The Cyber Threat Intelligence Cycle
The most effective intelligence programs have in common an adherence to the core principles of the intelligence cycle.
This iterative and adaptable five-step process through which raw data becomes finished intelligence is fundamental to the success of an intelligence operation. We’ll examine the intelligence cycle through a cyber threat intelligence (CTI) lens and look at how CTI teams can use it to optimize operations.
Step 1: Planning & Direction
This is arguably the most important step in the intelligence cycle because it is where teams define the purpose and objectives of an intelligence operation, known as intelligence requirements (IRs). IRs reflect what a CTI team doesn’t know but will need to find out in order to satisfy the purpose of the operation.
For CTI teams, planning and direction is often guided by senior leadership—such as a CISO or CSO—as well as any existing any goals and/or challenges a team has with respect to threats.
For example, let’s say a financial institution’s employees are frequently targeted by spear phishing emails that distribute banking malware. In response, its CTI team should develop IRs to reduce the frequency of successful attacks and reflect what the CTI team doesn’t already know. These could include:
• IR #1: Have any of the attempted spear phishing attacks against our network been successful?
• IR #2: Which indicators of compromise (IOCs) should we block to protect our network from these types of attacks?
• IR #3: Are other organizations being targeted with similar and/or related attacks?
• IR #4: Which type(s) of adversaries are deploying these attacks, and what are their motivation(s)?
Step 2: Collection & Processing
Putting context around data collections is the building block of an intelligence operation, which is why collection and processing is so important. During this step, CTI teams set out to accomplish two things: determine which types of data from which sources they will need in order to satisfy IRs, and then collect and process this data until it becomes suitable for further analysis in support of their IRs.
With our example of the financial institution targeted by spear phishing attacks, appropriate data sources corresponding with the specified IRs may include but are not limited to:
• IR #1: Data logs of external traffic against the network’s firewall and internal network traffic
• IR #2: Malware analysis shared by external researchers or a malware sample to be analyzed by internal team members
• IR #3: Observations and data provided by industry peers in an information sharing community
• IR #4: Threat-actor conversations, such as those that occur in DDW forums where cybercriminals have been known to congregate, as well as external reporting from subject-matter experts with visibility into and specialized knowledge of illicit online communities.
After gathering data from these sources, the CTI team would then process the data to make it usable for analysis. In this case, specific processing procedures would include reducing the volume of raw data, translating conversations obtained foreign-language DDW forums, and extracting information from malware samples.
Step 3: Analysis
In the analysis step, CTI teams must effectively combine data from disparate sources and recognize meaningful patterns to make informed judgements that satisfy their IRs.
Returning to our example of the financial institution targeted by spear phishing attacks, suppose the CTI team’s analysis had the following outcomes with respect to each IR:
• IR #1: An analysis of network data revealed that one adversary managed to access the network, but their presence on the network was siloed from the data they were targeting, and their attempts to escalate their network privileges had been unsuccessful. At this point, the CTI team immediately notified SOC analysts, who removed the intruders from the network after an initial observation period.
• IR #2: The CTI team obtained IOCs for the malware used in the spear phishing attacks through cyber-forensic analysis. These IOCs were then shared with members of several CTI-focused information-sharing communities to help satisfy IR #3.
• IR #3: By distributing the malware’s IOCs to other CTI professionals in an information-sharing group, the CTI team learned that similar malware had been deployed against several financial institutions using similar tactics. A member of the information-sharing group revealed that Russian-speaking adversaries were behind the attack.
• IR #4: Upon learning the attack had been discussed on a Russian-language DDW forum, the CTI team identified an intelligence gap, which they addressed by obtaining finished intelligence reports and translated forum data sourced from Flashpoint. The reports provided context on common tactics among Russian-speaking cybercriminals and the financially motivated nature of their attacks. Meanwhile, translated forum discussions confirmed threat actors were specifically targeting U.S.-based financial institutions via spear phishing with the objective of stealing and monetizing customers’ PII.
Step 4: Production
Once their analysis is complete, CTI teams produce finished intelligence reports to communicate their key findings, address the extent to which they satisfied their IRs, and inform an appropriate course of action for decision-makers.
Based on its analysis, our hypothetical CTI team communicates the following key takeaways in a finished intelligence report, listed below according to each corresponding IR:
• IR #1: Adversaries attained a limited presence on the network through their spear phishing attacks, but they were unable to gain access to their targeted data.
• IR #2: IOCs for the associated malware are shared via API or in a CSV file that can be integrated into a security operations system.
• IR #3: U.S.-based financial services companies have been, and will likely continue to be, targeted in similar attacks.
• IR #4: These attacks are being waged by financially motivated, Russian-speaking cybercriminals who intend to sell compromised PII to other threat actors on DDW marketplaces.
Step 5: Dissemination & Feedback
In order to drive results and address the risks, CTI teams must distribute their finished intelligence reports to the appropriate stakeholders. These individuals typically range from SOC analysts to senior leadership responsible for allocating resources and setting strategic priorities. Upon receiving the CTI’s finished intelligence, stakeholders should provide feedback to help fine-tune future iterations of the intelligence distribution and inform future intelligence operations.
Returning to our example, the CTI team’s analysis and key findings from the operation included in its finished intelligence report could lead stakeholders to take the following actions:
• After an initial observation period, the SOC analysts are able to identify and block the network intruders (IR #1) using the IOCs of the malware deployed in the spear phishing attacks (IR #2).
• Since the adversaries behind the attacks did manage to gain limited network access through spear phishing (IR #1), the CISO decides to implement an organization-wide security awareness training program to educate employees on how to spot a social engineering attack and report them rather than performing actions on potentially malicious links and attachments.
• Based on the knowledge that other U.S.-based financial services companies are being targeted in similar attacks (IR #3), the CISO sets a strategic goal for the business of information sharing to proactively combat threats.
• Since the attacks originated from financially motivated threat actors operating on the Russian-language DDW (IR #4), the CTI director sets the monitoring of these communities as a high-priority action item for analysts.
Examining the CTI cycle on a step-by-step level reinforces the distinction between data and intelligence, as well as the importance of supplementing IOCs and other technical indicators with contextual information such as DDW discussions to inform strategic efforts to mitigate cyber risk.
Flashpoint provides CTI teams with access to robust DDW datasets with seamless API integration, finished analyst reporting on emerging cyber threats, tailored professional services to support new, under resourced, or expanding teams. Click here to learn more.
Chief Strategy Officer
Chris Camacho partners with Flashpoint’s executive team to develop, communicate, and execute strategic initiatives. With over 15 years of cybersecurity leadership experience, he has led initiatives across Operational Strategy, Incident Response, Threat Management, and Security Operations to ensure cyber risk postures align with business goals. An entrepreneur, Mr. Camacho also serves as CEO for NinjaJobs, a career-matching community for elite cybersecurity talent. He has a BS in Decision Sciences & Management of Information Systems from George Mason University.