Operationalizing Threat Intelligence Through a Holistic Approach

Operationalizing Threat Intelligence Through a Holistic Approach

In my day job I meet with prospective customers of all shapes and sizes, across multiple verticals, with varying degrees of security and intelligence maturity, and some further along their journey than others. During these engagements I always ask how the customer defines threat intelligence and am met with a myriad of answers. Some customers think it means indicator-of-compromise (IOC) feeds, others say traditional intelligence reports, some consider threat hunting one form, brand monitoring comes up periodically, along with a host of other answers.

On one such occasion after I had joined CrowdStrike, a customer very pointedly told me, "what you consider intelligence is not what I consider intelligence." By the end of our hour-ish long discussion she admitted she may have been mistaken at the onset of our meeting, and in fact what CrowdStrike considers intelligence actually does align with her definition. I enjoyed this interaction and found it an interesting way to set the stage for all future customer engagements.

Here is the thing – threat intelligence is a subjective domain, with no clearly defined industry standard. Contrast that to other security disciplines like endpoint security, which has anti-virus and endpoint detection and response (EDR), among others. Endpoint security is an objective domain, with agreed-upon industry definitions. While vendor implementation varies, there is a common understanding of the terminology across the industry.

Threat intelligence does not enjoy this solidarity.

The one important aspect of threat intelligence not often discussed is, as a discipline, for maximum effectiveness it needs to be leveraged in a holistic capacity. Threat intelligence should never be compartmentalized into just the intelligence and/or security teams. Rather than being confined to a clearly delineated box, multiple organizational stakeholders will extract value from threat intelligence.

Strategic Decision-Making

Having said that, since threat intelligence means so many different things to so many different people, by definition this means there are a multitude of ways to operationalize it. Some of the more obvious answers run across the following gamut:

  • Data enrichment at a SIEM - collate a high fidelity IOC feed, ingesting it into a SIEM for event correlation to highlight activity on the network that may normally remain undetected
  • Strategic reporting - read a daily flow of intelligence alerts and more comprehensive report products to obtain a stronger understanding of the threat activity being observed. This in turn allows for more informed strategic, operational, and tactical decision making
  • Incident response - leveraging a sandbox and malware search capability for analysis of samples and other artifacts found during an incident investigation, to better understand the context around the tools in-use during the incident
  • Security operations - leveraging a combination of the above for the front-line defenders to use when making decisions, providing additional context for SIEM alerts, and using intelligence tools after identifying a potentially important alert
    These are obviously oversimplified definitions, but they do demonstrate some of the more common concepts at play.

There are countless other ways to leverage threat intelligence, with the vast majority of the everyday use-cases focusing on the security and intelligence teams. But I want to dispel this notion that only these two teams can directly leverage this increasingly important solution.

Unique Use-Case: Vulnerability Management Team

The one use-case I love to focus on when talking with customers is the Vulnerability Management Team. Different organizations attack vulnerability management in different ways, although with one constant: prioritizing what security patches need to be deployed. In some organizations this means actually conducting the patching, while in others it means prioritizing patches and working with cross-functional teams to have the patches deployed, and lastly, in others it means briefing the Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) who then directs the entire process. Again, not an exhaustive list, just more conceptual examples.

cyber attacks ahead

Vulnerability Management teams often use multiple tools for understanding the various patches released by the vendor software their organization has deployed. This helps in understanding what patches are available to install, whether a critical vulnerability or something more benign. Every organization faces this situation; there are always security patches in need of being deployed.

But how does an organization prioritize what should be installed first versus what is less pressing? Given a scenario with equally critical Microsoft Windows, Microsoft Office, Adobe, and JAVA patches, how does an organization determine which of these critical vulnerabilities need to be addressed before the others? Who says the Windows vulnerability is more critical than the Adobe patch, especially if there are potentially mitigating security controls in place?

Consider the application of threat intelligence and how it helps inform the decision-making process.

Let us use CrowdStrike as an example, not necessarily because I work for the company, but primarily because I recognize the power Falcon X wields. In particular I am going to focus on the Threat Actor Profiles feature of Falcon X. For this exercise, the Vulnerability Management Team has been provided access to the product so they can leverage the Threat Actor Profiles and the Finished Intelligence Reports.

Falcon X Threat Actor Profiles - Filter Bar

In the Falcon UI, when visiting the main Threat Actor Profiles page, the first thing to notice is the current number of named threat actors being tracked: 135 as of Friday April 24. The black filter bar is going to be the focal point for the first couple steps. What is necessary at this juncture is to ascertain which threat actors target not just the country - or countries - where an organization operates, but also the vertical in which it is positioned.

For the sake of this exercise I am going to focus on a fictional Australian Financial Services company. This should provide enough information to demonstrate, conceptually, the power threat intelligence offers Vulnerability Management Teams.

Using the Threat Actor Profile page filter bar:

  • Select the country where the organization operates - in this case Australia. This immediately decreases the number of threat actors from 135 to 17. To be clear, these 17 threat actors have been observed actively targeting Australia at some point. Collate a list of the 17 threat actors, and repeat this process for each country where the organization operates.
  • Select the industry the organization is positioned - in this case, Financial Services. This immediately decreases the number of threat actors from 135 to 56. Collate a list of the 56 threat actors, and repeat this process for each industry where the organization operates.

At this point there is a list of 17 threat actors targeting Australia, and 56 targeting Financial Services. This does not mean there are a total of 73 threat actors targeting our fictional Australian Financial Services company. These two lists do have overlap. However, for the sake of this exercise that is unimportant. What is important now is leveraging the profiles to develop a list of vulnerabilities all the threat actors are actively exploiting.

Falcon X Threat Actor Profiles - Australia

Going back to the list of 17 threat actors targeting Australia, we can clearly see a combination of nation state, ecrime, and hacktivist threat actors. Click on each of the threat actors and look to the right-side of the profile, in the Kill Chain mapping section, and the Exploitation area in particular. Develop a list of all the Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures aka CVE’s this threat actor is leveraging. Repeat this process for the remaining 16 threat actors target.

Falcon X Threat Actor Profiles - Berserk Bear Profile

Note: eCrime Threat Actors

Not all ecrime threat actors have the targeted vulnerability information enumerated on their profile page due to the nature of their tradecraft. For these specific actors, focus on the tooling by looking at the Services Offered, Monetization, and Technical Tradecraft sections. Take note of the various ransomware, exploit kits, and others tools in use by the threat actor. Like with the CVE’s, keep a running list of these tools.

Repeat this process for each of the ecrime threat actors.

Falcon X Threat Actor Profiles - Financial Services Industry

There should be a fairly comprehensive list of the patches from the threat actors targeting Australia. Repeat this entire process for the 56 threat actors targeting Financial Services, obviously skipping over overlap with the 17 threat actors targeting Australia, to further develop the patch list. After completing the research, there will be an exhaustive CVE list in addition to a list of ecrime threat actor tooling.

This latter part is what needs to be tackled next, and is the most time consuming aspect of this process. Visit the Reports and Feeds section of the platform, and search for finished intelligence reports related to each of the tools in use by the ecrime threat actors - specifically the longer-form in-depth reports. While going through the reports, make note of any CVE listed as being leveraged by the tool.

At this point, the comprehensive list should have all the known patches being targeted by the identified threat actors. Based on a basic vulnerability management process, this list needs to be cross-referenced with the patches previously deployed by the organization to determine where any gaps exist. If none exist, congratulations, job well done! Chances are, however, there is a delta, with multiple systems in need of being patched. Take care of deploying patches to those systems ASAP; these are the highest priority vulnerabilities to be remediated.


This is just one specific example of many methods for demonstrating how threat intelligence may be operationalized outside of either the security or intelligence teams. The key is to remember there will always be other groups within organizations where threat intelligence provides value. Executive Committee, Board of Directors, Risk Management, Fraud Detection, Cyber Crime Team, and many more areas are just some of the examples. It is imperative to approach threat intelligence consumption from a holistic perspective to realize its full potential.

Lastly, if an organization is not consuming threat intelligence in some capacity, whether through automation, for enrichment, or for reading the traditional intelligence reporting, then they are far behind the power curve. In 2020, more so than ever, as threat actors continue to rapidly increase in sophistication, pivot their tooling, and evolve their tradecraft, threat intelligence has become a necessary component of a comprehensive, multi-faceted security strategy.

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