Understanding the Cyber Threat Intelligence Cycle

Understanding the Cyber Threat Intelligence Cycle
6 minute read

A cyber threat is the possibility of a malicious attempt to damage or disrupt a computer network or system. And cyber threats are on the rise. According to Statista's Market Insights, the global cost of cybercrime is expected to rise exponentially, from $9.22 trillion in 2024 to $13.82 trillion by 2028.

With a surge like that, the impact to an enterprise can be enormous, affecting not only digital assets but everything they touch. And these days, don’t they touch everything? Customers, employees, brands, physical structures, even the very function of an organization can suffer.

Threat actors are always on the lookout for vulnerabilities and backdoors, so it’s more important than ever to be one step ahead and keep your valuable data out of reach. In this post, we'll review the phases of Cyber Threat Intelligence Cycle to help security teams address emerging threats.

What is Threat Intelligence?

One way to strengthen your security stance is to invest in cyber threat intelligence, which can help you to better prepare for, and even prevent, threats from causing irreparable harm. Threat intelligence is the data that informs enterprises about the threats that are targeting their organization.

The raw data is derived from multiple sources, monitored by experts and automated tools alike. Through expert human research and analysis assisted by AI, this trove of data is turned into curated threat intelligence feeds to be used by security teams and platforms. This filtered, finished data helps the security operations center (SOC) stay on top of new risks, vulnerabilities and threat sources.  

But just knowing about the threats isn’t enough. The knowledge has to be relevant, timely and usable. A systematic approach to collecting, analyzing and actioning threat intelligence can help make overwhelmed cybersecurity teams more effective and efficient.

It’s necessary to prioritize assets and focus efforts, as well as filter out the noise of distracting low-impact threats. And for the relevant intelligence, organizations need to take time sensitive remediation to successfully avoid damage and thwart future attacks. This takes planning, execution, flexibility and continual iteration to stay on target — this is known as the Cyber Threat Intelligence Cycle

3 Levels of Threat Intelligence

You can think about threat intelligence as three types or levels: strategic, operational, and tactical.

Strategic Threat Intelligence 

This is high-level information about the cyber threat landscape as it pertains to your organization. Strategic intelligence attempts to identify digital threat actors, understand motivations for targeting a particular market or industry, and assess the potential risks and implications of a successful attack.

Operational Threat Intelligence 

This type of intelligence is focused on understanding the tactics, techniques, and procedures digital threat actors can use to penetrate targets. Effective operational threat intelligence gives you the ability to anticipate how cyber criminals might attack your organization's systems, and which digital infrastructure components are likely to be targeted.

Tactical Threat Intelligence 

The most basic form of threat intelligence is tactical. This level is primarily concerned with identifying Indicators of Compromise (IOCs). These IOCs can be file names, IP addresses, and domain names, that can be used by security operations teams to proactively hunt for threats.

Understanding The Cyber Threat Intelligence Cycle

Achieving threat intelligence’s full potential is a continual process which will evolve with an organization and its environment. The threat intelligence (TI) lifecycle provides a framework for your security teams to plan and implement their protective tactics and strategies against malicious digital behaviors. There are six phases in the Cyber Threat Intelligence Cycle: 

1. Direction

Based on the entity value and the potential impacts of asset loss or service interruption are assessed in this first phase. Questions that need to be answered include: what needs protecting & why? Which are the priorities? What types of TI information is required? Who will be receiving the TI and how? Answers to these questions are the cornerstone of the whole intelligence program and inform the development of guidelines for data collection methods and resource assignments.  Specificity and clarity is key in order to achieve a timely desired outcome.

2. Collection

During TI collection, the intelligence team is gathering information and context that fulfill the requirements laid out earlier. The intelligence is collected from sources such as social media, deep and dark web, network data and other open source intelligence (OSINT). 

3. Processing

The resultant lake of raw data from Collection isn’t usable alone, because there is simply too much and it isn’t in a common form. During the Processing stage, the data is formatted to be understood by, and suited for the user. It’s important to keep in mind the requirements and data types as they were outlined in the Direction phase. 

4. Analysis and Production

Now that the data is usable, you should reconsider the goals of the organization to refine the threat information. Various analysis techniques are used to determine if suspicious behaviors are correlated and relevant. Context and priority is added, turning the data into finished intelligence. 

5. Dissemination

The threat Intelligence is now ready to be shared with the user, either through a report, feed, or automated platform. The security team will use the TI to build and act on priority plans for mitigation and proactive protection, focusing on alerts of the highest importance or impact to their organization. This is also the stage where automated remediation actions may occur - such as takedown requests, publishing of attack indicators, defense hardening, etc.

6. Feedback

After any alert to threat event, it is critical to re-analyze the security goals of the organization. Is the Direction still the same? Is there a different type of data we need? Is the TI actionable? Are there too many or too few alerts? Pausing to provide feedback can make threat mitigation faster and more accurate. Further, by redirecting assets or pivoting in a new direction, organizational efficiency is constantly refined.

The Importance of Cyber Threat Intelligence

The Importance of cyber threat intelligence cannot be overemphasized. Without expert analysis and distillation, your organization could be drowning in a sea of data and still miss the most dangerous cyber activity. True threat intelligence attenuates the noise of countless data streams, while adding unique contextual insight from difficult to access sources and irreplaceable expert human experience and insight.

There adds enormous value to this deep understanding of the specific threats that pose the greatest risk to your enterprise, because it allows security teams to rapidly assess risks and impacts, prioritize activities, and concentrate efforts more efficiently. Finished threat intelligence is one part of a proactive security plan which, when implemented properly, helps to reduce exposure, avert data breaches and avoid the financial and resource impacts of post-attack mitigation. 

Get Started With ZeroFox Threat Intelligence

ZeroFox managed platform and intelligence services act as a critical extension to your team, reducing attack impact and strengthening defenses against future attacks. Our dark operatives can provide visibility into the criminal underground and provide early warning into emerging attacks or breaches.

We leverage the many data streams from our customer community to learn more about evolving threats faster, and we harness the power of our Global Disruption Network of infrastructure partners to go beyond alerts and takedowns to disrupt attacks at their source - and the adversaries behind them.

With ZeroFox you can rely on enhanced, hands-on protection and external threat intelligence experts who help ensure optimal protection and satisfy your unique requirements. Learn more about ZeroFox’s full spectrum threat intelligence here.

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