Information Security Explainers:
Threat Hunting vs. Threat Intelligence: Differences and Synergies
What Is Threat Hunting?
Threat hunting is a proactive cybersecurity process where trained individuals, known as threat hunters, actively search for, identify, and isolate advanced threats that evade existing security solutions. It’s not about waiting for an alert to act; it’s about proactively seeking the hidden threat lurking within your system.
Roles that Involve Threat Hunting
Among the roles involved in threat hunting are threat analysts, incident responders, and cybersecurity engineers:
- Threat analysts are primarily responsible for understanding and predicting the attacker’s behavior by analyzing available data. They are occasionally part of formal Insider Threat teams.
- Incident responders take immediate action to mitigate the impact of a security incident.
- Cybersecurity engineers are responsible for designing, implementing, and updating secure network solutions to defend against advanced cyber threats.
- DevSecOps teams, while usually not formally part of a Security Operations Center (SOC) team, may often have interaction with the SOC team when discovering events that require updates in application libraries, tools, or resources due to publicly disclosed vulnerabilities.
Each of these roles might carry out threat hunting as part of their responsibilities. They can also cooperate and combine their knowledge and skills to carry out more complex threat hunting operations.
Tools and Training Needed for Threat Hunting
The tools commonly used for threat hunting include:
- Security information and event management (SIEM) systems: Provide real-time analysis of security alerts
- Intrusion detection systems (IDS): Monitor networks for suspicious activity.
- Endpoint Detection and Response (EDR): provide visibility into threats on endpoints, allow security teams to perform rapid forensic investigations, and respond to threats with a combination of automated and manual action.
- Dynamic or Static Application Security Testing (DAST/SAST) as well as Software Composition Analysis (SCA): Whether part of sprints, quarterly, or annually as part of a full compliance initiative, having access to the reports and results can enhance a senior threat hunter’s full understanding of root causes during a change in security posture.
Threat hunting also requires training. It involves understanding the intricacies of your IT environment, learning how to formulate hypotheses about potential threats, how to gather and analyze data, and how to effectively use the relevant cybersecurity tools — and how to escalate or communicate to other teams to acquire their aid or support in closing out mitigations into full remediation.
What Is Threat Intelligence?
Threat intelligence is the knowledge that allows you to prevent or mitigate cyber threats. It’s about knowing your enemy: understanding who they are, what their motivation might be, and the techniques they use. This information is vital in formulating proactive security measures and strategies.
Sources of Threat Intelligence
Threat intelligence can come from numerous sources, each providing a different piece of the puzzle, to create a comprehensive picture of potential threats. These sources include:
- Open-source intelligence (OSINT): Publicly available information, which can be gathered from various online sources.
- Social media intelligence (SOCMINT): Involves examining social media platforms for clues about potential cyber threats.
- Human Intelligence (HUMINT): Involves person-to-person interaction and can provide insider information about potential threats.
- Analyzing technical data: Examples include malware samples, server logs, or attacked IP addresses, to understand the attacker’s methods.
Technical Risk vs. Business Risk
When dealing with threat intelligence, it’s important to understand the difference between technical risk and business risk. Technical is the potential for technological failings, like software vulnerabilities or hardware malfunctions. Business risk, on the other hand, concerns the potential for any activities that could negatively impact the organization’s ability to operate or profit.
Both types of risks are interrelated in the realm of cybersecurity. A technical risk, such as a data breach, can lead to significant business risks, including loss of customer trust and potential legal implications. Therefore, effective threat intelligence involves managing both technical and business risks.
Threat Actor Groups
Threat actor groups are organized entities that carry out cyber-attacks. They can range from state-sponsored groups working for political motives, to criminal groups seeking financial gain, to hacktivist groups driven by ideological goals. Understanding the various threat actor groups is a crucial part of threat intelligence.
Knowing who you’re up against can help you predict their moves and defend your systems more effectively. Each group has its preferred methods and targets, and this information can guide your security strategies. For instance, if a particular group is known for targeting financial institutions with ransomware that has a known pattern of attack software implementation, a bank could use this information to reinforce its defenses against their typical attack vectors.This is part of a series of articles about Information Security.
Threat Hunting vs. Threat Intelligence: Key Differences
Threat hunting is a proactive approach to cybersecurity. It involves actively searching for threats that may have slipped through the cracks of automated security measures, or are not actively covered by the existing security stack. This involves digging deep into system logs, network traffic, and user behavior to identify potential threats. To use a 2021 example, when Log4J vulnerabilities surfaced via SOCMINT, threat hunters had to immediately determine:
- Was Log4J being used by an Apache web server in their environment?
- Is the Apache version currently employed vulnerable or patched to the latest version?
- If vulnerable, are there any artifacts of the known exploit being detected in their environment?
Threat intelligence focuses on gathering, analyzing, and applying information about potential threats. It’s a more reactive approach, where the emphasis is on understanding the threat landscape and preparing for potential attacks.
The main goal of threat hunting is to identify and neutralize threats before they can cause significant damage. It’s about staying one step ahead of the attackers and minimizing the potential impact of a breach.
Threat intelligence is about understanding the threat landscape. It’s about knowing who your potential attackers are, what their tactics are, and how to prepare for their attacks.
Threat hunting relies heavily on the skills and expertise of the threat hunter. It requires a deep understanding of systems and applications, networks, authentication methodologies, and user behavior, along with the ability to think like an attacker.
Threat intelligence depends more on the quality and relevance of the information gathered. It requires strong analytical skills to make sense of the information and apply it effectively within the defender’s environment.
Techniques and Tools
Both threat hunting and threat intelligence use a range of techniques and tools. These tools can range from simple network monitoring tools to advanced artificial intelligence algorithms.
However, the key difference lies in how these tools are used. In threat hunting, the focus is on using these tools to actively search for threats. In threat intelligence, the tools are used to gather and analyze information about potential threats.
The Synergy Between Threat Hunting and Threat Intelligence
Threat hunting and threat intelligence are often used together. In fact, it’s difficult to do effective threat hunting without good threat intelligence. Let’s look at how these two approaches complement each other.
Prepping for Active vs. Reactive Threat Hunting
Active threat hunting involves proactively searching for threats, while reactive threat hunting involves responding to alerts or incidents. Threat intelligence can play a crucial role in both these approaches:
- In Active threat hunting, intelligence about potential threats can guide the hunting process, helping to focus on areas of the system that are most likely to be targeted.
- In reactive threat hunting, intelligence about the methods and tactics used by attackers can help to quickly identify and neutralize threats.
Modeling Attacks with Industry Information
Another way threat intelligence can aid threat hunting is by providing information about industry-wide threats. This information can be used to model potential attacks, helping to anticipate and prepare for specific threats. In this way, threat intelligence can guide the threat hunting process, making it more targeted and effective.
Contextualizing Threats with Behavioral Patterns
Threat intelligence often includes behavioral patterns of specific threat actor groups as well as malware combinations found in the wild. By incorporating this information, threat hunting can become more nuanced. For example, if a threat intelligence feed indicates that a certain group frequently utilizes spear-phishing as an initial attack vector, threat hunters can focus on scrutinizing incoming emails and related logs more closely. This makes the hunt not just a search for anomalies, but a targeted investigation based on credible intelligence.
Collaborative Decision-Making for Mitigation
Threat intelligence platforms can aggregate data from multiple sources, creating a comprehensive view of the threat landscape. On the other hand, threat hunters generate invaluable internal data through their investigations. When these two sets of data are combined, the security team can make more informed decisions on how to mitigate risks. For example, if threat intelligence indicates an emerging malware campaign and threat hunting identifies unusual outbound traffic from an internal server, security measures can be adjusted accordingly.
Threat Hunting with Exabeam
Exabeam helps analysts outsmart attackers by simplifying threat detection, investigation, and response (TDIR). Exabeam allows investigators to use point-and-click search of specific criteria including by user, asset, event, risk type, alerts, IoCs, and attacker TTPs. Investigators can also search through timelines for abnormal behavior. With Exabeam, analysts can respond faster, stopping attacks when they appear.
How can Exabeam help your threat hunting?
These key features of the platform will help your organization build more effective threat hunting capabilities:
- Easy to use Search interface: point-and-click interface makes it simple to query data to search for anomalies and threats
- Context-aware data: enables complex searches on IoCs and more
- Behavioral threat hunting: allows analysts to search for log or correlated events, as well as IoAs, which can be of much higher value indicators than IoCs alone
- Automatic incident timelines: Automation makes gathering evidence faster and easier than maintaining logs.
- Data visualization: represents relationships, revealing hidden correlations between data
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