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Understanding Cyber Threat Intelligence

Sep 22 2022

What is cyber threat intelligence?

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” – Sun Tzu

The above quote by Sun Tzu summarizes cyber threat intelligence (CTI) perfectly. The end goal of any CTI program is the gathering of intelligence on the threats targeting the organization and utilizing that intelligence to enrich their security programs. Thus the first step in CTI is not looking outward, but inward. Looking at the organization and understanding the attack surface, compiling a list of the organization’s tech stack, what industry it operates in, where it operates, and what potential blind spots are in the security stack. Understanding the organization and how it operates allows CTI programs to find threats that the organization is likely to face rather than just understanding general threats. After looking inward, the CTI personnel will begin looking outward into the threat landscape. In this research, the CTI hypothesis should be drawn regarding the types of threats they expect to discover utilizing factors like, Who, What, Where, With, Why, and How. To help answer each one of these questions, CTI can be broken into four different categories which are Strategic, Tactical, Technical, and Operational. 

  • Strategic cyber threat intelligence is the high level view of threat intelligence in that it encompasses financial impact, attack trends, and other global impacts on the threat landscape. The key here is that any intelligence gathered is able to be used long-term. In strategic CTI, analysts look at attack trends across industries, change in TTPs over time, malware usage, and data breaches. This level of intelligence is typically used to inform executive level decisions and helps direct long term security planning.  
  • Operational cyber threat intelligence is where looking inward comes into play. With operational CTI, analysts are looking for specific threats against the specific organization. Here the intelligence focuses on threat actor motivation, ability to exploit vulnerabilities, past and current malicious activity, the confidentiality, integrity, and availability (CIA) impact of different cyberattacks, and vulnerabilities within the organization’s tech stack. This intelligence is important to assess how an organization stands against current and future cyber attacks. 
  • Tactical cyber threat intelligence is specific information on attackers.This includes mapping out threat actor TTPs, defining goals of threat actors, and understanding of threat actors’ technical capabilities. Doing this allows an organization to be proactive in its mitigation tactics and run simulated attacks against the organization to find openings in the organization’s security stack. 
  • Technical cyber threat intelligence is going a level deeper than tactical threat intelligence. Here analysts gather information on attacker’s C2, tools, malware and other technical level resources that threat actors leverage against an organization. The indicators of compromise (IoCs) gathered here also enhance security tools by helping build out block and alerting lists to enhance the organizations detection capabilities. Using Technical CTI, Tactical CTI, and Operational CTI allow an organization’s security team to do realistic attack simulations on the organization to fully assess the detection, prevention, and response abilities of the organization’s security stack. 

Cyber threat intelligence is more than just IoCs

Security teams can easily get caught in an IoC trap where all they focus on is curating a list of IoCs to build out block and allow lists. However IoCs alone are only one piece of the CTI puzzle. Most IoCs are short lived and without context are not helpful when trying to build out security policy around them. CTI, which does provide IoCs, also has the goal of correlating IoCs to other threat intelligence such as, threat actors (who), infrastructure (what), country of origin or commonly targeted countries (where), capabilities (with), attacker’s end goals (why), and attacker’s tactics, techniques, and procedures (how). With this context in mind, CTI tells a story around a set of IoCs putting the context of why the IoC matters and where it originates from. 

Why perform cyber threat intelligence?

Performing CTI provides value to security personnel from executives to analysts, offering insights into the dynamic threat landscape organizations operate within today. At a leadership level it can empower leaders to make informed operational decisions within the organization. For security teams, CTI enhances team performance through providing critical information on how best to detect or mitigate current threats. The SOC would use CTI information to ensure the latest IoCs are being alerted on, TVM to be informed on the newest actively exploited vulnerabilities, and threat hunters to understand the TTPs and motivations of threat actors. With each bit of knowledge gained security teams can be better prepared to mitigate, detect, and remediate any threats the organization may face. 

In my next blog, I will cover a methodology and model to consider for the cyber threat intelligence gathering process.

Learn more here about how cyber threat intelligence is a part of Netskope Cloud Threat Exchange

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Allen Funkhouser
Allen Funkhouser joined Netskope in 2021 as an intern while attending Maryville University of St. Louis for a Bachelor's in Cybersecurity.