Requirements to Action: Cyber Threat Intelligence

“Military intelligence” is no oxymoron. I'm not a career intelligence professional, but I have worked with some of the best intel organizations and operations in the world, including cyber operations and U.S. military intelligence. So, when I need to assess cyber intelligence, I revert to the framework used in a military environment.

The essential basics of any intelligence operation, whatever the sector, cover requirements definition, collection, processing and exploitation, analysis and production and dissemination. So, what particular insights do you examine within this framework used by the best cyber intelligence organizations?

A critical part of any intelligence operation is determining the need. Just saying ‘I need cyber intelligence' or ‘I am going to create cyber intelligence' will get you nowhere. A consumer or producer of intelligence needs to understand what is required in order to not only build a collection platform which meets the needs but executes the required collection.  If you're a cyber intelligence organization, the value of your production not only depends on your analysis but is just as dependent, if not more, on your collection.

Another aspect of your needs may be strategic and not just tactical. Strategic intelligence can help when building a network or security architectures or detection capabilities and hunting operations.   There are knowledge bases for threat techniques, such as the MITRE Adversarial Tactics, Techniques & Common Knowledge (ATT&CKTM), which can be used to evaluate your defenses or detection capabilities. Some of the best organizations use and build their security operations and detection frameworks from these threat techniques. These organizations use strategic intelligence to protect against threats to things in their vertical, infrastructure or their architecture.

Another part of strategic intelligence is actor and intent. Although intent may be evident in some situations, APTs have a very different intent from a simple ransomware attack. Intent and attribution can be a specific requirement for government and law enforcement to meet their needs, but intent also can be useful in other sectors like critical infrastructure. Understanding the long-term goal or intent of intellectual property theft, denial of service or physical destruction within your sector can go a long way toward understanding your risks, your specific strategic intelligence requirements and the real-time tactical intelligence you require to mitigate those risks.

The size and/or scope of your collection platform capability will determine the size of your output. Single intelligence sources or implementing single-function processes like scraping the web for malicious content or links are valuable but deliver limited intelligence with specific applications. If you only collect, process and analyze malware, it stands to reason that you will only produce malware intelligence. Collection capabilities really come from the ability to acquire unique data. Companies execute collection with various techniques, media and locations. Incident response collects data. Security products collect data. Web and darknet scraping collect data.  Intrusion and Network analysis collects data. Hunting collects data.  The best intelligence organizations are multi-faceted, so they can fuse together all the intelligence collected from different platforms.  

Size and scope of collection are analogous to your own internal network collection and processing. Think about your network Security Information and Event Management System (SIEM). Your SIEM scales in value with more data sources (collection platform) and better correlation (processing) within the platform. If you have one data source, firewalls, for instance, you get collection and correlation from only firewalls. But if you have servers, endpoint detection capabilities, email gateway logs as well as firewalls providing data that you can correlate the information you receive from these multiple sources. When it comes to intelligence collection, companies who have a large platform or multiple platforms provide different intelligence than a provider who scrapes the dark web for specific attributes. Both can be valuable but again this goes back to your need and requirements.   The main point to remember: not all intelligence providers are created equal and one big differentiator is the quality of their collection platforms.

The ability to process raw data plays a significant role in an intelligence provider's ability to produce real-time intelligence. The best intelligence organizations have developed two important capabilities: vast collection and big data analytics. Using, storing and executing complex analytics on large amounts of data is challenging. The future is now when it comes to using artificial intelligence such as machine learning to support operations. The key to success is figuring out which providers are just using “AI” as a buzzword.  Data, without good analytics, only yields piles of data with no actionable outcome. The larger and more diverse the data types and structures, the better your data storage and your ability to perform analytics must be.  If you understand your provider's ability to conduct analytics on their collection, you are another step closer to ROI on intelligence.

The goal of intelligence analysis is to figure out what will happen next. Great providers understand they must assess what is happening now and why it's happening. Intelligence activities include trying to determine the attacker tactics, techniques and procedures. Some attackers use botnets, malware, ransomware. Others use phishing, metasploit or file-less attacks. All these techniques and the tactics of code writing, timing, sequence, targeting, and infrastructure used, need to be collected to find and attribute the most sophisticated threats.

The best nation-state actors develop techniques to look like other nation states. Finding advanced persistent threats (APT) take an enormous amount of data combed through by the best analytics fast enough to find the needle in a field on haystacks.  Understanding your provider's analysis capabilities is very different from knowing their collection methods, analytics and production capabilities. Good analysis comes from years of experience working to get in the mind of the threat actors, to understand their motivation and the goals of those threats. When assessing analysis, look for experience and historic achievements as well as a good methodology for using what they collect to reach conclusions on your requirements. 

In some ways, understanding how you will consume threat intelligence or how it will be provided determines your requirements. Understanding how intel is disseminated is key: Are there automated feeds? Do I get an email? Do I read it on a portal? Are indicators of compromise provided? Is it a list of exploits being used against the newest vulnerabilities? How is it structured to be used by my security tools like direct SIEM ingestion?

In its simplest form, the intelligence needs to be actionable by security staff or security tools. In other words, have an actual effect on your defenses. Knowing the Chinese hacked the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the Russians hacked the DNC, or the latest botnet is spreading across America may be good to know, but how does that help your security staff change your security posture?

What of that is actionable? Does your security team or provider get actionable intelligence and how do they make it useful? Do they have a way to translate data, information and intelligence into a useful defense scheme or execute real-time targeted hunting in your unique environment based on your atmospherics, architectures, vulnerabilities and priorities? How many times have you seen the intel provider send you an email with links to other web articles? Having an intelligence feed because its required by regulation, maybe checking the box, but you must figure out how to use that feed to the max extent possible. How does crawling the web help my situation? Situational awareness about threats is one thing, but actionable intelligence is what reduces risk, finds threats and stops breaches.

Even the best intelligence-producing organizations are producing for a specific need. Know what your needs are, so you can make sure you choose one that gives you actionable intelligence for your particular needs – tactical or strategic. The current landscape for cyber intelligence is vast and confusing. Providers will give you the intelligence they gain based on their own collection, processing, analysis and production capabilities. 

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