The 2021 CrowdStrike Global Security Attitude Survey found that on average, organizations take 146 hours to discover a cybersecurity incursion, an alarming increase on the 2020 average of 117 hours. This means that an intruder could remain inside an enterprise network for more than six days before detection.

Moreover, those attackers can move laterally across the network in just 92 minutes, searching for — and often finding — sensitive enterprise data or other high-value assets.

If a bad actor successfully enters your enterprise ecosystem and remains undetected for 146 hours, he or she could cause enormous harm to your organization. But what if you could detect, identify, and remove such attackers before they cause too much damage?

The good news is that you can — with threat intelligence.

With real-time, contextual data, you can get an up-to-date picture of the latest threats and risks affecting your organization. This data can help you prevent or mitigate many kinds of cyber attacks and improve your cyber defenses. This real-time, contextual data is threat intelligence.

What Is Threat Intelligence?

According to Gartner, threat intelligence is “evidence-based knowledge,” including mechanisms, indicators, context, implications, and actionable guidance, about existing or emerging threats to assets.

Simply put, threat intelligence is timely, contextual, and actionable information about threats and threat actors that can help your security analysts to:

  • Understand the motivations, intents, and capabilities of threat actors
  • Find and identify known and unknown malware, viruses, and other cyber threats
  • Respond faster to security incidents
  • Prevent, mitigate, and minimize the impact of attacks

Threat intelligence is more than threat data. Intelligence adds both context and actionability to this data, so you make quick security decisions to strengthen your cyber-defense posture.

The Importance of Threat Intelligence

Threat intelligence is rich, actionable information about threat vectors, threat actors, and their tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs). It also provides possible indicators of compromise (IoC).

Threat intelligence analysts and cybersecurity teams can use threat intelligence to create a more holistic picture of the organization’s threat landscape. The most useful threat intelligence is contextual and automatically collected from various sources, both internal and external.

Analysts can then (ideally) use artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) tools along with real-time contextual analysis. This combination enables security teams to identify high-priority threats, remove unnecessary “noise” and false alerts, and take action to strengthen the organization’s security profile. By converting raw data into actionable, context-rich intelligence, they can:

  • Understand and analyze the cybersecurity risks to the IT infrastructure in real-time
  • Assess the potential impact and probability of each threat
  • Triage and respond to each security incident to minimize damage
  • Reveal previously unknown threats
  • Prevent fraud and reduce the risk of third-party or supply chain attacks
  • Secure data and other business-critical assets from adversaries

Threat intelligence also empowers senior leadership to make informed decisions about security investments to:

  • Strengthen the enterprise infrastructure
  • Tailor the defense strategy to match strategic goals and risk environment
  • Strengthen the cybersecurity program to improve incident response and prevent future attacks
  • Scale-up security operations as threats change or evolve

How Can Organizations Use Cyber Threat Intelligence?

Every organization can benefit from real-time, automated, and contextual threat intelligence. Smaller companies can protect their assets better than they could otherwise. Threat intelligence also helps larger organizations to reduce the burden on security teams and shore up their defenses.

This broad range of advantages is possible because personnel in various functions can benefit from threat intelligence and create powerful synergies.

For instance, security analysts can use threat intelligence to optimize threat detection and response. Similarly, intelligence analysts can perform digital forensics, uncover threat vectors and threat actors, and determine what action is needed to counter these threats. Personnel from fraud prevention and risk management can also benefit from the continuous availability of context-rich, insightful threat data.

Threat intelligence also benefits these other functions:

  • Computer security incident response team (CSIRT): Assess, respond to, and document security incidents to promote quick recovery and prevent a recurrence
  • Security operations center (SOC): Detect, analyze, prioritize, and respond to incidents and improve the enterprise security posture
  • Vulnerability management: Identify cyber vulnerabilities and prioritize fixes to prevent cyberattacks
  • Senior management: Understand the organization’s risk landscape and improve decision-making about where to direct resources

The Four Types of Cyber Threat Intelligence

There are four types of threat intelligence. Each type has a different purpose and is aimed at a particular audience. Knowing the purpose and audience of each type can help you take full advantage of the various kinds of threat intelligence and maximize the benefit for your organization.

Strategic Threat Intelligence

The consumers of this intelligence are enterprise decision-makers such as senior management or the board of directors. The purpose of this intelligence is to support long-term cybersecurity investment decisions based on the threat landscape and its effect on the organization’s security posture

Strategic threat intelligence shows how a long-term and large-scale cybersecurity event could affect the enterprise. It allows a non-technical audience to understand the threat landscape and make strategic decisions to mitigate its impact.

Analysts typically do a lot of research to produce strategic intelligence. For this, they often use automation or ML-based data processing and analysis solutions. They may also perform manual data analysis to get a more intimate understanding of cyber risks. This information is presented to leadership in the form of actionable intelligence reports.

Tactical Threat Intelligence

The consumers of this intelligence can actually be IT devices: security information and event management (SIEM) systems, firewalls, endpoint devices, intrusion detection systems and intrusion detection systems (IDS/IPS). They can also be people, such as system architects or SOC analysts.

Tactical intelligence provides information about specific attacks and IoCs that may affect the organization in the short term. Unlike strategic threat intelligence, tactical threat intelligence focuses on the here and how:

  • Which threats currently affect the enterprise?
  • What are the possible IoCs we should watch for? (Bad IP addresses, known malicious domain names, file hashes, and so forth.)

Tactical threat intelligence is often machine-readable and includes contextual data about TTPs and targeted vulnerabilities. It’s easy to generate via open source or free data feeds. It is also directed to a technical audience who need it to detect threats, improve incident response, and strengthen existing security controls.

One challenge is that this intelligence can become obsolete quickly. Additionally, if the data sources are not timely or reliable, they may generate many false positives that can burden security teams and lead to “alert fatigue.” To address these issues, automated threat detection and analysis tools are valuable.

Operational Threat Intelligence

Operational intelligence goes to threat hunters, CSIRT, SOC analysts, vulnerability management teams, and incident response teams. Its purpose is to understand threat actors’ TTPs to improve cybersecurity operations

Operational threat intelligence enables security analysts, incident response teams, and threat hunters to understand threat actors, create adversary profiles, and use this information to predict a threat actor’s next move. It also helps them take more targeted actions to improve the organization’s cybersecurity program.

Unlike tactical intelligence, operational intelligence has a longer “shelf life” since it specifically studies adversary TTPs, which are not quick to change. It requires more resources because it relies on human analysis to convert automated data into actionable intelligence suitable for consumption.

Technical Threat Intelligence

Technical intelligence goes to SOC analysts and incident response teams to help them understand specific IoCs.

For instance, if a threat actor used malware to perform an attack, general information about the malware is tactical threat intelligence. Specific details about a particular implementation of that malware, however, are considered technical threat intelligence.

This intelligence enables SOC analysts and incident response personnel to analyze security incidents using detailed information, such as:

  • IP addresses of malicious endpoints
  • Malware samples
  • Phishing email headers and content
  • Fake URLs
  • Malware hash checksums
  • Malicious domains
  • Malicious traffic

Many of these IOCs become outdated quickly, so technical intelligence also has a short lifespan. That’s why security teams need it continuously and in a timely manner. They usually collect this intelligence from active campaigns, attacks on organizations, or external data feeds.

The Cyber Threat Intelligence Lifecycle

Your organization’s threat landscape is constantly evolving. You must continually transform raw data into context-enriched threat intelligence to ensure that you stay on top of the most severe threats and expend the right type and amount of resources on threat prioritization, remediation, and mitigation.

The transformation process involves gathering, analyzing, prioritizing, and using threat intelligence. This process is not linear or a one-time activity. Instead, it is part of the threat intelligence lifecycle.

This lifecycle consists of multiple steps and a feedback loop for continuous improvement. By following this lifecycle framework, you can optimize your resources, strengthen defenses, and protect your assets from existing and emerging threat actors.

Let’s explore the threat intelligence lifecycle.

  1. Planning

    Planning creates a roadmap that will guide the future direction of the threat intelligence program. In this stage, security teams articulate the organization’s core values to prioritize the intelligence program’s objectives.

    During planning, they also:

    • Predict how threat intelligence could affect future business decisions
    • Consider the various stakeholders who will consume the threat intelligence
    • Finalize methodologies
    • Find information about the organization’s attack surface, threat actors, their motivations, TTPs, and so forth

    They may also start thinking about what actions should be taken in case of an attack.

  2. Data Collection

    Once the team has clarity on the program’s requirements and objectives, the team starts collecting data to meet those objectives. To maximize the program’s utility, it’s best to collect data from a wide range of sources, both internal and external, such as:

    • Network event logs
    • Traffic logs
    • Records of past incident responses
    • Open web
    • Dark web
    • Social media
    • Industry sources
    • Subject matter experts
    • Technical forums
    • Paste sites

    Intelligence analysts often create lists of IOCs (malicious IP addresses, registry keys, and so forth) and vulnerability information such as customer PII (personally identifiable information).

  3. Data Processing

    Next, security teams sort and organize data about IoCs and vulnerabilities for further analysis. This activity involves adding metadata tags, removing redundant or irrelevant information, translating information from foreign sources, and removing false positives.

    If this data is collected from multiple sources, it can become overwhelming for human analysts to collect and organize manually, so an SIEM solution can help automate the process.

    Further, if a lot of this data comes from unstructured and textual sources, consider solutions based on machine learning or natural language processing (NLP) to simplify analyses, generate accurate predictive models, and strengthen your threat intelligence program.

  4. Data Analysis and Dissemination

    After the data is collected, sorted, and organized, it can be analyzed to find and address potential security issues. To streamline the process, convert it into a format suitable for the relevant stakeholders. For instance, senior management may want to see threat information in the form of a presentation, while SOC teams will prefer a more detailed report.

    Once various formats are prepared, disseminate the information to the stakeholders, assure that all information is tracked. Information tracking should be centrally available so that all stakeholders are aware of new intelligence requests and maintain continuity between threat intelligence cycles.

  5. Feedback and Continuous Improvements

    Continuous monitoring is critical to assure that the threat intelligence program remains effective. It involves getting feedback on intelligence reports to determine whether future operations, priorities, and reporting formats need adjustments.

Manage Cyber Threats with ZenGRC

In the current threat landscape, every organization knows that a cyberattack is not a question of if, but when.

To stay ahead of malicious hackers and prevent them from wreaking havoc on your enterprise, threat data is insufficient. You need to understand their motivations, tactics, and intentions so you can act to lessen their harm. Here’s where real-time, contextual threat intelligence comes in.

Get better visibility into your threat environment with ZenGRC, an integrated platform for risk management, incident management, governance, compliance, and security audits. ZenGRC reveals information security risks across your enterprise, so you can quickly respond to any incidents and minimize damage.

Get detailed information about the most critical threats affecting your organization, plan for worst-case scenarios, and protect your business from cyberattacks and data breaches. Workflow management features offer easy tracking, automated reminders, and audit trails.

To see how ZenGRC can guide your organization to strong cybersecurity and effective risk management, schedule a demo today.