Threat, Vulnerability, Risk | Understanding the difference

understanding risk vulnerability threat

Threat, Vulnerability, Risk | Understanding the difference

  Cyvatar | 01/05/2022

At first look, threat, vulnerability sound one and the same. And many startups and SMBs make the mistake of chalking them up to be.

With the digital transformation underway and every business having an online presence, understanding the difference between the three becomes significant.

Threat, vulnerability, and risk are all interrelated. However, they are not the same thing.

Let’s do a quick Threat Vs Vulnerability Vs Risk


Is something that an organization must defend itself from. Threat is reality. It’s something that exists whether you acknowledge it or ignore it. For example, DDoS attacks are always lurking around. The sooner you accept it and be prepared, the better it would be for your organization.


Is your own flaws, your weaknesses. Every organization that is online is vulnerable to cyber-attacks. Your organization is vulnerable to cyber-attack due to misconfigurations in your organization’s firewall that could let hackers into your network, for example.


Is the potential for financial loss, damage, and destruction of your asset and data due to the existing threats exploiting the vulnerabilities in your information system.

Hence, Risk ∝ Threats x Vulnerabilities

Example of Threat, Vulnerability, and Risk

Let’s take a quick example with a problem statement to understand how threats could exploit vulnerabilities in your organization to pose a risk to assets and data. This will help you set clarity on these terms and better manage the security of your organization:

Problem: Hackers looking to gain access to your information system is an inevitable threat, while misconfigured firewalls make your system vulnerable to such threats. Any unauthorized access to your information system by such a threat due to the vulnerability in the system is a serious risk to your assets and data.

Solution: A fully managed cybersecurity service with remediation for ensuring proactive threat and vulnerability management to avoid any potential risk to your organization causing financial losses.

The better and more thorough examples could be listed down in the following matrix.

    RISK              ∝                THREAT               x                    VULNERABILITY

  • Business disruptions
  • Financial losses
  • Loss of privacy
  • Damage to reputation
  • Loss of confidence
  • Legal penalties
  • Impaired growth
  • Loss of life
  • Angry employees
  • Dishonest employees
  • Criminals
  • Governments
  • Terrorists
  • The press
  • Competitors
  • Hackers
  • Nature
  • Software bugs
  • Broken processes
  • Ineffective controls
  • Hardware flaws
  • Business change
  • Legacy systems
  • Inadequate BCP
  • Human error

Organizations are becoming more vulnerable to cyber incidents due to the increasing reliance on computers, networks, software, social media, and data. Data breaches have a massive negative business impact that often arises from insufficiently protected data. 

Let’s understand Threat Vs Vulnerability Vs Risk in more detail.

Threat: Online threats to your organization. Know it better to effectively deal with it.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, online threats are looming over more than ever. These threats could be found in various shapes and sizes.

It could be in the form of malware that installs fatal executables in your software, ransomware hijacking your system, or targeted hacker attacks.

Besides the threats coming in different forms, they could also come with varied intensity, the impacts depend on how profound these threats are. One thing is common though. All threats look for vulnerabilities in your system to exploit.

Threats could either be unintentional or intentional. Let’s discuss some serious cybersecurity threats:

1. Privilege Abuse

Sometimes you give excess privilege to someone not intended to. That privilege exceeds that person’s job function. That person could misuse this privilege.

Whereas in other cases the legitimate user could use the privilege for unauthorized purposes. For example, a company’s employee could trade-off secret client information with your competitors.

In some weird circumstances, hackers could elevate the privilege of a regular user to administrator level by abusing the vulnerability in the software system. These vulnerabilities could be found in stored procedures, built-in functions, and protocol implementations.

2. Platform loopholes

Loopholes exist in the underlying platforms such as Windows, UNIX, Linux, etc. It’s important to keep the software updated and licenses up to date, otherwise, chances of hackers sneaking in, unauthorized access, data corruption are always around the corner.

3. SQL Injection

Hackers gaining access by inserting SQL statements into a vulnerable SQL channel could lead to unrestricted access to an entire database. This is a nightmare for any small and huge corporation.

One of the major SQL injection attacks was the 2017 attack where 60+ universities and government sites were targeted.

4. DDoS Attacks

Hackers not only target your information system by gaining unauthorized access, but their other favorite weapon is bringing down the system by flooding it with traffic or information that the system can’t take, eventually shutting it down temporarily or indefinitely.

DDoS aka Distributed Denial of Service attacks use multiple sources/computers to flood a targeted resource.

5. Weak Authentication

This also forms a part of insider threat leading the hackers to assume the role of a legitimate user of the database.

6. Backup Data Exposure

Backup data is always a soft target for the hackers and hence, poses a great threat. It often stays unprotected which the cybercriminals take due advantage of.

7. The Cross-Site Scripting Problem with Banks

A hacker going after a banking site that has a cross-site vulnerability, could run a malicious script for the login box and steal important user data.

The researchers at DongIT found the cross-site scripting problem with 10 dutch banks, allowing the attackers to inject fake forms into the banking websites.

8. The Insecure IoT

With the advent of high-speed internet and newer cutting edge technologies such as 5G, IoT is going to be a reality for many. This will bring its own version of the threat.

People using an obsolete version of firmware and other software would always be at the risk.

9. Worms and Viruses

These are software codes that find ‘n’ number of ways to get into your information system and cause the damage.

The computer programs such as a polymorphic virus (file infectors that camouflage),  stealth virus (conceals any changes that it makes in the system), tunneling virus (intercepts the anti-virus software before it could the malicious code), virus droppers (a malware that drops or installs viruses), cavity virus (infects files without increasing the file size by utilizing the unused area of the executable file) can create havoc to your computer system.

10. Trojan Horse

This program has 2 components: One is stored and executed at the server end while the second is installed at the client’s end.

It steals information from the users by recording the keystrokes and compromises the data integrity.

11. Spoofing

It’s about tricking the end-users making them believe that their connection to the intended source is legitimate. It could be IP spoofing, ARP spoofing, and DNS spoofing.

12. Sniffing

Used by hackers to scan login ids and passwords over the wires.

13. Phishing

Phishing attacks are pretty common. People get victimized when they get a fake call or any communication, such as an email, to trick them to provide a credit card number or any security passwords of an organization. One should avoid such communication.

When it comes to phishing by email, make sure you check the SPF and DKIM records of the sender by checking the source code of the email (which varies from ISP-to-ISP).

Vulnerability: Security vulnerabilities in your organization that you didn’t know or probably ignored.

It’s your flaws that make you vulnerable. Different vulnerabilities manifest themselves through several misuses:

  • External misuse such as visual spying and physical scavenging
  • Masquerading such as impersonating and spoofing attack
  • Pest programs such as trojan horse and virus attacks
  • Bypasses such as trapdoor and authorization attacks

Security vulnerabilities could be through:

  1. Employees: Who could discuss companies details publicly
  2. Technologies: Such as social networking, file sharing, legacy systems, or storing data locally on mobile phones and internet browsers.
  3. Complexity: The large and complex files cause easy access to the attackers.
  4. Familiarity: Using common codes, software, and passwords that can be easily hacked causes familiarity.
  5. Connectivity: Physical connections, ports, and networks cause vulnerable connectivity.
  6. Software bug: It’s an undesirable effect of a software code that was probably meant to execute a particular task. The process of correcting them is called debugging.

Risk: What threats and vulnerabilities could potentially risk your organization.

It’s mistakenly believed that the responsibility of cybersecurity risk management falls on the IT and security teams.

It may be true to some extent, however, the actual cybersecurity depends on the awareness of the organization about the risks caused by the threats exploiting their vulnerabilities, in turn, impacting the assets.

Some of the main sources of cybersecurity risks are:

1. Nation-states

Nation-state threats are influenced by severe nationalism and a sense of sovereignty and are related to attacks on the infrastructure, military, and businesses.

The 2014 cyber attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment by the 3 North Korea was triggered by a sense of nationalism. The hackers were offended by the movie “The Interview,” wherein the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was ridiculed.

2. Cybercriminals

Cybercriminals are individuals or teams of people who use technology to commit malicious activities on digital systems or networks with the intention of stealing a company’s information or personal data to generate profit.

This may cause business disruptions, financial losses, and damage to reputation.

Notorious cybercriminal Albert Gonzalez is a classic example of how the misuse of government trust with evil intent could prove catastrophic.

While working with the US government, he got unauthorized access to 180 million payment cards. Later, he was sentenced to 20 years terms.

3. Hacktivists

Hacktivists are the self-proclaimed Robin Hood of the world. They fight for the causes they think will influence the masses. They fight for better transparency and governments and large corporations without any censorship.

Hacktivists target entire industries but sometimes attack specific organizations that don’t agree with their political views or practices.

The famous hacktivist named ‘Anonymous’ has done some of the largest activist attacks, breaking into security agency servers, disabling government security sites, and stealing sensitive information.

They claim to do it not for their personal gains but for showing protest against censorship and control.

Hacktivists risk the integrity and privacy of your organization.

4. Insiders and Third-party vendors risk

  • Insider threats are from the people who exploit legitimate access to an organization’s cyber assets for unauthorized and malicious purposes or who unwittingly create vulnerabilities.

    The direct employees, contracts, or third-party suppliers are the people who act as insider threats in cybersecurity risk.
  • Third-party vendors outsource people on account of helping to cut down on cost and to enhance efficiency. These people have access to the organization’s insider data, including customers’ personal identifying information.

This may result in financial losses and often legal penalties.

5. Developers of substandard products and services

Substandard products create a substantial risk of injury to the public. They fail to comply with the company’s safety rules.

They lack regular updates and most importantly they would have limited definitions of ever-changing cyber threats.

6. Risk through cloud services

Cloud services risk may be caused due to some factors like password security, cost management, lack of expertise, internet connectivity, control of governance, compliance, multiple cloud management, etc.

The recent Russian cyberattack (Officially not confirmed yet if it was Russian) called sunburst gained access into the US government systems possibly stealing high-profile information. It was a part of a regular SolarWind update, however, a tiny piece of code embedded inside changed everything.

This resulted in data theft and possible damage to reputation.

7. Lacking compliance measures

Compliance not only ensures that your organization meets certain prerequisites to be authorized to do some tasks but it is also a great way to ensure that your organization is safe from the prying eyes

NIST Cybersecurity Framework ensures you follow certain guidelines of cyber hygiene and keep your organization secure.

Lack of compliance may cause concern regarding data privacy, business disruptions, financial losses, and in some cases even legal penalties.

Risks cause business disruptions, financial losses, loss of privacy, damage to reputation, loss of confidence, and legal penalties. Hence, risk management becomes critical.

Five principles to risk management

  1. Assess risk and determine needs
  2. Establish a central management focus
  3. Implement appropriate policies and related controls
  4. Promote awareness
  5. Monitor and evaluate policy and control effectiveness

Next Step

The organization’s risk changes depending on many factors. It is very hard to eliminate the risk 100 percent. However, understanding the vulnerabilities and threats will help to manage the cybersecurity risk.

To mitigate the risk, it is important to understand the threat and fix the vulnerabilities. One of the ways to address the vulnerability is to do pen-testing.

Cyvatar’s managed cybersecurity solution provides continuous pen-testing and also fixes the vulnerabilities that the intruders could already be using to gain access to your system with fully managed remediation. Sign up to test drive Cyvatar’s powerful cybersecurity solution for free. No credit card or contract commitment is required!

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Cybersecurity Reunion Pool Party at BlackHat 2021