What Is Cyber Threat Intelligence (CTI)?

An image of a chess board with white pieces.
Cyber threat intelligence isn’t about taking pieces on a chess board. Rather, it’s about knowing the enemy so you can outmaneuver them.
Source: SK via Unsplash.com

If we equate cybersecurity to policing your system against a threat, cyber threat intelligence would be the intelligence service of this defensive setup. Cyber threat intelligence, or CTI, predicts potential attacks, prepares for them, and protects against them before they even happen.

You can organize all cyber threat intelligence into 4 groups:

  1. Technical
  2. Tactical
  3. Operational
  4. Strategic

Good cyber threat intelligence should protect against zero-day attacks and advanced persistent threats (APTs). It also protects your system against various other vulnerabilities. 

Cyber threat intelligence aims to understand the cybersecurity landscape and how it relates to your company. That way, it can presume attack vector origins, capabilities, and reasoning. In addition, it can presume indicators of an attack and ways to prevent any intrusions.

First, I’ll go through the principles of cyber threat intelligence and its importance. I’ll then discuss its lifecycle, use cases, and categories.

How Does Cyber Threat Intelligence Work?

Cyber threat intelligence mainly helps with information gathering and threat surveillance. You should use it in all large operations or those that handle sensitive data.

With regular cybersecurity strategies, the system’s program enables it to respond to threats once they happen. Conversely, cyber threat intelligence uses all the data available to attack or disable those threats before they happen. CTI can also immunize the system against the predicted type of attack. To do that, CTI uses data from previous cyber attacks on other places and known stakeholders. 

Generally, you can’t know the attacker before the attack. In those situations, it’s necessary to immunize the system before the attack, prepare to collect information, and potentially restore the destroyed sectors.

The most important outcome of cyber threat intelligence is that no key sectors are disabled, the system stays functional, and no vital information has been stolen or corrupted.

Next, I’ll go through the approaches to cyber threat intelligence

Approaches to Cyber Threat Intelligence

True intelligence operations realize guaranteed protection is a lie. In essence, you should always presume that you’ll find vulnerabilities and malicious entities that would harm your company, customers, owners, or employees.

Based on that presumption, good cyber threat intelligence should do the best possible job to cover all known vulnerabilities that might affect your system at this moment. For instance, if your company receives emails from outside sources, you must have a system to prevent email spoofing and phishing attacks.

Prevention is always the best tool; ideally, you’ll want to neutralize all threats and vulnerabilities before they become an issue. This isn’t always possible, though. For most companies, tracking down all possible threats and creating custom solutions for them would be way more expensive than necessary.

Protection happens once the system is under attack. Your cybersecurity strategy, influenced by good cyber threat intelligence, will ensure you know how to respond, record, and react quickly once an intrusion appears at the system’s periphery.

If the cyberattack succeeds, you’ll need an active protocol to restore the system’s functionality as quickly as possible. Ideally, you’ll have this protocol in your list of disaster recovery solutions.

You might be wondering why cyber threat intelligence is essential in this process, and I’ll touch upon that now. If you recognize some cyberattacks I’ve discussed, cyber threat intelligence might be something you should integrate into your cybersecurity strategy.

A graphic image of a padlock on a keyboard with SIM cards to the side.
CTI protects you against all possible vulnerabilities.
Source: Towfiqu Barbhuiya via Unsplash.com

Why Is Cyber Threat Intelligence Important?

Cyber threat intelligence is the reason behind a more proactive approach to cybersecurity. Essentially, you can use it to create and maintain an advantage over malicious companies or competitors.

Good intelligence makes your company’s cybersecurity more adaptable and reactive to ever-changing threats. Moreover, using good operational data and current information about threats protects your company at all times.

Additionally, you can quickly scale protection to your company’s needs. That way, your cybersecurity department can constantly improve and integrate strategies to protect you against new threats.

Typically, bigger companies that work with more sensitive data will have more threats than small mom-and-pop shops. For example, if a company becomes important to the infrastructure of an entire region, its system will become a target for many national and international actors. (And this is what happened in the Colonial Pipeline attack).

Next, I’ll go through the multiple stages you’ll witness with cyber threat intelligence. 

What Is the Cyber Threat Intelligence Lifecycle?

The downside of having proactive cybersecurity with cyber threat intelligence is that you have no finish line you can pass. Every day, you’ll encounter new threats, malicious entities, and vulnerabilities due to updates on your company’s tools.

That’s why you can view cyber threat intelligence as a cycle. You’ll repeat the same 5 steps over and over. Additionally, multiple stages will work simultaneously for different sectors of the system.

You can remember the 5 steps in question under the acronym PROTEC, which stands for:

  1. Prediction
  2. Recording
  3. Operating
  4. Tracking
  5. Compiling

Let’s dig deeper into each step now. 

1. Prediction

Predictions include cybersecurity goals, available tools, and possible threats. Cyber threat intelligence will always start with the cybersecurity analysis of your environment company. It’ll think about the way you’ll approach the system if you were to attack it. 

Thus, prediction is the key to any type of intelligence, including cyber threat intelligence. It helps you determine what cybersecurity solutions you need and which are unnecessary. That way, you won’t need to spend resources on them.

2. Recording

The next step is data collection. In this step, you should record everything from internal logs and controls to cloud services and on-premise server information. In addition, you should record the current information about the possible threats in the cybersecurity community.

The importance of recording is immeasurable if you don’t want the same attacks to affect you twice. Thus, once you record the threat and inform the security system about it, you’ll gain protection against this threat in the future.

3. Operating

Thirdly, you’ll process the collected data to create viable prevention, protection, and recuperation plan. Here, you can also use tools that include machine learning to separate crucial information from information that’s irrelevant to you.

Operating the data you have is important. It helps to cut down the noise and reduce the vast amount of information. It’s also important to help you to figure out the main threat actors affecting you. This will prevent you from missing key information or working on incorrect assumptions.

4. Tracking

The fourth step includes tracking the data from test attacks or actual attempts on your system. In essence, this will indicate where your security system works. In addition, it’ll also expose the flaws you can fix or change in the system.

5. Compiling

Finally, the last step is compiling your information and creating a report. You’ll primarily use this report with your security team to make new and better predictions. Next, you’ll share the report with relevant company stakeholders that need to know how the company is performing.

You should also share your results with the wider community when you’ve solved all of the recognized flaws. This improves the cybersecurity landscape as a whole and helps you in the long term.

Now I’ll go to some of the use cases you might encounter where you’ll need good cyber threat intelligence.

An image of a Megaminx cube (a variation of a Rubik's cube) solved.
To gather and use intelligence is a set of moving pieces that are often done simultaneously.
Source: ALAN DE LA CRUZ via Unsplash.com

Cyber Threat Intelligence Use Cases

Cyber threat intelligence, in a narrower sense, is the research behind any action a company would take to protect its information. That said, you need to know exactly what you need to do once you get the results from that research.

In general, you can divide all actions into defensive, offensive, and strategic, in that particular order.

DefensiveOffensiveStrategic
Known threat collectionIncident responseThreat research
Real-time alertsProfilingStrategic reporting
AI malware analysisIntelligence reportingInternal tracking
A quick look at CTI use cases.

Defensive cyber threat intelligence works to identify and prevent current threats instantly.

On the other hand, offensive cyber threat intelligence should find malicious actors and remove them before the attack.

Finally, strategic cyber threat intelligence makes it difficult for a malicious entity to harm your company’s cybersecurity. It does this by making it too costly or labor-intensive to succeed in the attack. In essence, the data they’ll gain from the attack isn’t worth the effort. 

Next, I’ll take you through the 3 proactive uses of cyber threat intelligence.

3 Cyber Threat Intelligence Proactive Uses

Proactive uses push your system’s defenses to attack the threat actors directly. Large companies will benefit the most from all 3 uses, but each improves your security significantly. Let’s discuss what these 3 uses are below!

1. Preventive Defense

Defense, with cyber threat intelligence and in general, is always preventative. The benefit of this cyber threat intelligence is that software tools will do most of the heavy lifting. These tools normally include threat detection and prevention, advanced malware protection, and additional endpoint security. It’s ideal for smaller operations with little sensitive data.

A defensive position is, as a rule, less secure than the other options. That said, the company information will still be much safer than without this software.

2. Preventive Strikes

Preventive strikes usually focus on putting the ball in the cybercriminal’s court. In essence, you make them defend their system and freedom.

Since the attacks are often illegal, the easiest way to make this strike is to call the police and cybercrime divisions when you have any information. The authorities will then handle it from there and punish the attackers involved. 

Some companies resort to counter-hacking when they can’t reach the attackers physically through authorities. That said, attacking your attacker is taking the law into your own hands, which is illegal. Cybercriminals need to use a device, third-party tool, and internet connection to get to you. In some cases, you can use any weaknesses in the attack to try and discover the identity of the attacks by tracing back information to their system. Authorities should then take it from there and ensure you’re safe from these cybercriminals. 

And, in those cases, you can prevent anyone using that type of tool and gear from accessing your system. This won’t stop all cybercriminals, but it will prevent that one specific threat from ever being an issue again.

3. Cost-Benefit Curve

Cyber threat intelligence doesn’t only rely on the specific risks you can defend from. Good intel should also tell you how big your company’s digital footprint is and how likely you are to attract what caliber of cyber threats.

In other words, small companies, entrepreneurs, and studios will likely have the same risk as a relatively prominent individual. You’re almost certain to experience attempts. That said, attacks will usually be performed by local aspiring cybercriminals. Large companies would attract a different caliber of cyber threats. It’s important to know where you fit in, so your security initiatives align with your risk.

In essence, understanding where your company fits in will help keep your cybersecurity system’s costs and maintenance manageable and affordable. 

Finally, let’s wrap up all the ideas I’ve gone through! 

A graphic image of an airsoft sniper, waiting and aiming, player in camouflage.
CTI is all about identifying the threat and taking it out, preferably before they can act.
Source: Specna Arms via Unsplash.com

Final Words

Cyber threat intelligence (CTI) isn’t a simple tool like anti-malware or anti-spyware software. Rather, it’s an approach to cybersecurity where intelligence enables you to adequately research, receive, and respond to different threats targeting your business.

Primarily, it’s the way to figure out those threats. This could be either through prediction, threat data collection, threat actor tracking, or compiling a report about the threats.

In addition, you can use cyber threat intelligence in several ways, including defensively, offensively, or strategically. It’s even possible to turn the tables on the threat actors and attack them instead if you know where to look. (But keep in mind that you should let the authorities handle criminals where possible).

For more information about cyber threat intelligence, check out the FAQ and Resources sections below.

FAQ

What is the job of the cyber threat intelligence analyst?

Most cyber threat analysts should know how to prevent common network security threats from education. That said, the analyst’s job is to collect information on cyber threats affecting their employer and compile them into reports and actionable threat intelligence.

How to become a cyber threat intelligence analyst?

For those in the US, the best resource for getting certified as a Cyber Threat Intelligence Analyst is the National Initiative for Cybersecurity Carriers and Studies (NICCS). The initiative also accepts many remote learners from all over the country.

What is the difference between cyber threat intelligence and cybersecurity?

You can consider cybersecurity as the main domain of digital information security relating to both internal and network cybersecurity. Cyber threat intelligence, on the other hand, is the gathering of data from various sources. In return, this research will inform you about the possible threats and how you should respond to them with cybersecurity. Simply, cyber threat intelligence is learning, while cybersecurity is doing

How to determine network threat actors?

You can find a list of common network security threats known to any cybersecurity specialist. That said, you can also find new threats to your tools or your business directly. The operational analysis will frequent both forums discussing cybersecurity and those on the un-indexed dark web, where threat actors frequent to determine if new threats are rising.

What is cyber threat information?

Data is just a point of information. A coherent collection of data is information. A coherent and actionable collection of information is intelligence. In this sense, cyber threat information is what you’ll need to formulate any type of intelligence. Once you collect this information, you can use it for cyber threat hunting.

Resources

TechGenix: Article on Unified Threat Management

Discover what Unified Threat Management is and how to approach it.

TechGenix: Article on Employee Cybersecurity

Learn about the 9 human elements of employee cybersecurity threatening enterprise data. 

TechGenix: Article on Incident Management

Inform yourself about the intricacies of Incident Management.

TechGenix: Article on Virtual Firewalls

Read about virtual firewalls and their uses.

TechGenix: Article on Data Classification

Discover more about data classification for compliance

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