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Risk, threat and vulnerability - what's the difference?

Andrew Robinson |

January 4, 2023

Risk, threat and vulnerability - what's the difference?


Understanding the distinctions between threat, vulnerability, and risk is crucial in the realm of cybersecurity.

A threat is a potential danger or adverse action that could cause harm or damage. A vulnerability is a weakness or gap in an organization's defenses that could be exploited by a threat. A risk is the likelihood that a particular threat will exploit a particular vulnerability, resulting in harm or damage.

For example, a company's computer systems might be vulnerable to a cyber attack because they are not regularly patched with security updates. If the company is not aware of this vulnerability, it is at risk of being hacked. If the company becomes aware of the vulnerability and takes steps to patch the systems and improve its cybersecurity defenses, it is reducing the risk of being hacked.

Let’s look at each of these terms in detail and establish why it is important to know the difference between threat vs vulnerability vs risk.


Risk, threat and vulnerability: what's the difference?


What is a threat?

In cybersecurity, a threat is any potential danger or adverse action that could exploit a vulnerability in your systems, data, people, or other assets and potentially affect those assets' confidentiality, integrity, or availability. 

Examples of cyber threats include malware, ransomware, and phishing attacks, and the types of threats continue to evolve over time. More specifically, a threat can be understood as an adversary or attacker who has the opportunity, capability, and intent to bring a negative impact on your operations, assets, workforce, and/or customers.

There are three main categories of threats: intentional, unintentional, and natural:

  1. Intentional threats are actions or methods that are used by bad actors to compromise a security or software system. Examples of intentional threats include malware, ransomware, phishing, and malicious code.
  2. Unintentional threats are often caused by human error. For example, an employee might forget to lock the door to the IT servers or leave sensitive information unmonitored. These types of mistakes can leave an organization vulnerable to threats.
  3. Natural threats are unpredictable events such as floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters that have the potential to damage an organization's assets. While these threats are not typically related to cybersecurity, it’s important to consider them since they can impact an organization’s assets. 

It is important to be aware of and take steps to protect against all types of threats, as they can all have a negative impact on an organization's operations, assets, workforce, and/or customers.

What is a vulnerability?

A vulnerability is a weakness, flaw, or shortcoming in a system, infrastructure, database, software, process, or set of controls that can be exploited by a threat actor. Routine vulnerabilities can be addressed by releasing patches or updates, but the problem arises when vulnerabilities are unknown or undiscovered by an organization. 

If these weaknesses are left unmitigated, they can be exploited by threats, potentially resulting in harm or damage. For example, an unlocked door is a vulnerability that can be exploited by a thief who takes advantage of the opportunity to enter and steal valuables. It is important for organizations to identify and address vulnerabilities in order to reduce the risk of being impacted by threats.

There are two types of vulnerabilities: technical vulnerabilities and human vulnerabilities:

  1. Technical vulnerabilities are weaknesses in hardware or software, such as bugs in code or errors in hardware or software.
  2. Human vulnerabilities refer to weaknesses in people, such as employees falling for phishing, smishing, or other common attacks. It is important for organizations to identify and address both types of vulnerabilities in order to reduce the risk of being impacted by threats.

Learn more about how to integrate vulnerabilities into your ISMS here.


What is a risk?

Risk is the likelihood and potential impact of a negative event occurring. The risk faced by an organization can change over time due to internal and external factors. Cyber risk is the probability of loss in terms of both frequency and magnitude. This means that cyber risk involves identifying the likelihood of a threat attempting to exploit a vulnerability and causing harm, as well as evaluating the value of the potential impact of that harm. 

To properly manage and mitigate cyber risk, it is necessary to understand the vulnerabilities in your system and the potential threats to those vulnerabilities. This involves performing a risk assessment to estimate the frequency of potential attacks, assess the effectiveness of existing safeguards, and determine the potential value of any losses that could occur. Risk can be calculated as the product of threat and vulnerability, or as the likelihood of an attack multiplied by the potential consequences of the attack. 

Risk management best practices

Risk management involves identifying current/potential risks, drafting plans to mitigate those risks and monitoring progress on risk-reduction efforts.

Having a comprehensive data protection system in place is essential when implementing best practices for risk management.  

Check out the 6clicks risk management solution here.

Experts Guide to Enterprise Risk Management

Managing threats, vulnerabilities, and risk with 6clicks

6clicks unifies all the activities related to improving information security by managing threats, vulnerabilities, and risks on a single platform. For more information on how 6clicks helps you build a robust vulnerability management program and a comprehensive risk management strategy, see Vulnerability Management and Risk Management. The platform streamlines information security and regulatory compliance activities by using AI and automation combined with technology-enabled GRC. 

Here’s a glimpse of what 6clicks provides on its automation-enabled platform:

  • A vast content library with ready-to-use content
  • Automated assessments 
  • AI engine Hailey, to navigate regulatory compliance easily
  • Analytics & Reporting suite to monitor all GRC and infosec-related activities
  • Data storytelling capabilities
  • Effective collaboration between all stakeholders

To learn more about the 6clicks platform, get started with us and experience the technology that complex risk management and vulnerability management need today.