3 Key Differences Between Active and Passive Attacks

man sitting in the dark hacking a computer

In the modern era, a well-placed cyber attack could destroy a business or even someone’s life. We rely heavily on technology by storing everything from Social Security numbers and banking information to medical histories. A hacker could know as much as they wanted about a person so long as they knew where to look and how to act.

Depending on motives and their instruments, hackers usually go about their business in two different ways: active or passive cyber attacks. While they’re very different, both attacks are intended to complete a similar goal: the theft of information or bringing potential harm to a victim.

Whether this is stealing a competing company’s trade secrets or taking millions of customers’ bank account records, theft of this kind can be devastating.

Active and passive attacks are two different beasts that everyone should know about before feeling confident with their data security. Here are a few differences and some useful information about the two.

1. Active Alters, Passive Observes

An active cyber attack is all about tampering with information or webpages. The goal here is to alter system resources or change the mode of operation. They often create false statements to break coding or modify streams of data to overload systems. Distributed denial-of-service, or “DDoS attacks,” are a form of active cyber attack.

Meanwhile, passive attacks don’t alter anything. Hackers use a form of passive attack when they don’t think they can get through defenses or when they don’t actually want to immediately cause harm.

Passive is all about gathering information. One of the ways a passive attack can occur is if a hacker intercepts messages being sent privately between two people. The hacker can read the contents and gather intel quietly.

2. Active Harms, Passive Waits

Active cyber attacks will always cause harm to the system. Harm is their main purpose and what they’re designed to do. Sometimes, the attack can even be as simple by someone using a fake identity to interact with someone else, the intention being to fool them into trusting the attacker with secrets or even money.

A passive attack, though, doesn’t cause any harm. At least, the harm isn’t caused immediately. Passive hackers allow systems to go about their normal daily routines while simply keeping an eye on operations.

However, information lost to the hacker may cause a lot more harm in the future than any active attack could create.

3. Active Alerts Victims, Passive Remains Silent

When an active attack occurs, the harm is instant. For example, in cases like the aforementioned DDoS attacks, systems will go down immediately, alerting everyone to the problem.

This allows the victims to fix the issue immediately, but it also incites panic and forces quick decisions. Hackers can use these situations to their advantage by demanding ransom after taking information hostage.

Passive attacks intentionally don’t alert victims at all. They hide in the shadows to observe information being handed around and watch how operations are handled from afar.

A passive attack will rarely make itself known unless it turns into an active one. As such, there is no way to combat a passive attack. The only thing an entity can do to protect itself is to use preventive measures like message encryption to ensure hackers can’t review information even if they gather it.

Protecting Yourself

Preventive measures are the only real way to stop attacks from occurring. Once a cyber attack happens, even with security in place, it may be too late to stop the damage from being done.

If you have sensitive information, firewalls and encrypted data is a must for any individual or company. Beyond that, keeping regular backups of all information and destroying sensitive information that’s no longer in use is also a good way to minimize risk.

These days, cyber attacks are a case of when, not if, they will happen. Even a small business needs to be prepared for the worst. Thankfully, just keeping extra hard drives and being vigilant about the information you keep shouldn’t be too much of a struggle, especially if it means less damage later on.

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