External Threats: The Definitive Guide to Detection and Remediation

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Every new technology that enables your business also gives threat actors new ways to attack your organization. As your attack surface expands, you can feel overwhelmed trying to mitigate every possible external threat. Today’s external attack surface goes beyond internet ports and web server services, encompassing everything from leaded IT information and credentials to misconfigured cloud services and external source code repositories. 

When you understand the types of external threats placing your organization at risk, you can implement more effective proactive mitigation strategies. 

What are External Threats?

External threats arise from malicious actors outside an organization who attempt to gain unauthorized access to networks, systems, and sensitive data. Typically, they use system vulnerabilities to gain initial access then give themselves additional privileges so that they can achieve their objectives.

External cybersecurity threats fall into three basic categories:

  • Malware, like ransomware
  • Hacking, like Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks
  • Social engineering, like phishing

To mitigate data security risks, organizations should implement proactive monitoring strategies that enable them to detect and respond to these types of incidents.

Types of External Threats

When you understand the specific external threats within each category, you can build a focused data protection program.  


Malicious code, or malware, is software that threat actors install on devices so that they can collect sensitive data. Once infected with the malicious software, the computer or device can spread the malware across the network. 


A virus is a malicious software that infects a device then spreads across the network. Typically delivered through email attachments, computer viruses infect a device’s files, altering how the device works. While antivirus software is one risk mitigation technique, modern viruses can evade detections so security teams need to look for device and network service issues, too. 


Ransomware is a type of virus that encrypts files and storage devices, making them unusable to anyone without the decryption key. Modern ransomware attacks also steal sensitive data. The malicious actors demand that the victim company pay them money, essentially holding the decryption key and stolen information hostage. 

In some cases, malicious actors use a ransomware attack to distract security teams as part of a larger advanced persistent threat.

Social Engineering

Social engineering uses people’s emotions to trick them into taking an action that’s against their best interests. 


A phishing attack is when cybercriminals send users a fake email that asks them to take an action, typically clicking on a link or downloading a document. The link or attachment delivers malware or steals user login information. Spear phishing, whaling, and business email compromise are types of phishing attacks that take specialized approaches to the process. 


When engaging in a pretexting attack, malicious actors use open source intelligence (OSINT) about their victims to build their trust. For example, they might pretend to be a newly hired executive, a member of the IT team, or someone from human resources. With the fake identity, the victim trusts the cybercriminal who seemingly has inside knowledge about the organization. 

Watering Hole Attacks

These attacks target a group of users, like people working in a specific industry. Cybercriminals compromise a website that they know the group frequents so that they can steal credentials or deposit malware on devices. 


Hacking is when threat actors exploit vulnerabilities to gain unauthorized access to systems. 

Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) Attack

In a DDoS attack, malicious actors send high volumes of requests to an IP address, overloading the service to cause an outage. Often, cybercriminals use a botnet, or collection of internet-connected devices, to perpetrate their attack. However, they can also download tools from the dark web to carry out the attacks. 

Session Hijacking

When cybercriminals passively monitor a network, they can steal a user’s session ID, a unique number that identifies the person while they’re using a web application. The malicious actor tricks the application server by posing as the digital version of the legitimate user. One way that malicious actors steal the session ID is through a misconfiguration that enables attackers to engage in a cross-site scripting (XSS) attack. 

Man-in-the-Middle Attack

In this eavesdropping attack, malicious actors change or steal data transmitted across public wireless network connections. Typically, the attackers exploit an application vulnerability, like a secure sockets layer (SSL) misconfiguration. 

Brute Force Attack

When cybercriminals engage in a brute force attack, they try to gain unauthorized access to systems and networks with stolen credentials. Typically, they purchase the credentials on the dark web. For example, in the aftermath of a data breach, malicious actors sell combo lists, a collection of compromised usernames and associated passwords.  

Types of External Threat Actors

While all threat actors pose cybersecurity and privacy risks, they come in different flavors, like ice cream. Some common varieties include:

  • Organized crime: financially motivated with varying levels of sophistication and skill
  • Nation-state actors: funded by governments to engage in sabotage or espionage with sophisticated skill sets
  • Cyber terrorists: politically motivated with varying levels of sophistication and skill
  • Hacktivists: philosophically motivated to disrupt operations with varying levels of sophistication and skill
  • Thrill-seekers: internally motivated with varying levels of sophistication and skill

How to Protect Against External Threats

Protecting your organization against external threats requires a defense-in-depth approach to security. 

As you mature your security posture, you should consider the following activities that mitigate external threat risks:

  • Endpoint Detection and Response (EDR): detect abnormal endpoint activity and automate responses to mitigate risks arising from things like ransomware and malware
  • Vulnerability scanning and patch management: monitor for known vulnerabilities across all devices connected to networks and install security updates 
  • Cyber awareness training: provide employees training opportunities so that they can detect and report phishing attempts
  • Encryption: encrypt data-at-rest and data-in-transit to prevent cybercriminals from using data that they steal
  • Dark web monitoring: scan the dark web and illicit Telegram channels to identify leaked credentials and targeted threats

Flare: External Attack Surface Management and Dark Web Monitoring

With Flare, you can take control over your expanded digital footprint and automate your dark web monitoring. By combining these activities, you can implement a proactive security program that mitigates external threat risk. 

Flare’s platform enables you to map your organization’s external attack surface to identify new attack vectors, reducing malicious actors’ ability to use your IT environment against you. Simultaneously, our platform’s automated dark web monitoring enables your security team to incorporate threat intelligence into their alerts to reduce noise and prioritize response activities. 

Try a free trial and get started in just 15 minutes.

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