Merry HaXmas to you! Each year we mark the 12 Days of HaXmas with 12 blog posts on hacking-related topics and roundups from the year. This year, we're highlighting some of the “gifts” we want to give back to the community. And while these gifts may not come wrapped with a bow, we hope you enjoy them.

You may or may not know this about me, but I am kind of an overly optimistic sunshine and rainbows person, especially when it comes to threat intelligence. I love analysis, I love tackling difficult problems, connecting dots, and finding ways to stop malicious actors from successfully attacking our networks.

Even though 2016 tried to do a number on us (bears, raccoons, whatever...)

I believe that we can come through relatively unscathed, and in 2017 we can make threat intelligence even better by alleviating a lot of confusion and addressing many of the misunderstandings that make it more difficult to integrate threat intelligence into information security operations. In the spirit of the new year, we have compiled of a list of Threat Intelligence Resolutions for 2017.

Don't chase shiny threat intel objects

Intelligence work, especially in the cyber realm, is complex, involved, and often time-consuming. The output isn't always earth-shattering; new rules to detect threats, additional indicators to search for during an investigation, a brief to a CISO on emerging threats, situational awareness for the SOC so they better understand the alerts they respond to. Believe it or not in this media frenzied world, that is the way it is supposed to be. Things don't have to be sensationalized to be relevant. In fact, many of the things that you will discover through analysis won't be sensational but they are still important. Don't discount these things or ignore them in order to go chase shiny threat intelligence objects – things that look and sound amazing and important but likely have little relevance to you. Be aware that those shiny things exist, but do not let them take away from the things that are relevant to you.

It is also important to note that not everything out there that gets a lot of attention is bad – sometimes something is big because it is a big deal and something you need to focus on. Knowing what is just a shiny object and what is significant comes down to knowing what is important to you and your organization, which brings us to resolution #2.

Identify your threat intelligence requirements

Requirements are the foundation of any intelligence work. Without them you could spend all of your time finding interesting things about threats without actually contributing to the success of your information security program.

There are many types and names for intelligence requirements: national intelligence requirements, standing intelligence requirements, priority intelligence requirements – but they are all a result of a process that identifies what information is important and worth focusing on. As an analyst, you should not be focusing on something that does not directly tie back to an intelligence requirement. If you do not currently have intelligence requirements and are instead going off of some vague guidance like “tell me about bad things on the internet” it is much more likely that you will struggle with resolution #1 and end up chasing the newest and shiniest threat rather than what is important to you and your organization.

There are many different ways to approach threat intelligence requirements – they can be based off of business requirements, previous incidents, current events, or a combination of the above. Scott Roberts and Rick Holland have both written posts to help organizations develop intelligence requirements, and they are excellent places to start with this resolution. (They can be found here and here.)

Be picky about your sources

One of the things we collectively struggled with in 2016 was helping people understand the difference between threat intelligence and threat feeds. Threat intelligence is the result of following the intelligence cycle - from developing requirements, through collection and processing, analysis, and dissemination. For a (much) more in depth look into the intelligence cycle read JP 2-0, the publication on Joint Intelligence [PDF].

Threat feeds sit solidly in the collection/processing phase of the intelligence cycle - they are not finished intelligence, but you can't have finished intelligence without collection, and threat feeds can provide the pieces needed to conduct analysis and produce threat intelligence. There are other sources of collection besides feeds, including alerts issued by government agencies or commercial intelligence providers that often contain lists of IOCs. With all of these things it is important to ask questions about the indicators themselves:

  • Where does the information come from? A honeypot? Is it low interaction or high interaction? Does it include scanning data? Are there specific attack types that they are monitoring for? Is it from an incident response investigation? When did that investigation occur? Are the indicators pulled directly from other threat feeds/sources? If so, which ones?
  • What is included in the feed? Is it simply IOCs or is there additional information or context available? Remember, this type of information must still be analyzed and it can be very difficult to do that without additional context.
  • When was the information collected? Some types of information are good for long periods, but some are extremely perishable and it is important to know when the information was collected, not just when you received it. It is also important to know if you should be using indicators to look back through historical logs or generate alerts for future activity.

Tactical indicators have dominated the threat intelligence space and many organizations employ them without a solid understanding of what threats are being conveyed in the feeds or where the information comes from, simply because they are assure that they have the "best threat feed" or the "most comprehensive collection" or maybe they come from a government agency with a fancy logo (although let's be honest, not that fancy) but you should never blindly trust those indicators, or you will end up with a pile of false positives. Or a really bad cup of coffee.

It isn't always easy to find out what is in threat feeds, but it isn't impossible. If threat feeds are part of your intelligence program then make it your New Year's resolution to understand where the data in the feeds comes from, how often it is updated, where you need to go to find out additional information about any of the indicators in the feeds, and whether or not it will support your intelligence requirements. If you can't find that information out then it may be a good idea to also start looking for feeds that you know more about.

Look OUTSIDE of the echo chamber

It is amazing how many people you can find to agree with your assessment (or agree with your disagreement of someone else's assessment) if you continue to look to the same individuals or the same circles. It is almost as if there are biases as work - wait, we know a thing or two about biases! This Graphic Explains 20 Cognitive Biases That Affect Your Decision-Making>Confirmation bias, bandwagoning, take your pick. When we only expose ourselves to certain things within the cyber threat intelligence realm we severely limit our understanding of the problems that we are facing and the many different factors that influence them. We also tend to overlook a lot of intelligence literature that can help us understand how we should be addresses those problems. Cyber intelligence is not so new and unique that we cannot learn from traditional intelligence practices.

Here are some good resources on intelligence analysis and research:

Kent Center Occasional Papers — Central Intelligence Agency
The Kent Center, a component of the employee-only Sherman Kent School for Intelligence Analysis at CIA University, strives to promote the theory, doctrine, and practice of intelligence analysis.

Congressional Research Service
The Congressional Research Service, a component of the Library of Congress, conducts research and analysis for Congress on a broad range of national policy issues.

The Council on Foreign Relations
The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) is an independent, nonpartisan membership organization, think tank, and publisher.

Don't be a cotton headed ninny muggins

Now this is where the hopeful optimist in me really comes out. One of the things that has bothered me most in 2016 is the needless fighting and arguments over, well, just about everything. Don't get me wrong, we need healthy debate and disagreement in our industry. We need people to challenge our assumptions and help us identify our biases. We need people to fill in any additional details that they may have regarding the analysis in question. What we don't need is people being jerks or discounting analysis without having seen a single piece of information that the analysis was based off of. There are a lot of smart people out there, and if someone publishes something you disagree with or your question then there are plenty of ways to get in touch with them or voice your opinion in a way that will make our collective understanding of intelligence analysis better.