A person just entering a career in information technology or a person who wants to take more caution with their online activities may wonder, “How is a threat different from a vulnerability?” In information technology and cybersecurity, a lot of jargon can be confusing and all of the terminologies can be time-consuming to understand. However, knowing the difference between a threat and a vulnerability allows a person to plan a course of action for protecting their data and their identity from harm.

What Constitutes a Threat in Cybersecurity

In cybersecurity, a threat refers to a person or an event that puts a valuable resource at risk. That resource might be data, a server, a network or an individual workstation. A threat may or may not happen, but it holds the potential to wreak havoc. Threats can be intentional or accidental. An intentional threat is typically termed as “hacking,” while an “accidental” threat may include natural disasters, computer malfunctions, or loss of power. Errors and failures can also constitute threats.

What a Vulnerability Means in Cybersecurity

A vulnerability in cybersecurity refers to the quality of the resource that allows it to be exploited. Another way of describing a vulnerability is to say that it is a weakness available for exploitation, either malicious exploitation or unintentional exploitation. A vulnerability may be referred to as an attack surface. This is the case when a person with malicious intent has a tool that can connect with the vulnerability and exploit it. In most cases, vulnerabilities involve systemic weaknesses or design flaws. They could also be poor system security features that are insufficient for protecting the resource.

Common Types of Threats in Cybersecurity

Threats are classified by their origin and type. According to the National Aeronautic and Space Administration, possible origins of threats include physical damage, natural events, loss of electrical power, compromise of information, compromise of features and technical failures. The possible origins of the threats include deliberate spying or processing of information; accidents, including system and equipment failure; environmental, such as loss of power to cool servers; and neglect. Some examples of threats include software that stops providing the desired security services, data entry errors and acquiring the use of a system or software for which no access has been authorized.

Causes of Threats

Threats can come from within or outside of a business or individual’s home. Employees, contractors and partners can be internal threats. External threats include professional and hobby hackers, activists, spies and malware.

Cybersecurity Vulnerabilities to Be Aware of

Vulnerabilities can be exploited by a threat agent (person) or a threat action in a threat event. The event compromises the confidentiality, integrity or availability of resources, but not necessarily the resource that had the initial vulnerability. There are several types of cybersecurity vulnerabilities to be aware of:

  • Hardware – such as a vulnerability to moisture or dust
  • Software – includes design flaws and insufficient testing
  • Within a network – includes poor architecture
  • Personnel –  includes inadequate awareness of security procedures
  • Organizational – includes lack of routine audits and lack of security

Causes of Vulnerabilities

Vulnerabilities have many causes. Complexity is one, and large systems are often more complex than one or even a few information technology specialists can handle. Familiarity is another cause. For example, the familiarity of the code of JavaScript makes it easy for hackers to exploit. Connectivity is another common cause of vulnerability, with multiple physical and digital connections to sensitive devices or data. Password flaws are a cause of vulnerabilities for individuals and businesses alike. Other causes of vulnerabilities include spyware, adware, software bugs, unchecked input from users, operating system coding or design flaws and not learning from past mistakes.

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Mitigation Efforts for Cybersecurity Threats

Failure to take action against a vulnerability puts a business or individual at risk. Physical security is one way to mitigate vulnerabilities. Another way is to routinely conduct vulnerability scans. Threat management includes penetration tests to see how far a person could get into a system from the outside. Many companies use analytics-driven or machine learning systems to manage their threat mitigation. Anti-virus software, firewalls and complex passphrases are a few other techniques that manage vulnerabilities and reduce the likelihood of a threat action.

Individuals as well as businesses need to have multiple layers of protection in place to protect their sensitive data. It also helps to keep up-to-date with cybersecurity news, such as alerts about newly identified malware or viruses. Knowing how a threat is different from a vulnerability allows an individual to take action to protect their personal computer, servers, routers and other data sources from harm.