Difference Between Risk, Threat, and Vulnerability in Cyber Security

Difference Between Risk, Threat, and Vulnerability in Cyber security

Every industry has its own vernacular and the cyber security industry is no different. Cyber security professionals use precise terminologies to express and address a wide range of aspects. This precise language is what makes cyber security terminologies different from the rest of the IT and security-related jargon.

Many non-techies use cyber security and other information technology terminologies interchangeably during casual conversations. Risk and vulnerability management terminologies are some of the most misunderstood terms in cyber security today. Many blends, interchangeably use and confuse the terms risk, threat, and vulnerability. Confusing these terms can lead to clouding your ability to understand the working of vulnerability management processes, programs and tools. Every cyber security term has its own specific meaning, importance, and applicability. In this article, we will try to explain the difference between risk, threat, and vulnerability and why these terms should not be used interchangeably.


Risk vs. Threat vs. Vulnerability

To simplifying things before going deeper, in cyber security, a risk is nothing but the likelihood of a potential loss or damage of data, equipment, and other physical and digital assets caused by a cyber or physical threat. A threat on the other hand is the likelihood of occurrence of an unwanted event that can have negative consequences. For businesses, such events can include business disruptions, security breaches caused by the exploitation of a security vulnerability, and so on. Lastly, a vulnerability is a security gap that can allow cyber criminals to bypass any security parameters set by a company or an individual to protect sensitive information/data and other digital assets. An organization can have security vulnerabilities in its digital infrastructure, networks, devices, security systems, applications, etc. that can expose the organization to many threats.

In a nutshell, a threat exploiting a vulnerability in your organizational infrastructure can result in risks of damage to your organizational assets.

Let’s go a bit deeper and analyze the difference between risk, threat, and vulnerability.


What is Risk?

Risks are defined as the likelihood of a potential loss or damage to assets caused by a threat exploiting a vulnerability. Risk is calculated by: Risk = Threat x Vulnerability.

Examples of cyber security risks for businesses caused by the exploitation of security vulnerabilities include:

  • Business disruptions
  • Financial loss
  • Cyber security breach
  • Reputation loss
  • Legal implications
  • Data loss/theft and so on.

In the business environment, risks are anything that can damage your organizational assets and cause some form of loss. Businesses leverage risk management programs and often conduct risk assessments to identify and prevent potential risks to business safety and sustainability.


What is a Threat?

A threat is a capability of an incident to negatively impact your organizational systems and other assets. Threats can be classified into three categories including:


  • External threats: such as cyber attacks, spyware, malware, hacktivist groups, or the actions of a disgruntled employee
  • Internal threats: such as employees with malicious intentions, employees mistakenly downloading malware into organizational systems, employees exposing critical information in phishing emails, employees abusing their privileges and credentials, etc.
  • Natural threats: such as fire, floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, etc.


Businesses face a host of security threats today that include ransomware, phishing, DDoS attacks, malware, and so on. It is common among organizations to invest in cyber threat assessments to better understand where to invest detection, prevention, and remediation efforts.


What is a Vulnerability?

A vulnerability is a security loophole, a bug, or unprotected element that allows cyber criminals to gain unauthorized access to your organizational data, devices, or other assets. An organization can make known and unknown vulnerabilities present in its organizational infrastructure that can lead to the risk of security intrusions and other complications. The common causes of vulnerabilities include:

  • Insufficient security measures
  • Not updating systems and applications regularly
  • Using low-end hardware and software
  • Lacking security policies and procedures and so on

Businesses conduct regular vulnerability risk assessments to identify potential security vulnerabilities present in the organizational systems, networks, devices, equipment, and so on. Timely identification of vulnerabilities can allow your business to patch potential security flaws and avoid a host of security risks and their accompanying negative consequences.

Threats, vulnerabilities, and risks are different and often interconnected when it comes to cyber security. Organizations throughout the world invest heavily in all three elements. It is important to understand the difference between them to learn the importance and applicability of each term.