Digital technologies have become a crucial part of every organization today.
They have truly revolutionized the global economic and cultural institutions, thanks to the automation and greater connectedness they offer. But with these benefits, they’ve also brought increased risks in the form of cyberattacks.
Cyberthreat intelligence is the knowledge that helps you prevent or mitigate these attacks effectively and promptly.
What Is Cyberthreat Intelligence Anyway?
According to Gartner:
“Threat intelligence is evidence-based knowledge, including context, mechanisms, indicators, implications, and action-oriented advice about an existing or emerging menace or hazard to assets. This intelligence can be used to inform decisions regarding the subject’s response to that menace or hazard.”
To reiterate, cyberthreat intelligence is a practice of making actionable use of collected and organized data or information about cyberthreats. It consists of correlated data points about potential organizational threats, which range from in-depth profiles of cyberthreat actors to technical Indicators of Compromise (IoC).
Cyberthreat intelligence to a network defender is like medical testing and imagery to a surgeon or battlefield reports to a military commander. It helps network defenders make better security decisions after considering all of the risks and options concerning the anticipation, prevention, and remediation of cyberthreats and attacks.
How Cyberthreat Intelligence Works
Businesses should invest in cyberthreat intelligence to get access to massive threat databases—something that will exponentially improve the efficacy of their solutions.
Intelligence has three levels: operational, tactical, and strategic. Each level has a different nature and format of the material conveyed, its targeted audience, and its application.
Operational Threat Intelligence
This level of cyberthreat intelligence relates to details of potential impending operations against a company.
Intelligence providers generally supply operations threat intelligence using a combination of human and machine-readable formats. Obtaining this intelligence isn’t an easy task, especially since it involves a large volume of data.
It’s why intelligence providers use an open-source method to detect relevant information. For example, they may get intel from hackers discussing potential targets or examine leaked data on a dark web forum.
Tactical Threat Intelligence
Tactical threat intelligence comprises material relating to the technique, tactics, and procedures (TTPs) used by malicious agents or threat actors, with IoCs being the main deliverable for tactical threat intelligence providers.
This intelligence level is required for updating signature-based defense systems to enhance their defense against known attack types. Besides that, the data can also be useful for taking more proactive measures, such as threat hunting exercises, making it particularly helpful for network defenders like Security Operation Centers (SOCs).
Tactical threat intelligence providers supply IoCs in machine-readable formats, whereas intelligence on TTPs is delivered in human-readable formats, requiring human assimilation and action.
Strategic Threat Intelligence
The whole point of strategic threat intelligence is to inform senior decision-makers of the latest trends and broader changes in the threat environment. As such, strategic intelligence products are expressed in plain language and focus on issues pertaining to business risk other than technical terminology.
The strategic cyberthreat intelligence product reporting format reflects this longer-term view as well. For instance, this intelligence is often disseminated every month or quarter to aid long-term strategizing.
Cyberthreat Intelligence Organizational Applications
At this point, we’ve covered the three different levels of cyberthreat intelligence that organizations use for various purposes. Now, let’s review how organizations use this intelligence.
- Predicting threats. Strategic threat intelligence helps organizations anticipate evolving threats before they materialize and plan accordingly to eliminate them before any damage.
- Detecting threats. Cyberthreat intelligence helps organizations identify threats as they arise, as well as those that may already be present within their networks.
- Preventing threats. Threat intelligence can stop incidents, like malware signatures that are used to update signature-based detection mechanisms from occurring in the first place.
- Responding to threats. Cyberthreat intelligence gives organizations material that can inform a response to an existing incident to mitigate its extent or impact.
The Cyberthreat Intelligence Lifecycle
Cyberthreat intelligence has a whole lifecycle that involves threat intelligence providers collecting security information borrowed from military and governmental intelligence agencies. It essentially consists of six stages: direction, collection, processing, analysis, dissemination, and feedback.
The Direction Phase
In the direction phase, threat intelligence providers take charge of protecting information assets by determining the types of intelligence that can help protect these assets. They have to identify the most impactful threat categories and what types of information can help defend against these threats.
Additionally, providers may also have to discover the following:
- Who the attackers are and their motivations
- What’s the attack surface
- What actions can be taken to strengthen an organization against future attacks
The Collection Phase
Once all the requirements are defined, the threat intelligence provider sets out to collect the required information to satisfy the determined objectives.
Depending on the goals, the team can seek out the following:
- Social media
- Publically available data sources
- Subject matter or industry experts
- Existing trade data feeds
- Threat databases and datasets (also known as vulnerabilities or malware signatures)
- Hacker websites and closed forums in the dark web
- Traffic logs
The Processing Phase
After the raw data is collected, threat intelligence providers can focus on transforming the collected information into a data format that makes it easier for the information to be used for cybersecurity. Usually, this entails organizing data points into spreadsheets, translating information from foreign sources, evaluating all data for accuracy and relevance, decrypting files, and so on.
Remember, all qualitative information should be reviewed, ranked, and categorized, while quantitative information must be cleaned and converted into consistent formats.
The Analysis Phase
After processing threat intelligence comes analysis. All data must be presented and packaged in a way that makes it actionable and useful for the end-user.
For instance, if the end-users are security professionals, threat intelligence providers should give them actionable data points but can be used in real-time to defend against an attack or investigate a data breach. But if the end-users are non-technical, the intelligence providers should give them easy-to-read and digestible reports, or presentations and videos that explain the threat at a higher level as simply as possible.
The Dissemination Phase
The dissemination phase involves intelligence providers delivering threat intelligence to the end-users and presenting results to stakeholders.
How every analysis is presented depends on the audience. Threat intelligence is given to humans in the form of written reports or alerts, and to machines in the form of data files in specific formats supported by security tools.
The Feedback Phase
Obtaining feedback about the impact and usefulness of data is crucial since it helps answer several questions. Was threat intelligence helpful in detecting security incidents? Did it help end-users understand and defend against attacks? Were threat intelligence tools able to use the information to operate more efficiently?
Receiving feedback on an ongoing basis will help threat intelligence teams improve their information sources, processing, and analyzing, which, in turn, lead to better results.
Cyberthreat Intelligence Example #1: Risk Analysis
Cyber attacks on businesses are undoubtedly on the rise. But many of these attacks are highly specialized, with malware groups choosing to target specific organizations or verticals.
In risk analysis, organizations have to determine the true nature of the risk, i.e, whether an attack is relevant to the business, how often the attack has occurred at a similar organization, and how it affected them (what kind of damage did it cause). Additionally, they must figure out whether a type of attack is gaining speed or phasing out and which mitigation measures will be more effective as well.
Cyberthreat intelligence can help answer each of these questions quickly and accurately.
Cyberthreat Intelligence Example #2: Security Operations
Security operation center (SOC) teams deal with a high volume of daily alerts. One of the main challenges here is determining which alerts require immediate attention and which can be ignored, especially since many alerts are often inconsequential.
Cyberthreat intelligence helps filter out false positives and irrelevant alerts, bringing only those alerts to the forefront that require genuine attention. Organizations use this intelligence to promptly gather and provide stronger information while simultaneously streamlining incident analysis. This helps an analyst focus on more important jobs, allowing them to maximize their productivity.
Cyberthreat Intelligence Example #3: Fraud Prevention
The fraudulent use of data—even your business‘s brand—is just as dangerous as malware attacks.
Luckily, you can prevent fraud and any damage to your reputation through timely and accurate intelligence on phishing campaigns and targets, user login credential leaks, cybercriminal communities, payment card leaks, and other compromised data available on the darknet and other underground sources.
Cyberthreat Intelligence #4: Vulnerability Management
Malicious hackers are getting increasingly sophisticated when it comes to devising methods to target enterprises. So it makes sense newer vulnerabilities are coming into the light every day.
Patching all vulnerabilities simultaneously can feel daunting, especially for larger organizations that deal with a large number of devices and data volume. Cyberthreat intelligence can drastically improve an organization’s ability to prioritize which vulnerabilities to patch right away. It analyzes current threat activities and the real-world likelihood of a new vulnerability being targeted with an exploit.
Cyberthreat Intelligence #5: Minimizing Third-Party Risks
You might’ve taken all the necessary precautions to amp up the security of your own network, but you cannot really guarantee the same for the third parties you work with.
Considering how modern organizations and digital commerce conduct business, tons of information is exchanged between systems owned by different vendors, customers, and partners almost every day.
Cyberthreat intelligence can help provide deep insights and transparency into the threat landscapes of the third parties you work with. This will give you the right context to make informed security decisions and evaluate your business relationships—both of which can actively reduce third-party risks.
How to Get Started With Cyberthreat Intelligence
Below is a step-by-step breakdown of how to get started with cyberthreat intelligence to boost your company’s data security.
Step 1: Aggregate Threat Intelligence
Consolidate all sources of cyberthreat intelligence—both internal and external—into a single location. This will help you see the bigger picture and deduce a single source of truth.
Without aggregation, using cyberthreat intelligence can become a laborious and unmanageable task.
Step 2: Contextualize Intelligence Data
Without context, data is useless. You cannot use it to analyze trends and nor will it help you make rapid informed decisions.
On the contrary, when you have context, you can understand the threats better and what they’ll mean for your environment.
Step 3: Prioritize Intelligence Data
Cyberthreat intelligence involves large volumes of data, which can make it difficult to focus on the intelligence that actually requires the most attention.
Precisely why you need to set up parameters to help prioritize data to ensure relevance. Interestingly, prioritization can also work wonders to reduce data security risks and save you from paying hefty fines and penalties.
Step 4: Utilize Intelligence Data
Collecting and analyzing cyberthreat intelligence is crucial to enhance your business’s security levels. However, no matter how detailed the intelligence is, it won’t help your organization until you actually utilize it.
You should apply the curated threat data to your environment, which will convert all the intelligence into effective protection and mitigation strategies.
Step 5: Regularly Update Intelligence Data
If you want to keep your defenses current, you must conduct periodical threat assessments.
Cyberthreat intelligence has to be updated and enriched regularly to ensure they remain in tune with your threat library. This, in turn, will allow you to stay focused on what truly matters and facilitate better decision-making.