Threat Vector: Definition and Defense Strategies

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Discover what a threat vector is and how cybercriminals access and leverage threat vectors to infiltrate digital systems.

[Featured Image] An ethical hacker sits at a computer and performs tests to proactively detect and prevent threat vectors.

Picture threat vectors as the different avenues or routes potential threats can use to penetrate your digital space. Just as a city has various entry points like roads, bridges, and tunnels, your digital environment has multiple threat vectors, including software vulnerabilities and network access points that adversaries can exploit to compromise your data or system.

Read on to learn more about what threat vectors are and how you can defend your digital spaces against them.

What is a threat vector?

A threat vector, also known as an attack vector, represents the method through which malicious actors can gain access to a computer network or system. A hacker who breaches a network could have a variety of motives, including an ex-employee with grievances, a protest group, a hacktivist, or a professional hacking collective. Many attacks stem from financial motives and typically involve the theft of money or data for ransom. 

Did you know?

John F. Plumb, who serves as the assistant secretary of defense for space policy and principal cyber advisor to the secretary of defense, has indicated that TikTok is a "potential threat vector" for the United States [1]. Because of this, government-operated phones prohibit the use of the app.


Types of threat vectors

Threat vectors are extensive and diverse. Below are a few common examples of threat vectors that exist in the digital space.

1. Malware

Malicious software, often referred to as malware, acts as a conduit for threat actors to rob data, infiltrate systems, and more. It's worth noting that malicious actors engineer malware with precise goals in mind. For instance, ransomware can encrypt your files, forcing you to pay a ransom for the decryption keys. Firewalls, anti-virus software, and sandboxing methods can help to prevent malware from infiltrating your system.

2. Compromised user credentials

Compromised credentials denote a situation in which user authentication data, including usernames and passwords, become available to bad actors. This often happens when users unknowingly disclose login information on fraudulent websites. Breached credentials can grant intruders insider-level access.

3. Phishing 

Phishing is a cybercriminal strategy that involves reaching out to targets through email, phone calls, or text messages while pretending to be a trusted institution. In this scam, perpetrators deceive individuals into disclosing sensitive information. Phishing remains a highly successful form of social engineering attack, with some email schemes appearing entirely benign at first.

4. Weak or inadequate encryption

Encryption conceals data through ciphertext, preventing unauthorized access. Weak or ineffective encryption risks sending sensitive information in plain readable text, making it vulnerable to interception or brute-force attacks.

5. Obsolete data, devices, or applications

When not appropriately uninstalled, deleted, or discarded, obsolete endpoints, apps, and user accounts can create security weaknesses that cybercriminals can easily take advantage of. These vulnerabilities can happen when systems are not frequently updated for security measures.

Threat vector vs. attack surface: What’s the difference?

Threat vectors and attack surfaces are closely linked. However, they are not the same. 

An attack surface represents the amalgamation of possible pathways for an attacker to exploit. For instance, consider a firm’s software and firmware, which can include servers, desktops, laptops, network infrastructure, and applications. These entities collectively make up the organization’s attack surface, as numerous attack vectors can potentially exploit each of these entities. Therefore, as the number of pathways (threat vectors) increases, the attack surface becomes more extensive. 

How bad actors utilize threat vectors to initiate attacks

A cyberattack on an enterprise can transpire in two ways: passive attack and active attack. Let’s go over each below. 

Passive attack

A passive attack involves an attacker observing a system to identify open ports or vulnerabilities, intending to collect information about the target. Detecting passive attacks can be challenging as they don't involve manipulating organizational data or infrastructure. Passive attacks, by their very nature, are characterized by the absence of immediate harm to the targeted system or disruption of ongoing business operations. Instead, threat actors conduct these attacks with the primary objective of stealthily gaining access to valuable data.

Active attack

Cybercriminals utilize active attacks to manipulate a system or disrupt its standard operation. Much like passive attacks, an active attack is an attempt to obtain sensitive information. However, bad actors frequently employ active attacks, such as denial-of-service (DoS) attacks, to gather the information required for initiating broader cyberattacks against an organization.

How to mitigate risk from threat vectors

Although difficult to eliminate, you can manage threat vectors through the following:

1. Network segmentation

Network segmentation involves establishing boundaries around specific areas of your network infrastructure and imposing access restrictions, all intending to hinder lateral movement in the event of an attack on a singular area. This strategy effectively confines the attack to a designated network area, resulting in a reduction of the overall attack surface.

2. Vulnerability testing 

To maintain robust security, consider conducting regular IT vulnerability tests. You could also enlist an external IT security audit firm for annual IT resource vulnerability assessments. Upon receiving the results, ensure immediate updates to existing security policies.

3. Strong encryption 

Encryption prevents unauthorized parties from eavesdropping on the data as it travels between the sender and recipient. Robust data encryption, such as the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES), can play a vital role in ensuring the security of data on edge devices, such as laptops and phones. The US government uses AES to protect classified data.

4. Threat intelligence 

Real-time system monitoring and staying attuned to the latest threat intelligence can help you anticipate and prepare for future attacks, tailor your defenses, and reduce your attack surface.

CISA’s incident response protocol for FCEB entities

In 2021, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) published an incident and vulnerability response playbook to better protect Federal Civilian Executive Branch (FCEB) information systems [2]. The protocol described below, according to CISA, may also extend to non-FCEB entities and businesses:

  1. Declare incident: The first step involves determining the type of security incident and reporting it to CISA or law enforcement.

  2. Determine investigation scope: The second step requires you to evaluate the data and operational impact of the incident.

  3. Collect and preserve data: In this step, you catalog all evidence and note how, when, and who acquired it.

  4. Perform technical analysis: Based on the evidence, ascertain the infiltrator’s motivation and goals of the attack. Report your findings and incident status to CISA. 

  5. Consider third-party analysis support: Assess the necessity of third-party analysis support for incident investigation or response.

  6. Adjust tools: Configure tools to mimic the adversary’s operational objectives. For example, stealing a privileged user’s credentials. 

  7. Contain activity: Backup systems and formulate appropriate containment strategy. Return to step four (perform technical analysis) if additional indicators of compromise emerge.

  8. Execute eradication plan: Craft a coordinated eradication plan considering threat actors' use of alternative attack vectors and persistence mechanisms. Maintain communication with CISA on the incident status until all eradication tasks are complete. 

  9. Recover systems and services: Revert all alterations made during the incident. Reset passwords for compromised accounts and enforce multi-factor authentication for all access methods.

  10. Post-incident activities: Document the entire incident and fortify your network to prevent similar incidents.

  11. Coordination with CISA: Share the initial incident report and post-incident updates with CISA.

Getting started with Coursera

Enhance your cybersecurity skills with the Introduction to Cyber Security Specialization course on Coursera. Offered by the New York University, this course can help you identify and improve cyber risk posture in computing, networking, and software environments.

Article sources


US Department of Defense. “Leaders Say TikTok Is Potential Cybersecurity Risk to U.S.,” Accessed March 15, 2024.

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