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The Periodic Table of Cybersecurity Threats

by Ganna Pogrebna


In the modern #digital #economy #cybersecurity #threats constitute major challenges for the functioning of any business. For a #business owner, employee, or #consumer it is really hard to navigate this space as there is no easy way in which #cyberthreats could be classified and analyzed. Various organizations offer glossaries, lists and graphs, which try to visualize major threats, yet, the overall cyberthreat space is difficult to capture.


In our recent book "Navigating New Cyber Risks", Mark Skilton and I made an attempt to systematize major cybersecurity threats. We do not want to argue that we captured all the threats, yet, we do hope that the table will be useful to both experts in the field as well as those, who only recently gained interest in this space.


The resulting picture somewhat resembles the periodic table of elements which many of us remember from studying Chemistry and includes 3 broad categories of potential threats: monomers, polymers, and composites. This Periodic Table of Cybersecurity Threats #CyberPeriodicTable is presented below:



Monomers are “basic” threats which can cause damage on their own or, more often, can be combined into polymers and act as a part of a more complex threat structure. Monomers can be of two varieties: basic and malicious. The difference between the two is that basic monomers can be either benign or malicious dependent on how they are applied, while malicious are designed to cause harm. Basic monomers include, for example, executable files and exploits which, in principle, may be perfectly harmless or may be designed to cause serious damage. Malicious monomers, however, exercise “damage by design”. For example, backdoor implies gaining access to systems through bypassing the usual authentication; social engineering refers to using psychological tools in malicious way to trick users into doing something they otherwise would not, etc.


Polymer threats (polymers) are more complex threats which usually include several monomers. Dependent on the way in which polymers infiltrate and compromise systems, they can be partitioned into 4 varieties: malware polymers; technical stealth polymers; email or messaging polymers; and hybrid polymers. Malware polymers refer to various type of malicious software (or malware) and include viruses (user-activated malware), worms (self-propagating malware), etc. Technical stealth polymers represent threats which utilize various technical (e.g., programming) means and include (Distributed) Denial of Service (DOS) attacks (malicious attempts to cause the victim, site, or node to deny service to its customers), password brute force (a trial and error method used to decode encrypted data), etc. Email and messaging polymers such as phishing ("untargeted" messages aimed at tricking users into revealing valuable information or taking actions advantageous to cyberthreat instigator) spread through electronic communication. Finally, Hybrid polymers usually involve a mixture of infiltration mechanisms from purely psychological to highly technical.


Polymers usually combine into composites and composites, in turn, may be integral parts of complex composites. To illustrate the relationship between monomers, polymers and composites consider the following example. Monomers backdoor and exploit may be integral parts of such polymers as a virus or worm and payload is a composite which may include viruses and worms. In turn, payload may be a part of a complex composite such as (cyber) theft.


From the security standpoint, it is easier to deal with monomers than with polymers, and it is easier to deal with polymers rather than composites. Since the complexity of the threat elements increase from monomers to polymers and from polymers to composites, the complexity of solutions should also increase between these three categories. For business practice, the most common threats are email and messaging polymers, technical stealth polymers as well as malware polymers (white, red and green groups in the #CyberPeriodicTable).


To find out more about #cyberthreats, #CyberPeriodicTable as well as practical risk-management techniques for tackling cybersecurity threats, check out "Navigating New Cyber Risks", available from Amazon as an eBook: as well as from Palgrave Macmillan as both an eBook and Hardcover.

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© 2020 by Ganna Pogrebna and Boris Taratine