Cyber Kill Chain vs. Mitre ATT&CK®: 4 Key Differences and Synergies

Cyber Kill Chain vs. Mitre ATT&CK®: 4 Key Differences and Synergies

What is the Cyber Kill Chain Framework? 

The Cyber Kill Chain Framework is a model for understanding and describing how cyber adversaries operate. Developed by Lockheed Martin, it is based on a military concept known as the “kill chain”, which describes the structure of an attack from initial reconnaissance to the ultimate goal — whether that goal is exfiltration, denial of availability, pure destruction, or some combination. 

The Cyber Kill Chain Framework breaks down a cyber attack into seven stages: 

  1. Reconnaissance
  2. Weaponization
  3. Delivery
  4. Exploitation
  5. Installation
  6. Command and control (C2)
  7. Actions on objectives

The framework provides a systematic approach for understanding the lifecycle of a cyber attack. By mapping out the stages, it becomes easier to identify and mitigate threats at each phase. Each stage represents an opportunity for defenders to detect, prevent, or disrupt an attack.

The Cyber Kill Chain Framework, while being a powerful tool, is not without its limitations. Its linear, sequential model may not accurately reflect the complex, iterative, and often parallel nature of cyber attacks. Furthermore, it tends to focus on external threats, often overlooking insider threats and post-compromise activity, which are critically important threat types.

What is the MITRE ATT&CK Framework? 

The MITRE ATT&CK Framework is a knowledge base and model for understanding adversary behavior. Developed by the not-for-profit MITRE Corporation and originally designed in support of the U.S. Military, it covers the full spectrum of tactics, techniques, and procedures used by attackers, from reconnaissance and initial access through to impact.

The ATT&CK framework goes beyond just mapping out the stages of an attack. It provides a detailed description of the techniques used by attackers at each stage, along with mitigation strategies and detection methods. It is regularly updated and expanded, taking into account the latest threat intelligence and research.

The ATT&CK framework is highly granular and comprehensive, providing depth and breadth in understanding cyber threats. It is widely used by global security teams to improve their defenses, develop threat hunting capabilities, and enhance their incident response.

Related content: Learn more in our detailed guide to MITRE ATT&CK framework.

Cyber Kill Chain vs. ATT&CK: key differences 

While both frameworks offer valuable insights into cyber threats and attacks, they differ in several key areas.

1. Focus and Perspective

The Cyber Kill Chain focuses on the stages of an attack, from the perspective of the attacker. It provides a high-level view, allowing defenders to understand the attacker’s process and potentially interrupt the chain at any stage.

ATT&CK framework, on the other hand, focuses on the techniques used by attackers. It provides a more detailed view, allowing defenders to understand the specific tactics and procedures used by attackers. This difference in focus and perspective means that the two frameworks complement each other, providing a comprehensive understanding of cyber threats.

2. Depth and Breadth

The Cyber Kill Chain, while providing a useful breakdown of the stages of an attack, lacks the depth and breadth of the ATT&CK framework. ATT&CK framework provides a detailed description of each technique used by attackers, along with mitigation strategies and detection methods. This makes ATT&CK framework a valuable tool for improving defenses and developing threat hunting capabilities.

3. Application and Use Cases

The Cyber Kill Chain is often used in the early stages of threat detection and prevention. It can help identify potential threats and disrupt them before they can cause harm.

ATT&CK framework is used across the entire cybersecurity lifecycle, from recon discovery and threat detection and prevention to incident response and threat hunting.

4. Community Involvement and Updates

The Cyber Kill Chain, developed by Lockheed Martin, is not as regularly updated or expanded as the ATT&CK framework. It does not have a community-driven process for updates and improvements.

The ATT&CK framework, on the other hand, is regularly updated and expanded by the MITRE Corporation, with input from the cybersecurity community. This community involvement ensures that the framework stays current and relevant, reflecting the latest threat intelligence and research.

Synergies between the Cyber Kill Chain and ATT&CK framework 

The Cyber Kill Chain and the MITRE ATT&CK Framework are both instrumental in understanding and handling cyber threats, but they offer unique perspectives. The combination of these two frameworks provides a comprehensive picture of the threat landscape. The Cyber Kill Chain can pinpoint where in the attack process a threat is identified, while ATT&CK can shed light on the specific tactics and techniques used at each stage.

Here are a few ways organizations can benefit from the synergy between Cyber Kill Chain and ATT&CK.

Determine key use cases

To effectively combine the two frameworks, you need to understand how to use them in your unique business context. You’ll need a solid grasp of your business operations, including the technological infrastructure, data assets, critical business processes, and potential vulnerabilities. Based on this understanding, you can identify the key areas where these frameworks can provide value.

For instance, if your business relies heavily on cloud-based data storage, the use case for employing these frameworks might involve identifying potential cloud-based attack vectors and developing appropriate defenses. Similarly, if your business handles sensitive customer data, the use case might involve understanding and mitigating potential data breach scenarios. 

For each use case, Cyber Kill Chain can help you model a “classic” attack pattern, while ATT&CK can help prepare for specific, relevant threat vectors.

Map log sources against business risk

Once you’ve identified the key use cases, the next step is to map your log sources against business risk. This involves identifying the data sources that can provide insights into potential threats and aligning them with the areas of highest business risk.

The log sources can include network logs, system logs, application logs, and security logs. These logs can provide valuable insights into suspicious activities, potential vulnerabilities, and ongoing attacks.

Review coverage in key areas

After mapping the log sources against business risk, it’s time to review the coverage provided by the Cyber Kill Chain and ATT&CK Frameworks for your highest priority business risks. This involves assessing how well these frameworks can help identify, prevent, and mitigate the potential threats identified.

The review process should consider the comprehensiveness of the coverage, the depth of insights provided, and the applicability of each framework to the specific business context. It’s also important to consider the ease of implementation and the potential impact on business operations. Based on this analysis, you can decide which framework to use for which business risk, and also identify gaps where neither framework provides a suitable threat model.

Report upward on your results

Finally, once you’ve implemented the Cyber Kill Chain and ATT&CK Frameworks and assessed their coverage, it’s important to report upward on your results. This involves communicating the outcomes of your efforts to the higher management and stakeholders.

The report should highlight the key findings, the actions taken, and the impact on business risk. It should also provide recommendations for future actions, based on the insights gained.

The aim of this report is not just to inform the management about the state of cyber defense but also to secure their buy-in for future initiatives. This can help ensure that adequate resources are allocated for implementing and making adequate use of threat frameworks.

Related content: Read our guide to MITRE ATT&CK mitigations.

Exabeam embraces ATT&CK framework

The Exabeam Security Operations Platform — Exabeam Fusion, Exabeam Security Investigation, Exabeam Security Analytics, Exabeam SIEM, and Exabeam Security Log Management — map attacks, alerts, and core use cases against the ATT&CK framework. 

Organizations can write, test, publish, and monitor their custom Correlation Rules to focus on the most critical business entities and assets, including defining higher criticality or specific inclusion of Threat Intelligence Service-sourced conditions, and assign specific ATT&CK tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs).

Included with every product, the Exabeam Security Operations Platform uses the ATT&CK framework as a critical lens to help improve the visibility of your security posture.