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From Planning and Direction to Collection: Laying the Foundation for Business Risk Intelligence


Regardless of which domain we operate within or what our security objectives are — whether technical indicators of compromise (IOCs) and insider threat activity, or supply chain integrity, physical security, and executive protection — intelligence is integral to accurate, risk-based decision making. Unfortunately, integrating intelligence properly and in a way that serves all business functions across the enterprise can be a challenging endeavor — particularly for organizations that may require additional support in developing a cross-functional, mature Business Risk Intelligence program.

Flashpoint’s Advisory Services team is dedicated to helping organizations address these challenges and enable security, intelligence, and risk teams to thwart or remediate attacks more effectively. By working closely with a diverse variety of organizations, we’ve come to recognize that the intelligence cycle — which serves as the foundation of all successful Business Risk Intelligence programs — is something that even the most capable, robust teams may struggle to implement effectively. Indeed, this observation is what inspired our Advisory Services team to address each of the critical yet oft-misunderstood components of the intelligence cycle in a series of blog posts. In this second installment of our four-part series, we will unpack the first two steps in the intelligence cycle: 1) Planning and Direction and 2) Collection.

1. Planning and Direction

“Where you should go depends on where you want to get to.”

While simplistic, this statement is the premise of planning and direction. In many ways, this step is the most critical because all other components of the intelligence cycle rely on it. Without planning and direction, we could potentially expend our time and resources gathering information that may not be able to reveal the intelligent answers we need. As such, having a focused plan to accurately identify and collect information is crucial. But before we can even begin gathering information, we first must determine the specific information we will need in order to support accurate decision-making. These needs are known as intelligence requirements.

Put simply, intelligence requirements are derived from questions that need to be answered. These questions are established and driven by intelligence consumers, who can range from CEOs, board members, and leaders within a security operations center (SOC), to stakeholders within marketing, legal, business development, or other teams across business functions.

Intelligence requirements are critical because they enable us to prioritize our needs effectively, determine where and what sources of information we need to collect, establish the type of analysis required to process that information, and identify which dissemination methods are most appropriate for the finished intelligence products.

Typically, the most effective intelligence requirements:

• Are highly specific

• Ask a single question

• Are timely and usable within the lifespan of the consumer’s need

• Are focused and tailored to that need — a fact, indicator or action

• Can provide the information required to support a decision

While establishing intelligence requirements that align with the above guidelines may seem natural or even obvious, the step is a common oversight among intelligence teams who may be blinded by vast amounts of data. These teams often lack direction and are driven by an approach that is far too broad to be effective. They may, for instance, try to capture the data of all existing threats to all organizations, only to determine later which threats pose a greater risk to their specific organization. Unfortunately, such an approach can leave any organization with a reactive and reduced security posture. Too much information can not only create a “fog of more,” it can be an impediment to intelligence teams tasked with supporting critical decisions and upholding the security of an organization.

Indeed, the age of information is over, and the age of intelligence is upon us. As we discussed in the beginning, identifying the questions we need to answer is the key.

For example, let’s examine a question commonly posed by many stakeholders: “Are there hackers we should be concerned about?” Typically, intelligence teams may respond to such a question by leveraging operational resources to build profiles for any and all active hackers or threat actor groups. Without pre-established intelligence requirements, these teams would face the daunting and resource-intensive task of sifting through endless amounts of data to produce profile(s) of a large number of actors who may not even be the least bit relevant to the organization.

Instead, stakeholders and intelligence teams should first work to map threats to the organization in a manner that reveals the impact and relevancy of such a question. From there, teams could tailor the intelligence requirements from a vulnerability perspective, such as:

• What unpatched vulnerabilities does my organization currently have?

• Are any of these unpatched vulnerabilities tied to critical information and/or processes?

• If exploited, would the vulnerability provide access to critical information and/or processes?

• What business impact could result from malicious access by exploiting the vulnerability?

The following questions would provide relevant attack surface information to guide the development of intelligence requirements and help identify which threat actors could be a concern to the organization:

• What vulnerabilities are being discussed in the Deep & Dark Web?

• Have these vulnerabilities ever been exploited successfully?

• Which threat actors in the Deep & Dark are discussing these vulnerabilities?

• Do these actors intend on targeting these vulnerabilities?

• Are these actors capable of exploiting the vulnerabilities?

Specific, tailored questions such as those above would enable us to establish effective intelligence requirements. These intelligence requirements could then allow us to not only prioritize the production of threat actor profiles based on the specific actors considered most relevant and/or threatening to the organization, they would help us identify which specific vulnerabilities — if any — these threat actors could potentially exploit as a means of targeting the organization.

For instance, you might be concerned to hear that thieves were stealing jewels from brick homes in the east side of the neighborhood by exploiting vulnerable wireless garage door openers. However, you would be much less concerned if you resided in a home with no garage in the west side of the neighborhood.

It’s important to remember that we seek intelligence — whether tactical, operational or strategic in nature — to support decisions and take action. While each organization may have a different blend of intelligence requirements, all of these requirements are ultimately developed in support of one outcome: resiliency and operational continuity. In other words, if we were to peel back the layers and expose the root of any decision or action executed within an organization, we would see that the primary intention is to ensure the organization survives, remains profitable, and grows. This intent is ultimately what helps drive the development of accurate, effective intelligence requirements.

2. Collection

We can begin collecting information only once we have determined our intelligence requirements. For this step to be effective, it’s crucial to establish and implement a collection plan. Collection plans should align with pre-established intelligence requirements and, at minimum, address the following:

• Identify and prioritize the sources from which to collect the information

• Determine the resources and tools needed to collect the information from these sources

• Reveal any gaps that may prevent the collection of relevant information

• Determine when the information needs to be collected

An often overlooked aspect within the collection step is validation. If an intelligence team does not properly plan, they could end up wasting time and resources collecting the wrong information from the wrong sources at the wrong time, which could then lead to erroneous decisions and create unnecessary risks for stakeholders. As such, the collection phase must include validation steps that align with intelligence requirements and resources, such as:

• Are the sources timely, reliable, and credible, or will corroboration be required?

• Are dependent resources and tools consistently available? For example:
              • Has a Deep & Dark Web forum been taken down?
              • Has a cultural expert moved positions?
              • Will a vendor be inaccessible during the weekend?

• Does the intelligence team have the capabilities required for collecting the information?Capabilities can include languages, reverse-engineering skills, access to threat actor communities, etc.

• Does information collection create vulnerabilities for the intelligence team or result in an increased risk to the organization? 

• Can these collection vulnerabilities impact information veracity — such as false flags or misinformation?

It’s crucial to remember that the right information can come from a wide variety of different sources. Depending on the type of information needed, sources can range from accessible and open source — such as social and mass media reporting, periodicals, and public records — to much less accessible trust groups, third-party vendors, government liaisons, or established personal contacts. A unique and single-source of threat information is the Deep & Dark Web. It’s important to recognize that while difficult and even dangerous for those without the proper expertise and technologies to access, the Deep & Dark Web is a critical, abundant source of sensitive and detailed information that can serve to fill intelligence requirements and support decisions across the enterprise.

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About the author: Michael Anderson

Michael Anderson is a Principal Advisor, Business Risk Intelligence at Flashpoint. A tenured intelligence professional with experience in both the government and private sector, Michael has previously worked at organizations including the Department of Defense and numerous Fortune 20 companies. He has served in a government capacity to support threat mitigation for sensitive technologies, is a contributing author to U.S. counterintelligence curriculum, and has presented to senior governing bodies on emerging intelligence threats. Michael has spent extensive time operationalizing intelligence in cyber and physical environments and has gained a trusted reputation with law enforcement and intelligence organizations. He continues to shape intelligence application in business risk policy and practice and leads strategic intelligence initiatives derived from the Deep & Dark Web applicable to insider threats, foreign travel risks, supply chain, critical assets and business reputation.