups. The most effective way to protect against cyber attacks is by implementing a layered approach to cyber security — reviewing your current cyber security measures regularly and adapting them as needed.

Common cyber threats include:

  • Backdoors
  • Formjacking
  • Cryptojacking
  • DoS (Denial of Service) and DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attacks
  • DNS poisoning attacks
  • Malware
  • Phishing and spear phishing
  • SQL injection attacks
  • MitM (Man in the Middle) attacks

What can you do about it?


Figure 1: Threat x Vulnerability = Risk (Credit: Black Kite & FAIR Institute)

Knowing the difference between threats and risks is critical to understanding the risk posture of your organisation (Figure 1). Threats and risks are often intertwined so understanding the difference is crucial. By understanding the difference between risks and threats, a firm can more effectively determine risk and implications. As Elasticito CEO Ronan Lavelle says: “A good understanding of how threats and risks influence one another is important. It allows for clearer communication between security teams, c-suite and vendors which will help mitigate breaches.”

Risks and threats are often difficult and sometimes impossible to identify in advance. You can, however, be better prepared when a breach occurs by assessing for risks and threats regularly. Currently, the biggest causes of data breaches include unpatched software, social engineering and improper password management. Consider the following:

  • Conducting penetration testing. Discover potential vulnerabilities by modelling real-world threats.
  • Performing regular risk and threat assessments. By assessing different kinds of risks and threats, will enable you to determine the best approach to safeguarding your environment.
  • Staying informed of the latest trends in cybersecurity. Read current blogs, join professional associations, and attend webinars.
  • Monitoring and evaluating your risk framework. Because risks are constantly changing, adjustments to the framework will need to be made.

Accurately identifying threats is the first step to understanding the risk to your assets. Elasticito understands that taking the first step is only the beginning of a greater journey. Contact us for more information.