Threat, Vulnerability, and Risk: What’s the Difference?

Published March 31, 2020 by 2 min read

In casual conversation, threats, vulnerabilities, and risks are often talked about interchangeably. The reality is that the three are quite different. Threats represent something that might happen. Vulnerabilities show that systems have inherent weaknesses attackers may exploit. Risks keep business owners up at night by shining a light on potential harm inherent in running an enterprise. Cybersecurity, risk management, and security programs all revolve around helping to mitigate threats, vulnerabilities, and risks. Cybercriminals often take advantage of incomplete programs in order to successfully attack organizations. 


Most organizations take action against credible threats before they happen. Natural threats can be planned for by understanding what has happened before. An example would be floods, tornados, or earthquakes.  Threat actors, on the other hand, aiming to destroy data and disrupt operations are two of the leading fears that organizations try to defend against first. Security programs are purpose-built to address security threats by defending against “what if” scenarios. A good example of potential threats involves malware, ransomware, and viruses. Attackers often focus on the total destruction of an asset, Distributed Denial of Services (DDoS), or social engineering to accomplish their goals. Many organizations invest in cyber threat assessments to better understand where to invest detection, prevention, and remediation efforts.


Vulnerabilities exist in systems, regardless of make, model, or version. The term vulnerability exposes potential weak points in hardware and software. In applications, the vulnerability can often be patched by the manufacturer to harden and prevent exploitation of the weakness. Unauthorized access can be an example of someone taking advantage of a vulnerability. The system should only allow authorized access and if someone unauthorized is granted access, it violates IT security and bypasses access controls.


When it comes to risks, organizations are looking at what may cause potential harm to systems and the overall business. Several examples of systems susceptible to IT risk include phishing attacks, operating systems, and sensitive data. Organizations go to great lengths to mitigate, transfer, accept, and avoid risks. A risk assessment is often the first line of defense to reduce security risk. In order to better prepare for the inevitability of risks, assessments are necessary to baseline an attack surface. Organizations should invest in a risk management program to better understand how to measure risk. Business and security leaders are fundamentally trying to solve for true risk when calculating what can be mitigated or avoided. 


Threats, vulnerabilities, and risks are different. Organizations spend a lot of resources on all three, and many don’t understand the differences between them. A threat generally involves a malicious act that aims to destroy data, inflict harm, or disrupt operations. In cybersecurity, threats are generally made up of ransomware, viruses, denial-of-service attacks, and data breaches. Something is threatening action, but the action has not yet taken place. Vulnerabilities are flaws in a system that leave it open to potential attacks. The main problem behind vulnerabilities has to do with weaknesses that leave systems open to threats. Risk represents the potential harm related to systems and the use of systems within an organization. Threats, vulnerabilities, and risks are different and often interconnected when it comes to cybersecurity.

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