External Threats: Everything You Need to Know

External threats include any potential dangers that originate outside an organization or system. In contrast to internal threats, which originate within an organization, external threats include outside dangers, such as external attackers and natural disasters.

Not all threats come to bear. According to the NIST, a “threat” includes any circumstance or event that could adversely affect an organization. Threats do so by exploiting a vulnerability, or weakness, at the target organization or system.

Many external attacks are intentionally executed by an attacker with a specific target in mind. Sometimes, a threat will run amok more broadly: the Mydoom virus, for example, spread by email, compromising system after system to create a large botnet for distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks. External threats also include forces of nature, such as hurricanes and earthquakes.

Types of External Threat Actors

A threat actor is a person, group, or entity that’s behind a cybersecurity incident. Often, what separates threat actors from one another are their core motivations and overall goals. However, each can be incredibly damaging to an organization.

Organized Criminal Enterprises

One of the most common external threat actors, organized criminal enterprises are usually motivated by financial gain. They may hold data or systems hostage, requesting payment in exchange for relinquishing control of the assets back to the company. In some cases, they may steal data in hopes of leveraging it for profit.

Advanced Persistent Threat Groups

Typically, advanced persistent threat (APT) groups are comprised of nation-state or industrial spies. In most cases, an APT is highly skilled and has access to advanced technologies. They tend to focus on government or political targets, though they may also attack businesses of strategic importance.

Lone Wolf Hackers

Lone wolf hackers tend to be individuals who try to access systems simply because they can. They aren’t necessarily focused on financial or political gain. Instead, wreaking havoc or acquiring a claim to fame is their top priority.

In some cases, lone wolf hackers may be motivated by revenge. A perceived wrongdoing on the part of the target drives them to take action, mainly as a means of doling out punishment for the perceived slight.

Script Kiddies

Not all attackers are highly experienced or skilled. Script kiddies tend to be novices. Instead of creating their own malicious code, they are usually relying heavily on tools and scripts created by others. Often, their main goals are to vandalize sites, damage data, and compromise systems, often simply for clout.

Script kiddies are far more common than many people realize. For example, most cheaters in online games would qualify as script kiddies. They purchase unauthorized interfaces that allow them to secure advantages over players who are using the game as it was intended, solely for the purpose of other players.


Cyber-terrorists are usually trying to advance a cause. Their aim is to disrupt critical services or systems, often with the goal of causing harm to a broader population beyond the target company, organization, or entity.


Hacktivists differ from cyber-terrorist in that their goal is often to draw awareness to an issue. These attackers aim at organizations they view as “evil,” hoping to expose various secrets or disrupt operations. There is usually an ideological perspective driving these attackers, as well as the desire to alter public opinion about the company, entity, or industry.


Competing businesses may also attempt to make attacks against each other. Some organizations are less scrupulous than others. They may resort to attacks as a means of gathering information from a competitor that can be leveraged or use collected data to secure a competitive edge. They could also do more direct damage, kneecapping their competitor’s operations.

Natural Disasters

When most people think of external threats, they focus on individuals or coordinated groups of attackers. However, natural disasters can represent an external threat. Data losses relating to a disaster can be significant, potentially harming operations dramatically.

External Attack Vectors

An attack vector is a path used to penetrate a system. It represents the technique or approach that was used to gain access or compromise a system to allow access through separate means.

There are several external attack vectors that are widely used. Here is a look at the most common ones.


One of the most widely used attack vectors for external attacks is malware. By introducing malicious code to a system, an attacker can use it to gain entry into a network or data store.

There are several kinds of malware that can be part of an external attack. Keyloggers, ransomware, trojans, worms, spyware, botnets, and logic bombs are just some of the variants.

Each malware type uses a different approach and may focus on unique goals. For example, ransomware tends to be financially motivated, while botnets may facilitate the launch of a DDoS attack.

Social Engineering

Social engineering tactics revolve around deceiving and manipulating actual people. Social engineering attackers usually start by researching their target, so that they can better fool that person into believing they can be trusted.

Often social engineering attacks aim to get the target to reveal sensitive information. This could include login credentials to critical systems or accounts, or data that would give the attacker enough to steal the target’s identity.


Phishing is a specific type of social engineering attack in which the attacker poses as someone they’re not, typically over email. Phishing scammers usually try to manipulate their victims into giving up login credentials, personal information, or money.

Often, phishing attacks use fear to create a sense of urgency. For example, an email claiming that your access to a system has been suspended for improper use and that you need to click a link to confirm your credentials can be a phishing attempt.

In some cases, phishing is part of a wide-scale spam campaign. The same message is sent to a large number of emails, hoping that one or several recipients will fall for the scam. Others are more refined, including extra personal details to make them seem more legitimate.

Spear phishing is a variant that targets a single, high-value individual. The goal is usually the same as with general phishing – gaining access to a protected system or account – but the approach is often more methodical.

You can read more in our definitive guide to phishing attacks.

Software Vulnerabilities

A software vulnerability is a gap in the security measures that prevent unauthorized access. In some cases, the vulnerability can simply be navigated to get into the system, requiring little else besides know-how. In others, the vulnerability is a gateway for malware, essentially serving as the starting point of a larger attack plan.


A DDoS attack aims to flood a target’s system with traffic to the point that networks or systems become unusable. Most often, these attacks concentrate on web servers or email systems, preventing internal employees, customers, clients, and others from being able to use a company’s website or communicate via email.

In some cases, the damage caused by a DDoS attack is the main goal. In others, it’s used as a distraction, allowing the attackers to launch other attacks on the same organization without being noticed.

Protecting Against External Threats

External threats need to be taken seriously. By following cybersecurity best practices, you can safeguard your systems and critical data. Implement critical solutions like antivirus software, antimalware software, and firewalls. Update applications to eliminate vulnerabilities. Require strong passwords and train employees to identify potential phishing or social engineering attacks. Use strong data encryption and backup information to ensure business continuity.

Ultimately, every cybersecurity step you can take is worth exploring. That way, you can safeguard systems, protect data, and keep your reputation for security intact.

About the Author

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Catherine Reed

Catherine Reed is a writer and researcher with experience writing about a wide variety of topics including personal finance, technology, and staffing.