Cyber Threat Analysis: Proactive Defense for

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Introduction to Cyber Threat Analysis

Cyber threat analysis is the process of identifying, assessing, and understanding cyber threats that may negatively impact an organization. It is an important process in cybersecurity that helps organizations detect and respond to potential threats before they cause damage.

The goal of cyber threat analysis is to gain an understanding of the cyber threat landscape, the actors behind cyberattacks, and how they operate. By analyzing data from various internal and external sources, cyber threat analysts can identify patterns and techniques that may indicate emerging threats. This proactive approach allows organizations to get ahead of cyber risks and take preventative measures.

Some key aspects of cyber threat analysis include:

  • Identifying high-probability threats based on threat intelligence
  • Assessing the capabilities and motivations of threat actors
  • Determining the potential business impact of threats
  • Evaluating an organization’s vulnerability and exposure to identified threats
  • Providing recommendations to mitigate risks

Cyber threat analysis ultimately enables organizations to prevent or minimize the impact of cyberattacks. It is a continuously evolving discipline as the threat landscape changes rapidly. Effective threat analysis requires blending human expertise with emerging technologies like threat intelligence platforms, security information and event management (SIEM), and automated analytics tools. Mastering both the “science” and “art” of cyber threat analysis is crucial for security teams looking to improve their defenses.

Goals and Objectives

Cyber threat analysis has two primary goals:

  • Identify threats targeting an organization’s digital assets, including data, systems, networks, and technologies. Cyber threat analysts examine threat intelligence from various sources to pinpoint potential attacks, hacking campaigns, malware, vulnerabilities, and other risks relevant to the organization.
  • Enable proactive security and risk mitigation. By understanding the threats and threat actors targeting the organization, the security team can take preventative measures, harden defenses, and prepare incident response plans. Threat analysis is a key input for improving overall security posture.

Ultimately, cyber threat analysis aims to support the broader objectives of enterprise cybersecurity programs. Key contributions include:

  • Empowering risk-based decision making with intelligence-driven insights about vulnerabilities, likelihood of attack, and potential business impacts.
  • Strengthening preventative controls by anticipating the tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) of threat actors.
  • Improving detection capabilities by training systems and analysts on novel attacks uncovered through threat research.
  • Allowing security leaders to intelligently prioritize resources based on the most urgent and impactful threats.
  • Building organizational resilience against cyber-attacks by wargaming response plans against likely scenarios.
  • Enabling collaboration within the security community by sharing actionable threat intelligence.

By realizing these goals, cyber threat analysis gives organizations the context and foresight to evolve their security programs against an ever-changing threat landscape. It is both a science and craft that blends together data, technology, and expert human judgement.

Threat Actors

Threat actors, also known as adversaries, are individuals or groups that conduct cyber attacks and exploit vulnerabilities for various motivations. Some of the major types of threat actors include:

  • Nation-state actors: These are hackers that are backed by national governments and conduct cyber warfare and espionage campaigns. Examples are APT groups from China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran that steal intellectual property or classified information.
  • Cybercriminals: These include hackers and organized criminal groups who are motivated by financial gain. They conduct attacks like ransomware, banking trojans, credit card theft, and more. Many operate out of countries with weak cybercrime laws.
  • Hacktivists: Hackers that disrupt and deface websites for political and social causes. Examples are the Anonymous collective. Their goals are to promote an ideology rather than theft.
  • Insiders: This includes malicious employees and contractors who abuse access privileges to compromise a network. Their motives can range from revenge to profit.
  • Script kiddies: Inexperienced hackers who use simple off-the-shelf exploits. They mostly deface websites or cause denial-of-service attacks for fame or to annoy victims.

Some common tactics used by threat actors include phishing campaigns, malware infections, exploiting software vulnerabilities, denial of service attacks, and more. Their capabilities range from using simple tools to elite zero-day exploits and custom malware. Understanding threat actor motivations, capabilities, and tactics is crucial for developing effective cyber defenses.

Threat Intelligence

Threat intelligence refers to data collected about potential or realized cybersecurity threats. It encompasses information about threat actors, their motivations, capabilities, and tactics. Threat intelligence data comes from a variety of sources, both open source and proprietary.

Some examples of threat intelligence sources include:

  • Security research reports
  • Information sharing groups
  • Malware analysis
  • Monitoring of criminal forums on the dark web
  • Media and press reports
  • Industry reports
  • Government agencies and law enforcement

Threat intelligence analysts comb through large volumes of structured and unstructured data from these sources looking for insights. Their goal is to connect the dots on threat actor groups, campaigns, malware, and vulnerabilities. Through link analysis and aggregating data points, analysts build up knowledge on key areas:

  • Attribution – Who is behind a threat, their resources, motives, and past activities
  • Capabilities – Technical sophistication, skills, and tools threat actors possess
  • Targets – Industry verticals, geographies, systems, and individuals that threat actors focus on
  • Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (TTPs) – The methods threat actors utilize to carry out attacks

With this understanding, analysts look to get ahead of threats and proactively mitigate risk. Threat intelligence informs security strategies, operations, and protections across an organization. Ongoing threat monitoring also allows rapid response to emerging threats. Threat intelligence fuels cyber threat analysis to provide actionable security insights.

Risk Assessment

Risk assessment is a critical part of cyber threat analysis. It involves evaluating the likelihood and impact of potential threats in order to prioritize responses.

Risk is a function of threats exploiting vulnerabilities. Analysts examine the threat landscape and combine it with an understanding of system vulnerabilities to determine risk. The following steps are involved in a comprehensive risk assessment:

  • Asset identification – Compile a list of assets like data, hardware, software, and services that could be targeted. Understand their importance to the organization.
  • Threat evaluation – Research potential threat actors, their capabilities and motivations. Assess which threats pose the greatest risk.
  • Vulnerability analysis – Catalogue known vulnerabilities in systems and procedures that could be exploited. This may involve network scanning, penetration testing, audits and more.
  • Impact analysis – Estimate the potential business impact and damage if threats successfully exploit vulnerabilities. Consider impacts to reputation, finances, legal liability, intellectual property etc.
  • Quantification – Assign values for probability and business impact to determine a risk score. This allows comparison of multiple risks to prioritize responses.
  • Reporting – Document the risk assessment methodology, findings and recommendations in a report. Maintain regular updates as the threat landscape evolves.

Effective risk management relies on accurate and current risk assessments. Analysts leverage various frameworks and models to systematically evaluate threats, vulnerabilities, probabilities and impacts. This analysis guides strategies to lower risks through preventative controls or mitigation planning. It provides business context for prioritizing efforts and investments in cybersecurity.

Data Sources

Cyber threat analysts rely on various data sources to identify threats, vulnerabilities, and risks. Some key data sources include:

Open Source Intelligence (OSINT)

Open source intelligence comes from publicly available sources online. This can include news sites, social media, technical forums and discussion boards, code repositories, research publications, and more. OSINT provides valuable context about threat actors, their tactics and targets, new vulnerabilities disclosed, malware campaigns, data leaks, and emerging cyber risks.

Dark Web Monitoring

The dark web refers to encrypted and anonymous networks like Tor that can host illicit activities. Cyber analysts monitor dark web sites, forums, chat rooms, marketplaces, and other platforms to gain intelligence about cybercriminal operations, compromised data for sale, malware tools and services, and coordination around planned attacks.

Technical Sources

These include logs from security tools and network activity, endpoints, firewalls, proxies, sandboxes, antivirus, and more. Granular technical data enables analysts to detect active threats inside their own infrastructure.

Third-Party Feeds

Commercial threat intelligence platforms aggregate and analyze data from around the web and dark web. Their feeds provide curated threat data that analysts can efficiently consume instead of finding all raw intelligence themselves.

Internal Security Ops

Insights from security operations teams like SOC analysts, malware reverse engineers, vulnerability assessors, and red/blue teams help provide context around threats relevant to the organization.

By correlating insights from these diverse data sources, cyber threat analysts can spot high-priority risks requiring action. The most skilled analysts understand how to leverage and connect data from across sources to generate meaningful threat intelligence.

Analysis Techniques

Cyber threat analysts rely on various techniques to extract insights from data. Some key analysis techniques include:

  • Statistical analysis – Examining trends in data over time to identify anomalies. This can reveal spikes in activity, new connections, or other changes from normal behavior. Statistical techniques like regression help model normal behavior.
  • Behavioral analysis – Studying the tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) of threat actors. Analysts can develop behavior profiles of attackers and detect deviations from normal actions.
  • Malware analysis – Reverse engineering malware samples to understand their capabilities. This reveals insights into attackers’ tools, infrastructure, code reuse, and more. Dynamic and static analysis examine malware behavior.
  • Log analysis – Parsing and correlating log data from diverse IT environments. Logs provide detailed audit trails to reconstruct events, spot suspicious behavior, and find attack footprints.
  • Network analysis – Analyzing network traffic patterns and connections to map out relationships between systems. This can uncover hidden threats moving laterally within networks.
  • Data visualization – Transforming data into graphical formats to spot trends, outliers and relationships that are hard to see in raw data. Visualizations like heat maps, graphs and trees help identify significant patterns.

Using a mix of manual investigation and data analytics, analysts can extract key insights to enhance threat knowledge. However, human expertise is still essential to interpret the data, connect disparate dots, and make sound analytical judgements.

Automated Tools

Cyber threat analysts rely on various automated tools to efficiently collect and analyze large volumes of data. These tools augment and enhance human analysis.

Network Traffic Analysis

Tools like Wireshark and NetworkMiner capture and analyze network traffic to detect anomalies, extract files, and reconstruct sessions. These tools can process huge volumes of traffic and identify patterns that might indicate cyber threats.

Log Analysis

Tools like Splunk rapidly aggregate and analyze log data from multiple sources like firewalls, servers, and endpoints. Analysts can search the logs and create correlation rules to identify potential threats.

Vulnerability Scanning

Vulnerability scanners like Nessus, OpenVAS, and Nikto scan networks and web applications to find misconfigurations and unpatched software that could be exploited by attackers. Analysts use these scans to identify high priority vulnerabilities for remediation.

Malware Sandboxes

Sandboxes like Cuckoo and VirusTotal execute malware samples in isolated environments to observe their behaviors. Analysts can use these tools to classify malware, extract indicators of compromise, and determine capabilities.

Threat Intelligence Platforms

Platforms like MISP and Anomali aggregate threat intelligence from multiple sources, correlate against local data, and prioritize high fidelity threats. This enables efficient use of global threat data.

Security Information and Event Management (SIEM)

SIEM tools like Splunk, IBM QRadar, and AlienVault centralize and analyze security events from across the enterprise to detect attacks. Analysts rely on SIEM alerts to identify ongoing attacks.

Orchestration and Automation

Orchestration tools like Demisto enable analysts to automate repeatable tasks like implementing threat intel, scanning endpoints, and isolating infected hosts. This reduces analyst workload.

Human Analysis

While automated tools and AI have become increasingly used in cyber threat analysis, human analysis still plays a critical role. Human analysts possess certain cognitive skills that automated systems currently lack, enabling deeper investigation and evaluation of threats.

Some key advantages human analysts bring include:

  • Critical thinking – Humans can reason through nuanced, ambiguous, or contradictory data to identify vulnerabilities, connect dots between disparate events, and recognize bigger picture insights. Machines rely on pre-programmed logic and patterns.
  • Intuition – Analysts can leverage intuition developed from past experience to guide their exploration and pursue hunches. This helps surface non-obvious relationships and form sophisticated hypotheses.
  • Creativity – Humans are imaginative, able to brainstorm creative scenarios of how an attack could unfold or an adversary may behave. This fuels identification of novel threats.
  • Adaptability – Human cognition is flexible, allowing analysts to seamlessly shift analytic focus and explore new conceptual directions when surprises emerge. Automated tools are limited by pre-defined parameters.
  • Judgement – Analysts can weigh evidence, evaluate plausibility of hypotheses, and draw reasonable conclusions amidst uncertainty – key aspects of analysis that remain difficult for AI.

To maximize these cognitive strengths, analysts require broad knowledge, pattern recognition skills, mental agility, curiosity, and ability to think unconventionally. The combination of human ingenuity and technology provides a powerful formula for robust cyber threat analysis.

Reporting and Sharing

Reporting and sharing threat intelligence is a critical part of cyber threat analysis. Analysts need to develop intelligible reports that provide actionable information to various stakeholders like security operations, management, and other teams.

Developing Intelligence Reports

Intelligence reports should cater to the specific needs of the intended audience. For example, reports for technical security staff would include technical details and indicators of compromise, while reports for executives should focus on strategic insights, risks, and recommendations.

Reports typically follow a structured format with key sections like the scope, executive summary, key judgments, implications, and sourcing/confidence levels. Analysts need writing skills to translate raw data into compelling narratives. Using visualizations and graphics is also important for impactful reporting.

Information Sharing Challenges

While sharing threat intelligence is beneficial, several challenges can hinder effective collaboration:

  • Legal concerns around privacy and regulatory requirements
  • Organizational silos and internal politics
  • Operational security risks of exposing sources and methods
  • Commercial interests and monetization of threat intel
  • Varying formats, platforms, and standards across organizations

Analysts must balance transparent collaboration with protecting sensitive sources. Participating in trusted sharing forums like ISACs and developing processes for secure information exchange are important.