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What is Cyber Threat Intelligence?

In today's interconnected digital landscape, the proliferation of cyber threats poses significant risks to individuals, organizations, and nations alike. As the frequency and sophistication of cyber attacks continue to escalate, the need for proactive defense measures has never been more critical. Enter Cyber Threat Intelligence (CTI) – a vital component in the arsenal of cybersecurity professionals worldwide.


Cyber Threat Intelligence

But what exactly is Cyber Threat Intelligence, and why is it essential in combating cyber threats? In this article, we will explore the fundamentals of CTI, exploring its definition, significance, and practical applications in safeguarding against the ever-evolving landscape of cyber threats.


What is Cyber Threat Intelligence (CTI)?

Cyber Threat Intelligence (CTI) is a specialized field that focuses on the collection and analysis of information about potential or current cyber-attacks. This intelligence is not just raw data; it is carefully processed and interpreted to provide actionable insights. These insights empower organizations to make informed decisions about their cyber defense strategies and take proactive measures to mitigate cyber threats.


Why is CTI crucial in today’s digital age?

In the world of cybersecurity, advanced persistent threats (APTs) and defenders are constantly trying to outmaneuver each other. Data on a threat actor’s next move is crucial to proactively tailoring your defenses and preempting future attacks.


Organizations are increasingly recognizing the value of threat intelligence. However, there is a difference between recognizing value and receiving value. Most organizations today are focusing their efforts on only 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 that intelligence can offer.


Real-world examples of how CTI can prevent cyber attacks

Artificial Intelligence (AI) in cybersecurity is increasingly critical to protecting online systems from attacks by cybercriminals and unauthorized access attempts. If used correctly, AI systems can be trained to enable automatic cyber threat detection, generate alerts, identify new strands of malware, and protect businesses’ sensitive data.


For example, a global bank needed to improve its threat detection and response following advanced cyber threats and sophisticated attacks. The bank’s security team deployed an AI-based Managed Detection and Response Service (MDR) service. This helped them achieve a level of protection that would otherwise be out of reach.


Sources of Cyber Threat Intelligence

Various sources provide valuable insights into emerging threats and vulnerabilities. These sources can be broadly categorized as follows:

  • Open sources

  • Closed sources

  • Technical sources

  • Human Intelligence (HUMINT)

  • Industry sharing groups


Open Sources: Open sources refer to publicly available information accessible to anyone. This includes data from news articles, blogs, social media platforms, public forums, and government websites. Open-source intelligence (OSINT) provides a wealth of information on cyber threats and security incidents, offering valuable context and early indicators of potential threats.


Closed Sources: Closed sources, also known as proprietary sources, are restricted or private repositories of intelligence data. These may include subscription-based threat intelligence feeds, commercial threat intelligence platforms, and private security forums. Closed sources often offer more detailed and specialized threat information but require access privileges or subscription fees.


Technical Sources: Technical sources encompass data collected from network telemetry, security logs, intrusion detection systems (IDS), endpoint security solutions, and threat intelligence feeds. These sources provide granular details on cyber threats, including indicators of compromise (IOCs), malware signatures, and anomalous network activity. Technical intelligence plays a crucial role in identifying and mitigating cyber threats in real time.


Human Intelligence (HUMINT): Human intelligence involves gathering intelligence through direct human interaction, such as interviews, conversations, and information exchanges. In the context of cyber threat intelligence, HUMINT may involve engaging with cybersecurity experts, industry insiders, or threat actors themselves to gather insights into cyber threats, tactics, and motivations.


Industry Sharing Groups: Industry sharing groups, also known as Information Sharing and Analysis Centers (ISACs) or Information Sharing and Analysis Organizations (ISAOs), facilitate the sharing of cyber threat intelligence among organizations within specific industries or sectors. These groups enable member organizations to collaborate, share threat intelligence, and collectively defend against common threats. ISACs and ISAOs often provide curated threat intelligence feeds, incident reports, and collaborative threat analysis platforms.


Types of Cyber Threat Intelligence

There are three primary types of CTI, each serving distinct purposes:

  • Strategic CTI

  • Operational CTI

  • Tactical CTI


Strategic CTI

Strategic CTI provides a big-picture perspective on evolving cyber threats. It focuses on high-level information that helps senior decision-makers within an organization understand the overall threat landscape.


Usage: This type of intelligence is crucial for guiding strategic business decisions. Senior executives, including CISOs and board members, use strategic CTI to assess the organization's cybersecurity posture and allocate resources effectively.


Pros:

  • Comprehensive View: Strategic CTI offers a holistic understanding of the threats faced by an organization, including emerging risks.

  • Risk Management: It aids in identifying and managing existing cyber risks, as well as anticipating potential future threats.

  • Decision Support: By providing insights into the broader threat landscape, strategic CTI assists in formulating long-term security strategies and investment decisions.


Cons:

  • Lack of Actionability: Strategic CTI may not always provide immediate, actionable data for technical teams tasked with day-to-day security operations.

  • Requirement for Expertise: Interpreting strategic intelligence requires a broad understanding of the threat landscape and its implications, which may be challenging for non-specialists.


Operational CTI

Operational CTI delivers actionable information about specific ongoing or imminent attacks. It focuses on detailed insights into the nature, timing, and methods of attacks, enabling organizations to respond effectively.


Usage: Security operations teams utilize operational CTI to detect, analyze, and respond to active threats in real time. This intelligence aids in incident response efforts and proactive threat-hunting activities.


Pros:

  • Real-Time Alerts: Operational CTI provides real-time alerts about active threats, enabling security teams to understand the scope of an attack promptly.

  • Enhanced Response: By offering detailed insights into attack characteristics, motivations, and tactics, operational CTI helps security teams mount effective defense measures.

  • Threat Hunting: Proactive use of operational intelligence supports ongoing threat-hunting initiatives, enabling organizations to identify and neutralize threats before they escalate.


Cons:

  • Expertise Requirement: Interpreting and acting upon operational intelligence requires a high level of expertise, as well as effective integration with other security tools and processes.

  • Limited Effectiveness in Isolation: Operational CTI is most effective when integrated with other types of intelligence and security measures. In isolation, its effectiveness may be limited.


Tactical CTI

Tactical CTI focuses on the specific tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) used by threat actors, as well as indicators of compromise (IOCs) observed in cyberattacks.


Usage: This intelligence is primarily aimed at technical audiences, including security analysts and incident responders. It helps these teams understand how their networks are being targeted and provides actionable data for immediate defense measures.


Pros:

  • Actionable Data: Tactical CTI provides specific IOCs, such as IP addresses and malware signatures, that can be used for immediate threat detection and response.

  • Enhanced Defense: By understanding the latest TTPs employed by threat actors, security teams can strengthen their defenses and improve incident response capabilities.

  • Technical Insights: Tactical intelligence offers technical insights into cyber threats, enabling security teams to stay ahead of evolving attack techniques.


Cons:

  • Technical Complexity: Interpreting tactical intelligence requires a deep understanding of cybersecurity concepts and techniques, limiting its accessibility to non-technical stakeholders.

  • Resource Intensive: Effectively utilizing tactical CTI often requires significant resources and expertise in threat intelligence analysis and cybersecurity operations.

Cyber Threat Intelligence Lifecycle

The Cyber Threat Intelligence lifecycle is a flexible and repetitive process through which raw data and information are recognized, gathered, and transformed into completed intelligence. The Cyber Threat Intelligence lifecycle comprises six key phases:


Planning and Direction: Setting objectives and defining the scope of the intelligence operation.


Collection: Gathering relevant data and information from various sources.


Processing and Exploitation: Converting collected raw data into a usable format and extracting meaningful insights.


Analysis and Production: Analyzing processed data to produce actionable intelligence reports.


Dissemination and Integration: Distributing finished intelligence products to relevant

stakeholders and incorporating them into decision-making processes.


Feedback: Receiving input from intelligence consumers to evaluate and improve the effectiveness of the intelligence cycle.

Cyber Threat Intelligence lifecycle

Planning and Direction

In this phase, we're figuring out what our cyber threat intelligence program needs to achieve. We identify what problems we need to solve to protect the organization and what information we need to gather to create threat intelligence reports that meet our needs.


We start by understanding what the organization wants from us (Intelligence Requirements or IRs). This could be things like knowing what types of cyber threats we're facing and why they're attacking us. Based on these needs, we figure out what data we need and how to get it.


We're essentially setting up the groundwork to answer important questions about cyber threats. These questions are given to us by top decision-makers or cybersecurity leaders in the organization. For example, they might want to know who's attacking us and why.


To answer these questions, we need to collect data, analyze it, and report our findings. This phase also involves setting up a plan to manage all the sources of intelligence, both from within the organization and externally.


There are three key fundamentals of the planning and direction phase:

  1. Intelligence Requirements

  2. Threat Modeling

  3. Collection Management Framework


1. Intelligence Requirements

Intelligence Requirements (IRs) are essentially the things an organization wants to know from its CTI (Cyber Threat Intelligence) team. These requests focus on gathering information about threats, risks, and opportunities that could affect the organization. IRs usually come from top management, like the Chief Information Security Officer (CISO), and the board, who are concerned about threats and risks to the organization's well-being, including its environment, operations, revenue, and reputation.


These requirements are based on what we call an "intelligence gap," which means there's something important about a cyber threat or security issue that we don't know yet.


We categorize these requirements into three types:


Intelligence Requirements (IRs): These cover the overall threat landscape. For example,

  • Identifying major threats to the organization

  • Recognizing both internal and external cyber threats targeting the organization

  • Understanding cyber threats targeting related industries


Priority Intelligence Requirements (PIRs): These are the most critical questions that need answers for the organization's safety. They're more detailed and operational, but they still align with IRs. For example,

  • Finding out who is targeting our organization's critical assets or new technologies

  • Understanding the motives behind these threat actors

  • Identifying which person, group, entity, or asset within the organization is being targeted


Specific Intelligence Requirements (SIRs): These are very focused on specific facts, entities, or activities. For example,

  • Describing any reconnaissance activity by threats that happened today

  • Spotting any changes in the tactics, techniques, and procedures of a specific threat actor today

  • Identifying the Command and Control (C&C) server infrastructure a specific threat actor is using

2. Threat Modeling

Threat modeling is like a structured roadmap to identify, evaluate, and deal with any possible threats and weaknesses in a system. Imagine it as a way to foresee potential problems and fix them before they become real issues.


Here's how it works:

  1. Identifying Valuable Assets: First, we figure out what's important to protect in our organization. These could be things like sensitive data or critical systems.

  2. Spotting Vulnerabilities and Attack Paths: Next, we look at all the weak spots and ways someone could attack our valuable assets. We prioritize these based on how likely they are to happen and how much damage they could cause.

  3. Creating a Profile of Potential Adversaries: We try to understand who might want to attack us and why. This involves looking at their capabilities, goals, motivations, and how they might go about attacking our systems.

  4. Listing Potential Threats: Finally, we make a list of all the different types of threats we might face in the future based on what we've learned.


The goal of threat modeling is to figure out where we need to focus our efforts to keep our system safe.


The Three Key Elements of Threat Modeling:

  1. Assets: These are the things we want to protect, like important data or systems.

  2. Vulnerabilities: These are the weak points in our system that could be exploited by attackers.

  3. Threats: These are the potential dangers we face, like hackers trying to steal our data.


Once we've identified and categorized our valuable assets, we look at all the vulnerabilities in our systems that could put them at risk. Then we ask ourselves: "Who might want to exploit these vulnerabilities, and why?" This helps us understand our potential attackers better, including their motivations and capabilities.

3. Collection Management Framework

The Collection Management Framework (CMF) is like a systematic roadmap for gathering data effectively to meet our intelligence needs. It helps us figure out where to get the right information and how to use it to answer our questions.


Here's how it works:

  1. Identifying Data Sources: We start by figuring out where we can find the data we need. This involves looking at different sources and deciding which ones are relevant and reliable.

  2. Evaluating Data Quality: We then assess the quality of the data available to us. This means checking if it's accurate, complete, and up-to-date enough to be useful for our purposes.


The Collection Management Framework has two main parts:

  • Collection Requirements Management (CRM): This part helps us define the specific data sets and sources we need to collect to answer our intelligence requirements (IRs).

  • Collection Operations Management (COM): Here, we put our plans into action. We organize the resources and activities needed to collect the data we've identified. We also keep track of why we're using each data source and look out for new sources that could help us gather more information.


Key Questions Guiding the Collection Management Framework:

  1. Where do we get our data from? We need to know the sources we're using.

  2. What kind of information is available in the data? Understanding the content helps us know its usefulness.

  3. How long do we keep the data? We consider the data retention period based on its relevance and legal requirements.

  4. What questions can the data help us answer? This guides us in understanding the utility of the collected data.


In essence, the Collection Management Framework helps us organize and make the most of the data we gather, ensuring it's relevant, reliable, and used effectively to meet our intelligence needs.


Collection

In the collection phase of cyber threat intelligence, our main job is to gather the data we need to meet our intelligence requirements. This means putting into action the collection plan we laid out earlier. We collect data from various sources, both inside and outside our organization.


Internal Data Sources: These are logs generated by our hardware and software. They give us insights into how our devices are used and may include things like indicators of compromise (IOCs), network event logs, firewall logs, router logs, Intrusion Detection Systems (IDS) data, records of past incident responses, and results of vulnerability scans.


External Sources: We also look outside our organization for data. This could include threat data feeds, code repositories, analyses of malware, information from the dark web, discussions on hacking forums, content from social media platforms, posts on paste sites, human intelligence sources, and information shared on dedicated platforms.


Processing and Exploitation

In the processing phase of cyber threat intelligence, our focus is on turning the raw data we've collected into a format that's suitable for analysis. Raw data isn't always ready to use because it comes from different sources in various formats like XML, JSON, CSV, or plain text. So, we need to process it to make it consistent and usable.


Here's how we do it:

  1. Normalization: We standardize the collected data into a uniform format, making it easier to work with and analyze.

  2. Indexing: We create searchable lists of the data, allowing analysts to quickly find what they need when investigating threats.

  3. Translation: If the data is in a foreign language, we translate it so that everyone on the team can understand it.

  4. Enrichment: We add extra information and context to the data to make it more valuable for analysis. This could include metadata or details about where the data came from.

  5. Filtering: We remove any false or redundant information from the dataset to ensure that analysts are working with accurate data.

  6. Prioritization: We prioritize the data based on its importance and relevance to the organization's security, helping analysts focus on the most critical threats first.

  7. Visualization: We visualize the sorted and organized data in a way that makes it easy for analysts to understand and interpret. This could include charts, graphs, or other visual representations.


Analysis and Production

The analysis phase of cyber threat intelligence is incredibly important. Here, we take the processed raw data and turn it into finished intelligence. The goal is to create intelligence products that answer the questions outlined in the planning phase.


During analysis, our CTI analysts bring together processed data, interpret it, and look for patterns to identify threats. They also add context to the data and evaluate its importance using various analytical techniques.


There are three main types of analysis:

  1. Tactical Analysis: This focuses on answering specific questions about threats, attacks, and vulnerabilities using technical data like network activity and malware samples.

  2. Operational Analysis: This dives deeper into specific threats, campaigns, and adversaries to understand who is behind the threats, why they're doing it, and how they operate.

  3. Strategic Analysis: This takes a broader view, considering threats, risks, emerging technologies, and geopolitical factors that could impact the organization in the present and future.


To ensure accurate evaluation, we use Structured Analytic Techniques (SATs) to reduce biases.


The output of our analysis should provide actionable insights, whether it's updating threat profiles, patching systems, or creating rules for threat detection. We aim for intelligence that's timely, accurate, contextual, and coherent.


Sometimes, during analysis, we realize that the data we've collected isn't quite right for our needs. In those cases, we may need to go back to the collection phase and gather different data for analysis.


Dissemination and Integration

In the dissemination phase of cyber threat intelligence, we aim to share our finished intelligence with the right people in a way that's easy for them to understand. We make sure to provide intelligence reports at different levels—strategic, operational, and tactical—to meet the needs of various users. It's crucial that everyone can grasp the information, process it, and know what steps to take. Effective sharing helps organizations use intelligence effectively, deciding how often reports should be distributed and in what format. By sharing actionable threat intelligence effectively, we ensure it's valuable and useful to those who need it.


Feedback

In the feedback phase of cyber threat intelligence, we collect input on the finished intelligence from our consumers. This input helps us understand whether the intelligence meets their needs. Depending on the feedback, we may need to restart the intelligence cycle to ensure it meets requirements. However, if the intelligence successfully meets the requirements, the cycle is complete. If adjustments are needed, we implement them to improve future intelligence distribution rounds.


Challenges in Cyber Threat Intelligence

Common Obstacles:

  1. Data Complexity: With the exponential growth of data, managing and making sense of all this information is a significant challenge. The sheer volume of data can make it difficult to identify relevant information and discern patterns that could indicate a cyber threat.

  2. Evolving Threats: The cyber threat landscape is not static; it changes rapidly as new vulnerabilities are discovered and new attack methods are developed. This requires constant updates and adaptations to keep up with the latest threats.

  3. Skill Crunch: There is a shortage of skilled professionals in the field of Cyber Threat Intelligence (CTI). This lack of expertise can hinder an organization’s ability to effectively identify and respond to cyber threats.

  4. Adversarial Machine Learning (ML): Adversarial ML involves manipulating the input to a machine learning model to trick it into making incorrect predictions. This poses a significant challenge as it can undermine the reliability of systems that depend on ML for threat detection.

  5. Lack of Transparency: There can be a lack of clarity in how threat data is collected and analyzed. This can make it difficult for stakeholders to understand and trust the process, which is crucial for effective cybersecurity.


Suggestions to Overcome Challenges:

  1. Tackling Data Overload: Advanced data analytics and machine learning techniques can be used to manage and analyze large volumes of data. These techniques can help to filter out noise and identify relevant patterns in the data.

  2. Keeping Up with Evolving Threats: Regularly updating threat intelligence feeds and using predictive analytics can help to anticipate future threats. This proactive approach can enable organizations to respond to threats more quickly and effectively.

  3. Addressing Skill Crunch: Investing in training and development can enhance the skills of your cybersecurity team. This can help to address the skill shortage and improve the organization’s ability to handle cyber threats.

  4. Countering Adversarial ML: Implementing robust algorithms that can detect and mitigate adversarial attacks can help to counter the challenges posed by adversarial ML. These algorithms can identify manipulated inputs and prevent them from leading to false predictions.

  5. Improving Transparency: Establishing clear protocols for data collection, analysis, and sharing within the organization can improve transparency. This can help to build trust among stakeholders and ensure that everyone understands the process.

Conclusion

As cyber threats continue to evolve in complexity and sophistication, the importance of Cyber Threat Intelligence only grows more pronounced. It serves as a beacon of vigilance in an increasingly digital world, guiding organizations towards informed decision-making and proactive risk management.

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