What Is The Key Difference Between APT Vs Malware?

If you've ever been wondered what is the key difference between APT vs malware, then you’ve come to the right place. APT and malware are two standard tools used by hackers to commit cyber-attacks.  

In this guide, we’ll be taking a look at both of them and compare them. Once you’ve read it, you’ll know the differences and similarities between them and why being aware of both is essential.  

APT is a method of attacking a computer network. It stands for Advanced Persistent Threat. The person or group responsible will have done a great deal of research before committing the attack. That’s because the targets are usually governments or corporations. 

When an attack like this is implemented, it requires expertise, money, and computing power. APT attacks are sophisticated, affect the whole network that’s been targeted, and can last for months or even years.  Those behind these attacks are often cybercriminals and receive government funding. 

An attack like this is dangerous for its victim. Trade secrets and confidential information are both fair game for APT hackers, and it doesn’t end there. Data can not only be stolen but deleted as well, plus hackers can take over the network. 

person wearing mask sitting at a computer desk

The History Of APT 

APT was a term coined by the U.S. Department of Defense in the early 2000s, referring to cyber-attacks committed against America by China. The phrase entered widespread use after APT attacks against Google in 2009 and RSA in 2011. 

APT Vs Phishing  

APT hackers can make use of spear phishing, as well as zero-day malware, to penetrate a computer network. The former means receiving an email that appears to come from someone trustworthy, and it typically includes a link that infects the user’s computer with malware. The latter is malware not yet known to antivirus software. 

Related: What's The Difference Between Phishing And Spearphishing?

APT Attack Stages  

There are three main stages of an APT attack - infiltration, expansion, and extraction. We’ll devote a paragraph to each one.  

Infiltration marks the beginning of an attack, and there are two vectors it can happen through - interactions with users, as with spear phishing, or the uploading of malicious code to a network. The perpetrator then installs a backdoor, allowing them to access the network and operate without detection.  

Expansion is where the perpetrator will widen their access within the network. Often, that means reaching higher levels of an organization to steal more valuable information. That information can then be sold to a competitor, sabotaged, or used to cripple the organization.   

Finally, extraction is where the stolen data is removed from the compromised network. This often involves a distraction tactic, like a Direct Denial of Service (DDoS) attack.  

Most Notable Examples Of APT Attacks 

  • Titan Rain (2003)  
    Titan Rain was a series of attacks from China’s People’s Liberation Army against the U.S. government. The hackers focused on computer systems in organizations like the FBI and NASA, causing tension between China and the U.S. 
  • Sykipot Attacks (2006)  
    Sykipot attacks exploited vulnerabilities in Adobe Acrobat and Adobe Reader. Attacks were created by the Sykipot attack group and launched against high-value targets in Britain and America. The goal was to obtain sensitive information. It’s unknown how successful these attacks were, but most antivirus programs can now detect Sykipot malware. 
  • GhostNet (2009)   
    GhostNet was the name given to an APT cyber-attack from 2009, which took place from within China. The goal was to infiltrate networks belonging to government departments and embassies. GhostNet infiltrated networks in over 100 countries. Hackers could remotely control devices and record audio and video. 
  • Stuxnet Worm (2010)   
    The Stuxnet worm was classified as being one of the most complex malware programs in the world. It was deployed against the control systems that regulated nuclear power plants in Iran. Only a nation could have pulled it off, but it’s not known which one did. It worked by infecting computers not connected to the Internet using USB sticks.  
  • SolarWinds Hack (2020-21)  
    This is one of the most recent examples of a severe APT attack. It was a global campaign affecting governments, infrastructure, and private corporations. It began by exploiting a vulnerability in SolarWinds Orion software. It allowed hackers to monitor network traffic by placing SUNBURST malware into Orion updates and could only be stopped by disconnecting computers from the Internet.  

What Is Malware? 

Malware is a form of software created with malicious intentions. That’s what gives it the name malware. It’s malicious software. Hackers create malware to access computer systems, extract confidential data, and cause harm to the system. 

Malware can be used against businesses and governments, as well as individuals. The damages incurred by an individual, company, or state will vary depending on who the malware targets and how successful it is at extracting information. 

What Does Malware Do?

When a computer gets infected with malware, the process is usually quick but damaging. The malware can take passwords, delete files, and cause numerous computer problems

Often, the malware will use up a large amount of the computer’s Random Access Memory. That slows the system down and makes it difficult to complete tasks.  

The History Of Malware  

The idea of malware goes back to an influential research paper by the computer scientist John von Neumann, but it didn’t appear until the 1970s in America. During these early years, malware had to be physically inserted into a computer. After the late 1990s, malware spread via email and the Internet.  

macbook with piracy flag on the screen

Common Types Of Malware And Notable Attacks 

  • Worm   
    Computer worms replicate themselves within application containers and are the most dangerous form of malware in terms of damage caused. The MyDoom worm caused $38 billion of damage in 2004, and it worked fast. It enabled hackers to access an infected computer, and it spread via Google Docs and emails.  
  • Virus   
    A virus uses an infected file to execute itself on a system. Viruses have been almost as harmful as computer worms. In 2003, a virus called SoBig was spread by email and caused over $37 billion in damage. 
    Related: How To Remove A Virus From A USB Without Losing Data
  • Rootkit   
    Next on our list is rootkits. These are like toolkits, and they embed themselves deep within the operating system on a computer. They allow a hacker to run commands and make changes remotely. One of the most dangerous rootkit incidents involved the tapping of over 100 phones belonging to government officials in Greece in 2004-5.  
  • Ransomware   
    Ransomware locks a person out of their computer by encrypting their data. It usually requests a ransom payment within a specific time, or it will wipe the computer. In 2017, the WannaCry ransomware program caused over $4 billion of damage across 150 countries. This included I.T. systems in hospitals, making it a severe threat. 
  • Trojan Horse  
    A trojan horse is malware in disguise, taking its name from the wooden horse used to invade the Ancient Greek city of Troy. The most notable example is the Zeus trojan. It infected computers through phishing or downloads. Hackers took passwords for social media, bank, and email accounts, and it caused around $70 million in damages. 
  • Spyware   
    Spyware takes the final position on our list because it’s not caused as much financial damage. It spies on the user through recording them or logging keyboard strokes. One notable example was when 100 Israeli soldiers had their phones infected with fake apps offered through social media messages. The military removed the apps before the hackers could do any spying. 

What Is The Key Difference Between APT Vs Malware?

We’ll now cover what is the key difference between APTs and most malware. We’ll divide it into several subheadings focusing on essential elements of an attack on a user's cybersecurity defenses.


APT attacks are typically focused on valuable targets and are planned well in advance. This means multiple entry points, cloaking the infiltration of a computer system, and taking as long as needed to reach desired data. That’s why they’re more successful.

Malware acts quickly and can spread like wildfire to thousands of computers but often gets caught by antivirus software.  

Related: What's The Difference Between Firewall And An Antivirus?


APT hackers will typically research a target in-depth before choosing whether to move forward with an attack. Targets are usually large corporations, governments, and national banks.

Hackers want to steal information that could benefit them. Malware often has a broader application, being used to target the general population.  

Detection Period  

APT hackers aim for their actions to go undetected for as long as possible. The attacks are usually stealthy and well-funded, so they have the resources and time to evade detection for lengthy periods.

Malware is often detected quite rapidly, except for rootkits, so it works fast and often presents the user with demands, like ransomware. 

Attack Strategies And Approach  

When looking at APT vs. malware attack strategies, one key difference stands out. APT hackers make use of multiple attack phases. Infiltrating the system, securing their position, and extracting data are three examples.

Malware frequently has a single attack mechanism and is automated through malicious code and executable files. 

Intensity Of Damages  

The damage inflicted by an APT attack is more intensive than a malware attack for the company or government targeted. That’s because it’s personalized to achieve maximum damage against that single target.

However, the harm from malware attacks can be more intense overall when you add up the costs incurred across all infected systems.  

Types Of Attackers  

When comparing APT vs. malware, the attackers fall into different categories. APT attackers are typically state-sponsored cybercriminals or hacking groups who have the firepower needed to infiltrate and compromise high-value targets.

Malware is often developed by lone wolves, like teenage hacker Sven Jaschan, arrested in 2004 for creating the highly damaging Sasser worm.  

computer hackers wearing masks

People Also Ask (FAQs)

How many APT groups are there?  

At the time of writing, the MITRE ATT&CK website lists 122 APT groups. Many of these operate out of countries like China and Iran and include teams of hackers working together.  

How long is the average APT on systems before it is found? 

The length of time an APT attack goes undetected varies depending on the region. As of 2018, the average detection time is 71 days in the Americas, 177 days in the EMEA region, and 204 days in the APAC region. 

Why is it difficult to detect APT attacks? 

APT attacks are known for being sophisticated, well-funded, and well-planned. That makes them harder to detect. There are three options to improve detection - deception technology, network monitoring, plus user and entity behavior analytics. 

Can malware steal my passwords? 

In short, the answer is yes. The most likely type to steal your passwords is spyware that installs a keylogger onto a computer system. This will then record the keystrokes as passwords are typed in. 

Can malware spread through WiFi? 

Malware can indeed spread through WiFi. This has become easier in recent years as WiFi speeds have increased, and the problem is worst on unencrypted networks. Routers with solid passwords are mostly secure.  

Related: What's The Difference Between VPN And A Firewall?


APT and malware differ in many ways, and we've revealed what is the key difference between APTs and most malware. We've also covered examples of APTs and malware, explained how they work and the damages they cause.