What is a cyber attack?

The methods and motives for carrying out a cyber attack are numerous. Unfortunately, neither individuals nor larger targets, such as nations, companies and organizations, are safe from the threat posed by cyber attacks.

What is a cyber attack?

Cyber attacks are a common threat in the modern online land­scape. In short, the goal of a cyber attack can be to destroy or steal data, bring down important systems or critical infra­structure, gain access to computer systems and steal money. The methods for carrying out a cyber attack span from inserting malicious code into an application or web­site, infecting the targeted device with malware or making the device a part of a larger net­work of devices used to carry out further cyber attacks. Whether you call them bad actors, cyber criminals or hackers, the individuals and groups behind cyber attacks can cause serious damage when successful. Cyber attacks are a common tool in warfare as well, so both individuals and larger targets, such as entire countries, should be prepared against them.

7 types of cyber attacks

It probably does not come as a surprise that there are many kinds of cyber attacks as cyber criminals try to use every trick in their toolbox. Next, we will look at a few common methods for carrying out a cyber attack. Unfortunately, the types of cyber attacks are not limited to just these.

DDoS (DoS and DDoS)

In a DDoS attack, the aim is to take down the target, such as a server, by bombing it with a large number of requests. As a consequence, the targeted service is not available or becomes difficult to use.

XSS attacks

Cross-site scripting, or XSS in short, means that hackers insert malicious code into a web application, using a vulnerability they have discovered. XSS attacks are a way for cyber criminals to steal sensitive data and spread malware.


Trojans are a way for cyber criminals to sneak in malicious soft­ware inside files, such as attachments in an email. Once a Trojan is inside the victim’s device it can steal data and bring other viruses with it.

Zero-day attacks

Zero-day vulnerabilities refer to holes in a soft­ware’s protection that have not yet been fixed. When these vulnerabilities are not patched, cyber criminals may exploit them in what has become to be known as a zero-day attack, or zero-day exploit.


The goal of phishing is to trick the victim to reveal their private information, such as pass­words and online banking credentials. Phishing attacks are carried out using malicious links and malware disguised as email attachments.


Ransom­ware attacks are used to lock infected devices and encrypt files. To regain access to them, the victim has to pay a ransom, usually using a cryptocurrency such as Bitcoin.

Man-in-the-middle attacks

Man-in-the-middle attacks involve an attacker inserting them­selves into a connection between two parties and impersonating the other person or application. By hi­jacking the connection, the attacker can steal sensitive information or direct the victim to malicious sites.

Goals of cyber attacks

The motives behind cyber attacks vary and depend a lot on who is behind the attack. Here are a few common reasons why nations and criminals may carry out a cyber attack.

Monetary gain

Not surprisingly, many cyber criminals are after money. A common way to steal money as a consequence of a cyber attack is by utilizing ransom­ware. Ransom­ware is a type of malware that can encrypt devices, making them impossible to use, or lock files. The victim regains control of their device or data only after they pay a ransom — or that’s what the criminals tell their victims. The ransom is often paid with a crypto­currency, such as bitcoin.

Political goals

Hackers with a political agenda, or hacktivists, can carry out cyber attacks to get their point across. As the presidential elections of 2016 in the United States showed, cyber attacks and the use of dis­information can be used to influence elections and sway voters’ political opinions.

Espionage and stealing sensitive data

A cyber attack can be carried out to gain individuals’ personal information or other sensitive data. For example, a company may try to steal its competitors’ business secrets to get an upper hand against their rivals. Spyware, which is malware used to spy on the infected device, is a way for hackers to steal information, such as financial information and pass­words, as well as to conduct espionage.

How cyber attacks affect individuals

As mentioned, even individuals are not safe from the threat posed by cyber attacks. In addition to the many types of cyber attacks that are used against normal people, they can cause all sorts of harm. These include:

  • loss of personal information, such as pass­words
  • stolen personal files, such as pictures and text documents
  • identity theft
  • financial losses
  • spreading of confidential data
  • feelings of insecurity and anxiety
  • defamation and loss of reputation
  • doxing (distribution of personal information online)

Cyber attacks are also used in modern warfare

In addition to attacks carried out by organized groups of cyber criminals, state-sponsored cyber attacks are a common threat in today’s digital environment. These state-sponsored cyber attacks can target other states, their critical infra­structure and large companies. Cyber attacks are also commonly used in modern warfare to disrupt communications, gain intel through espionage and spread mis­information. The term cyber warfare is also used.

The methods used by state-sponsored attackers include many of the same as used by individual cyber attackers and groups of cyber criminals. However, when a cyber attack is backed up by a nation-state and used in the context of war, the resources for carrying out the attack are much greater. The motivations behind state-sponsored cyber attacks are often political in nature or there is military interest behind the attack.

Countries known for engaging in cyber warfare include China, North Korea and Russia, just to name a few. For example, the Russian government has been suspected of being responsible for the Not­Petya malware. Some notable targets of Russian cyber attacks include the United Kingdom, United States and Ukraine. Mean­while, North Korea is known for funding its exploits with cyber attacks where the goal has been to obtain Bitcoins.

Many countries are guilty of cyber warfare, including the United States. For example, the United States is the home of Stuxnet, malicious soft­ware used against nuclear facilities in Iran. Unfortunately, it is often difficult to prove that a state has been behind a cyber attack, as opposed to a rogue hacker or a group of cyber criminals.

Prepare your­self against cyber attacks

Arm your­self against cyber attacks with a reliable and safe online security service. F‑Secure Total includes an advanced anti­virus to protect your­self against malware. The VPN included in Total helps you remain anonymous and secured when browsing the Internet, streaming online content and playing games. F‑Secure Total’s ID protection and pass­word management tools make managing your online accounts easier and more secure. Keep pass­words for all of your devices safe in one place and be alerted of potential data breaches.

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