What Are the Phases of the Threat Intelligence Lifecycle?
October 16, 2018 • Zane Pokorny
Editor’s Note: Over the next several months, we’ll be sharing excerpts from our new book, “The Threat Intelligence Handbook.” Here, we’re starting with an early chapter, “Intelligence-Driven Security,” which focuses on how certain common practices in the threat intelligence industry can align with your current cybersecurity strategy. To read the full chapter, download your free copy of the handbook.
When done right, the process of developing threat intelligence is a circular one.
First, the thought leaders and decision makers in an organization should identify certain intelligence goals, like what the objectives and key questions of this intelligence cycle should be. Then, information is collected, processed, and turned into actual intelligence — a finished product that’s timely and provides enough context for action can be taken. That finished intelligence then gets fed back to the top, where decision makers are able to make refined decisions about the next intelligence cycle.
Producers of cyber threat intelligence need to be mindful of all the different use cases that intelligence can be applied to. Security professionals working in incident response, security operations, vulnerability management, and more will all see huge boons to their workflows when incorporating threat intelligence (in fact, the democratization of threat intelligence is one of the main themes of our handbook), but they benefit in different ways and will have different feedback. The reciprocal process of using threat intelligence and giving feedback is more nuanced where cyber threat intelligence can be applied to many different use cases.
The following excerpt from “The Threat Intelligence Handbook” has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Threat Intelligence Lifecycle
Threat intelligence is built on analytic techniques honed over several decades by government and military agencies. Traditional intelligence focuses on six distinct phases that make up what is called the “intelligence cycle”: direction, collection, processing, analysis, dissemination, and feedback.
The direction phase of the lifecycle is when you set goals for the threat intelligence program. This involves understanding and articulating:
- The information assets and business processes that need to be protected
- The potential impacts of losing those assets or interrupting those processes
- The types of threat intelligence that the security organization requires to protect assets and respond to threats
- Priorities about what to protect
Once high-level intelligence needs are determined, an organization can formulate questions that channel the need for information into discrete requirements. For example, if a goal is to understand likely adversaries, one logical question would be, “Which actors on underground forums are actively soliciting data concerning our organization?”
Collection is the process of gathering information to address the most important intelligence requirements. Information gathering can occur organically through a variety of means, including:
- Pulling metadata and logs from internal networks and security devices
- Subscribing to threat data feeds from industry organizations and cybersecurity vendors
- Holding conversations and targeted interviews with knowledgeable sources
- Scanning open source news and blogs
- Scraping and harvesting websites and forums
- Infiltrating closed sources such as dark web forums
The data collected typically will be a combination of finished information, such as intelligence reports from cybersecurity experts and vendors, and raw data, like malware signatures or leaked credentials on a paste site.
Processing is the transformation of collected information into a format usable by the organization. Almost all raw data collected needs to be processed in some manner, whether by humans or machines. Different collection methods often require different means of processing. Human reports may need to be correlated and ranked, deconflicted, and checked.
An example might be extracting IP addresses from a security vendor’s report and adding them to a CSV file for importing to a security information and event management (SIEM) product. In a more technical area, processing might involve extracting indicators from an email, enriching them with other information, and then communicating with endpoint protection tools for automated blocking.
Analysis is a human process that turns processed information into intelligence that can inform decisions. Depending on the circumstances, the decisions might involve whether to investigate a potential threat, what actions to take immediately to block an attack, how to strengthen security controls, or how much investment in additional security resources is justified.
The form in which the information is presented is especially important. It is useless and wasteful to collect and process information and then deliver it in a form that can’t be understood and used by the decision maker. For example, if you want to communicate with non-technical leaders, your report must:
- Be concise (a one-page memo or a handful of slides)
- Avoid confusing and overly technical terms and jargon
- Articulate the issues in business terms (such as direct and indirect costs and impact on reputation)
- Include a recommended course of action
Some intelligence may need to be delivered in a variety of formats for different audiences, say, by a live video feed or a PowerPoint presentation. Not all intelligence needs to be digested via a formal report. Successful threat intelligence teams provide continual technical reporting to other security teams with external context around IOCs, malware, threat actors, vulnerabilities, and threat trends.
Dissemination involves getting the finished intelligence output to the places it needs to go.
Most cybersecurity organizations have at least six teams that can benefit from threat intelligence.
For each of these audiences, you need to ask:
- What threat intelligence do they need, and how can external information support their activities?
- How should the intelligence be presented to make it easily understandable and actionable for that audience?
- How often should we provide updates and other information?
- Through what media should the intelligence be disseminated?
- How should we follow up if they have questions?
We believe that it is critically important to understand your overall intelligence priorities and the requirements of the security teams that will be consuming the threat intelligence. Their needs guide all phases of the intelligence lifecycle and tell you:
- What types of data to collect
- How to process and enrich the data to turn it into useful information
- How to analyze the information and present it as actionable intelligence
- To whom each type of intelligence must be disseminated, how quickly it needs to be disseminated, and how fast to respond to questions
You need regular feedback to make sure you understand the requirements of each group, and to make adjustments as their requirements and priorities change.
Get The Threat Intelligence Handbook
There’s a lot more essential content in the full chapter of the book, including helpful diagrams, notes and tips on applying these explanations to your own threat intelligence program, and more detailed information on things like sources of threat intelligence.