Threat intelligence has become an indispensable part of cybersecurity strategy for organizations of all sizes. By understanding the latest tactics, techniques, and procedures of cyber adversaries, security teams can better defend their environments. This guide provides a comprehensive overview of threat intelligence and how to leverage it for enhanced security.
What is Threat Intelligence?
Threat intelligence refers to analyzed information about potential threats that can impact an organization. It provides context around cyber risks so security teams can make informed decisions. Threat intel draws on data sources like malware studies, adversary tracking, technical indicators, vulnerability databases, and dark web monitoring.
The core components of threat intelligence are:
Threat Actor Intelligence – Details on threat groups, their motivations, capabilities, infrastructure, and patterns of behavior.
Tactics, Techniques & Procedures – Documentation of how adversaries operate, exploit vulnerabilities, move laterally, and accomplish objectives.
Attack Campaign Intelligence – Insight into ongoing or emerging attack campaigns impacting organizations and industries.
Technical Threat Intelligence – Technical characteristics and artifacts from attacks, including IP addresses, file hashes, URLs, and code samples.
By aggregating and analyzing this data, organizations can identify risks specific to their environment and industry. Threat intelligence fuels proactive security measures across the kill chain.
Why is Threat Intelligence Important?
Threat intelligence gives security teams an informational advantage over adversaries. The cyber threat landscape is constantly evolving, with new attackers, tools, and vulnerabilities emerging daily. Threat intel provides defenders visibility into this shifting landscape so they can evolve defenses in parallel. Reasons threat intelligence is becoming critical:
Understand Adversaries – Threat intelligence provides insider knowledge of attackers, letting organizations predict behavior and prepare defenses.
Enhance Risk Management – Intelligence informs risk models and enables data-driven decisions around security priorities and budgets.
Improve Incident Response – Details on threat actors shed light on objectives, tactics, and impacts of attacks.
Strengthen Defenses – Intelligence fuels proactive improvements across the security architecture, tools, and processes.
Enable Sharing – Effective intelligence informs bi-directional sharing about common threats within industry groups and partnerships.
With comprehensive threat intelligence, organizations gain an upper hand against would-be attackers. But without it, they are vulnerable to compromise.
Elements of an Intelligence Program
Developing an effective threat intelligence program requires planning, investment, and integration across security, IT, and executive levels. Core elements include:
Planning & Goals
Define use cases, stakeholders, requirements, and success metrics upfront. Build alignment around the purpose and focus areas for intelligence. Prioritize flexibility to allow organic growth.
Establish consistent feeds of relevant threat data from sources like malware analysis, dark web monitoring, vulnerability databases, security vendors, and industry sharing groups.
Platform & Tools
Aggregate and analyze intelligence using a dedicated TIPP (Threat Intelligence Platform). Integrate the platform with security and IT workflows. Evaluate automation and machine learning capabilities.
Recruit skilled analysts to transform raw data into tactical and strategic intelligence. Leverage their expertise in areas like malware reverse engineering, threat groups, and regional geopolitics.
Dissemination & Sharing
Share finished intelligence across the organization and with trusted partners. Ensure it reaches security operations, executives, and infrastructure teams. Automate distribution through platforms.
Measurement & Improvement
Continuously refine threat models, monitoring, and analysis based on impact on security outcomes like mean time to detect (MTTD) and dwell time.
Threat Intelligence Disciplines
Threat intelligence draws on a diverse blend of disciplines and data sources. Key areas include:
Strategic Threat Intelligence
Focuses on high-level trends, threat actors, geopolitics, and strategic planning. Helps leaders make risk management decisions and define security strategy. Relies on open source intelligence (OSINT) and human analysis. Deliverables include threat actor dossiers, management reports, risk models, and security roadmaps.
Tactical Threat Intelligence
Provides technical details on threat actor tools, techniques, and procedures (TTPs). Enables detection, containment, and remediation of intrusions. Based on malware reverse engineering, indicators of compromise (IOCs), vulnerability data, and dark web monitoring. Deliverables include threat signatures, detection rules, and adversary playbooks.
Centers on technical vulnerabilities and exposure points that could be exploited by attackers. Informed by vulnerability databases, open source tools, pen testing, and code audits. Deliverables include vulnerability tear sheets, severity ratings, and remediation guidance.
Identity Threat Intelligence
Focuses specifically on protecting user identities and credentials from misuse, leveraging signals like failed logins, password exposures, and account takeovers. Uses identity monitoring tools and compromised credential feeds. Enables stronger authentication and access controls.
Brand Protection Intelligence
Defends against threats to brand reputation, including phishing sites, social media impersonators, and abusive use of trademarks. Relies on domain monitoring, social listening, and takedown coordination. Protects customers and revenue streams.
Developing an Intelligence Capability
Building an effective threat intelligence practice requires planning, resources, and phased implementation. Recommended steps include:
Document intelligence goals, key threats, use cases, and metrics for success. Conduct surveys and interviews with stakeholders. Develop threat profiles specific to your industry and environment.
Assess Existing Capabilities
Catalogue current threat data sources, analysis tools, and intelligence outputs. Identify gaps in people, process, and technology. Develop a roadmap for capability growth.
Start with Quick Wins
Launch initial intelligence products that deliver value with minimal effort, like threat bulletins, dark web monitoring, and basic IOC distribution.
Strengthen Data Collection
Onboard new automated threat feeds via API integrations. Establish sharing relationships and requirements for relevant industries, partners, and ISACs. Expand use of OSINT.
Implement an Intelligence Platform
Deploy a dedicated Threat Intelligence Platform (TIPP) for aggregating, storing, analyzing, and operationalizing threat data. Integrate the platform into workflows.
Build an Analyst Team
Hire skilled analysts and train existing staff on areas like strategic analysis, malware reverse engineering, and threat actor dossiers. Prioritize hiring analysts with relevant regional and linguist skills.
Automate Analysis and Dissemination
Apply machine learning and natural language processing to enable automated analysis at scale. Use orchestration to push intelligence into prevention and detection tools.
Track key success metrics around threat visibility, early detection, avoided damages, and ROI. Maintain program support by demonstrating value.
Develop trusted sharing relationships and communities to enhance intelligence. But protect sensitive data and insights.
By taking an incremental approach, organizations can build a threat intelligence program that delivers increasing value over time.
Notable Cyber Threat Campaigns
Understanding major cyber threats and adversaries helps inform intelligence requirements. Some of the most significant threat campaigns include:
SolarWinds Supply Chain Hack
In 2020, the Russian cyber espionage group APT29 compromised the SolarWinds Orion IT management software in a sophisticated supply chain attack. They inserted malicious code that was distributed to public and private sector victims worldwide. This provided long-term access enabling spying and data theft.
Maze Ransomware Attacks
Maze ransomware operators pioneered the double extortion tactic in 2019, exfiltrating sensitive data prior to encryption. They demanded ransom to decrypt files and threatened to publish data leaks. Attacks targeted healthcare, finance, government, and tech companies worldwide.
Iranian Wiper Malware
Iran’s state-sponsored hackers have repeatedly deployed data wiping malware against foreign targets in the Middle East in politically motivated attacks. Notable cases include the Shamoon attacks on Saudi energy firms and the ZeroCleare campaign on infrastructure in 2019.
NotPetya Wiper Malware
Thought to be launched by Russia, the NotPetya malware originally posed as ransomware but was engineered for permanent data destruction. It caused over $10 billion in damages across shipping, logistics, energy, and technology companies in 2017.
Chinese Intellectual Property Theft
State-affiliated Chinese threat actors consistently steal intellectual property from foreign commercial and government networks. Groups like Winnti, APT41, and BARIUM have targeted biotech, defense, manufacturing, and electronics firms for IP theft benefiting Chinese companies.
Sandworm Targeting Critical Infrastructure
State-sponsored Russian group Sandworm has disrupted Ukraine electric grids and targeted NATO critical infrastructure with the Industroyer/CrashOverride malware. They combine cyber and kinetic attacks with military force projection.
Tracking major campaigns helps inform threat modeling, intelligence requirements, security strategies, and capability development. Ongoing analysis of leading threat actors is critical.
Implementing Strategic Threat Intelligence
To recap, developing a mature threat intelligence program requires:
Documenting organizational requirements and use cases
Collecting threat data from diverse internal and external sources
Leveraging dedicated platforms and tools to aggregate, analyze, and share intelligence
Recruiting skilled analysts to interpret data and author intelligence
Disseminating finished intelligence to security, IT, and business units
Measuring program impact through metrics like early detection and avoided damages
Fostering trusted sharing relationships to enhance collective knowledge
With adequate planning, resources, and phased implementation, organizations can gain robust visibility into the threat landscape. Strategic threat intelligence ultimately enables more proactive and adaptive security programs aligned to real-world risks. This transforms organizations from vulnerable to resilient.