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What is Cyber Threat Intelligence? [Beginner’s Guide]

What is Threat Intelligence?

Threat Intelligence is data collected, processed, and analyzed to understand threat actors’ motives, goals, and attack behavior. Threat Intelligence allows us to make faster, more informed, and data-driven security decisions and shift our behavior from reactive to proactive in the fight versus threat actors.

Why is Threat Intelligence Important?

Worldwide Cybersecurity, Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs), and defenders are continuously trying to outmaneuver each other. Data about a threat actor’s next move is critical to adapt your defenses and prevent future attacks proactively.

Organizations increasingly identify the value of Threat Intelligence, and 72 percent plan to increase their spending on Threat Intelligence in the coming quarters.

However, there is a difference between identifying the value and getting it. Today, most organizations focus only on the most basic use cases, such as integrating threat data feeds with existing networks, IPS, firewalls, and SIEMs, without taking full advantage of the insights intelligence can provide.

Organizations that limit themselves to this basic level of Threat Intelligence are missing out on real benefits that could significantly improve their security posture.

Threat Intelligence is essential for the following reasons:

  • Brings light into the darkness and enables security teams to make better decisions
  • empowers Cybersecurity actors by revealing the adversary’s motives and their Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (TTP)
  • helps security professionals much better understand the threat actor’s decision-making process
  • empowers business stakeholders, such as boards of directors, CISOs, CIOs, and CTOs, to invest wisely, reduce risk, become a lot more efficient, and make faster decisions

Who Benefits from Threat Intelligence?

Threat Intelligence helps organizations of all types and sizes process threat data to understand their attackers better, respond more quickly to incidents and proactively anticipate a threat actor’s next move. SMEs can use this data to achieve a level of protection that would otherwise be unattainable.

On the other hand, organizations with large security teams can reduce the cost and skills required and deploy their analysts more effectively by leveraging external Threat Intelligence.

From start to finish, Threat Intelligence offers unique benefits to every member of a security team, including:

  • Sec/IT Analyst – Optimising prevention and detection capabilities and strengthening defenses.
  • Soc – prioritizing incidents based on risk and impact to the business.
  • CSIRT – Accelerate the investigation, management, and prioritization of incidents.
  • Intel analyst – uncover and track threat actors attacking the enterprise
  • Executive management – understanding the risks facing the business and the options available to address them

Threat Intelligence Lifecycle

The Intelligence Lifecycle is a process for transforming raw data into finished information for decision-making and action. In your research, you will find many slightly different versions of the Intelligence Cycle.

Still, the goal is the same: to lead a Cybersecurity team through developing and executing an effective Threat Intelligence program.

Threat Intelligence is challenging because threats constantly evolve, and organizations need to adapt quickly and act decisively.

The Intelligence Cycle provides a framework that enables teams to optimize their resources and respond effectively to the modern threat landscape. This cycle consists of six steps that culminate in a feedback loop to drive continuous improvement:

Below we will explain the six steps in more detail:

1. Requirements

The requirements phase is critical to the Threat Intelligence lifecycle as it sets the roadmap for a particular Threat Intelligence operation.

In this requirements phase, the team agrees on the objectives and methodology of its intelligence program based on the stakeholders’ requirements. The team can then set out to find out.

  • who the attackers are and what motivates them
  • how extensive the attack surface is
  • what specific measures should be required to strengthen the defense against a future attack

2. Collection

Once the requirements are defined, the team gathers the information needed to meet those objectives. Depending on the objectives, the team will consult traffic logs, publicly available data resources, relevant online forums, SOCial media, and industry or subject matter experts.

3. Processing

Once the raw information has been collected, it needs to be put into a format suitable for analysis. In most cases, this means organizing data points into spreadsheets, decoding files, translating information from outside sources, and checking the data for relevance and reliability.

4. Analysis

Once the data set has been processed, the team must conduct a thorough analysis to answer the questions posed in the requirements phase. During the analysis phase, the team also decodes the data set into recommendations for action for stakeholders.

5. Dissemination

In the dissemination phase, the Threat Intelligence team must translate its analysis into an understandable format and present the results to stakeholders. How the analysis is presented depends upon the target audience.

Most of the time, the recommendations should be presented concisely and without confusing jargon, either in a one-page report or in a short set of slides.

6. Feedback

The last stage of the Threat Intelligence lifecycle is to seek feedback on the submitted report to determine if changes require to be made for future Threat Intelligence operations. 

Stakeholders may change their priorities, the frequency with which they wish to receive intelligence reports, or how the data is disseminated or presented.

Threat Intelligence Use Cases

Below is a list of use cases by function:

Sec/IT Analyst:
  • Integrate TI feeds with other security products
  • Block bad IPS, URLs, domains, files, etc
  • Use TI to enrich alerts
  • Link alerts together into incidents
  • Tune newly deployed security controls
  • Search for information on the who/what/why/when/how of an incident
  • Analyze root cause to determine the scope of the incident
Intel Analyst:
  • Look broader and more profound for intrusion evidence
  • Review reports on threat actors to better detect them
Executive Management:
  • Assess overall threat level for the organization
  • Develop security roadmap

3 Types of Threat Intelligence

The last section discussed how Threat Intelligence could provide us with data about existing or potential threats. This can be simple information, such as a malicious domain name, or complex information, such as a detailed profile of a known threat actor.

Remember that there is a maturity curve for information, represented by the three stages listed below. With each level, the context and analysis of CTI come to be more profound and more sophisticated, targeted at different audiences, and can become more expensive.

  1. Tactical intelligence
  2. Operational intelligence
  3. Strategic intelligence

1. Tactical Threat Intelligence

Tactical Intelligence is focused on the immediate future, is technical, and identifies simple Indicators Of Compromises (IOCs). IOCs are things like malicious IP addresses, URLs, file hashes, and known malicious domain names. They can be machine-readable, which means security products can ingest them via feeds or API integration.

Tactical Intelligence is the easiest to generate and is almost always automated. Therefore, they can be found via open-source and free data feeds but usually have a very short lifespan. IOCs such as malicious IPSs or domain names can become obsolete within days or even hours.

It is essential to note that while simply subscribing to information feeds can result in a wealth of data, it offers little opportunity to analyze the relevant threats. In addition, false positives can occur if the source is not timely or reliable.

2. Operational Threat Intelligence

Just as poker players study the peculiarities of other players to predict their opponent’s next move, Cybersecurity experts study their opponents.

Behind every attack is a “who,” a “why,” and a “how.” The “who” is called attribution, and the “why” is called inspiration or intent. The “how” is composed of the TTPs that the threat actor uses. 

Together, these factors make up the context, providing insight into how the adversary plans, executes and sustains campaigns and significant operations. This insight is Operational Intelligence.

Machines alone cannot create operational Threat Intelligence, and it takes human analysis to transform the data into a format that customers can easily use. 

Operational intelligence needs more resources than Tactical Intelligence. Still, it has a longer lifespan because adversaries cannot change their TTPs as quickly as they can change their tools, such as a particular type of malware.

Operational intelligence is most helpful for those Cybersecurity professionals who work in a SOC (Security Operations Centre) and are responsible for running day-to-day operations.

Cybersecurity disciplines such as vulnerability management, incident response, and threat monitoring are the biggest consumers of Operational Intelligence, as it helps them perform their assigned tasks more competently and effectively.

3. Strategic Threat Intelligence

Attackers do not operate in a vacuum, and there are almost always overriding factors surrounding the conduct of cyberattacks. For example, attacks by nation-states are usually linked to geopolitical conditions, and geopolitical conditions are associated with risk.

Furthermore, with the advent of financially motivated big game hunting, cybercriminals constantly evolve their Techniques and should not be ignored.

Strategic intelligence shows how global events, foreign policies, and other long-term local and international movements can potentially impact an organization’s cyber security.

Strategic intelligence helps decision-makers understand the risks that cyber threats pose to their organizations. They can make Cybersecurity investments that effectively protect their organizations and align with their strategic priorities with this knowledge.

Strategic intelligence tends to be the most difficult to generate. Strategic Intelligence requires people to collect and analyze data, which requires a deep understanding of Cybersecurity and the nuances of the geopolitical situation in the world. Strategic Intelligence usually comes in the form of reports.

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