Re-Imagining Cyber Security


Building Threat Hunting Strategies with the Diamond Model

Hunting cyber threats (especially those never seen previously) is the most expensive and difficult threat intelligence endeavor.  Hunting is a risk because you’re betting that there is something there to find – and that you can find it.  An effective hunter may come up empty most of the time.  Creating an effective threat hunting strategy ensures greater chances for a return on the investment.

An effective strategy includes answering four critical questions and employing the right approach to achieve the goal.  The Diamond Model identifies several “centered-approaches” enabling effective threat hunting.  Tying these approaches together creates the basis for a hunting strategy.  Without a strategy your chances of failure increase dramatically.

Hunting cyber threats is the most expensive and difficult threat intelligence endeavor.

Building a Hunting Strategy with the 4 Hunting Questions

Throwing out “I’m going threat hunting” is akin to saying, “I’m going fishing.”  Both are such vague phrases that they generally require a follow-up question: “For what?”  Some may answer “malware” or “lateral movement” the same as others answer “salmon” or “bass.”  The next question asked, naturally, “where?”  This leads us to the first critical element of a hunting strategy: answering the critical questions.

If you can’t answer these questions well.  You might as well go back to what you were doing because you’ll likely end up just wasting time and resources.  Hunting requires patience and discipline.  These four questions are the core of any hunting strategy.

The 4 Hunting Questions

There are four critical questions necessary to build a hunting strategy, and they’re best answered in this order:

  1. What are you hunting?
    • Hunting is expensive and risky.  You must narrow down exactly for which activity you are hunting.  Is it exploitation?  Is it lateral movement?  It is exfiltration?
  2. Where will you find it?
    • What you are hunting will determine where you will find the activity.  You must next narrow down the sources of telemetry which will provide visibility into the activity AND access to stored telemetry
  3. How will you find it?
    • Once you’ve identified what you’re looking and where you’ll likely find it, next you must identify the tools to hunt.  You don’t catch salmon and bass in the same way – you won’t catch exploitation and lateral movement in the same way.
  4. When will you find it?
    • Have a time bound for your hunting.  A never-ending chase will lead you nowhere.  Allot a specific amount of time necessary to achieve your goal, and if you come up empty at that time – move on to the next target.  If you have to feed your family, and you go out salmon fishing but catch nothing – it’s probably best to instead go after another fish or game before everyone dies of starvation 🙂  Likewise, management may likely lose patience with your hunting if you don’t deliver value.

From Strategy to Approach

Once you’ve answered the four critical hunting questions – you must then design the approach.  The approach not only describes the modes and methods of your hunting but, more importantly, addresses the “why.”  The “why” establishes your hypothesis.

Hunters must build and test many hypotheses at once.  Each failed hypothesis can lead to a failed hunt.  For instance, the hunter hypothesizes that they’re breached.  Why else would they be hunting?  Of course, if they’re not – the hunt fails.  The hunter hypothesizes the adversary leverages identities to move across assets.  So, this hypothesis leads the hunter to examine Active Directory logs.  Of course, if the adversary uses file shares they may not show up in AD – the hunt fails.

This step is critical because hunting is a big risk and cost.  And, establishing not just the “how” but also the “why” will help hunters critically examine their approach and look for other methods possibly overlooked.

When hunting adversaries you must always question your approach and look for more creative and effective methods.

The Diamond Model Centered Approaches

The Diamond Model establishes the event as the most basic element of any malicious activity and composed of four core features: the adversary, the victim, infrastructure, and capability.  All malicious activity contains these features (as established in Axiom 1).  Therefore, any hunting is ultimately based on these features and any hunting approach contains a mix of these “centered approaches.”

However, don’t consider these approaches in isolation.  Instead, a mix of approaches used in concert achieve greater coverage.

The Diamond Model of Intrusion Analysis. An event is shown illustrating the core features of every malicious activity: adversary, victim, capability, and infrastructure. The features are connected based on their underlying relationship.

The Diamond Model of Intrusion Analysis. An event is shown illustrating the core features of every malicious activity: adversary, victim, capability, and infrastructure. The features are connected based on their underlying relationship.

Named for the feature on which they’re based, the approaches are:

The Victim-Centered Approach

The news of several determined adversaries targeting a single human rights activist is an excellent example of the victim-centered approach.  A victim-centric approach uses the victim as the central element for hunting and looks to illuminate the other Diamond-connected features (i.e., capabilities, infrastructure, adversaries).  The victim-centric hunt is equivalent to a “honeypot.”

Network defenders will most likely focus on the victim-centered approach.  It provides the greatest benefit and easiest approach with the highest likelihood of actionable results.  There are many modes and methods provided by this approach.  Chris Gerritz (@gerritzc) details several victim-centered approach modes and methods in his post: Approaches to Threat Hunting.

Advantages: catches many adversaries, many hunting opportunities (e.g., network attacks, malicious email delivery, etc.), easily obtained data (usually)

Disadvantages: possible overwhelming amount of malicious activity, too many hunting opportunities can dilute an undisciplined hunting effort

Tips: focus hunt on a single phase of the kill-chain at a time

See Diamond Model Section 7.1.1

An Example Victim-Centered Hunting Strategy

[Why] We hypothesize that several adversaries target a specific victim.

[Why] We further hypothesize that adversaries deliver their capabilities via email (as most do).

[Why] Our hypothesis is strengthened through data that most attacks are delivered via email and our organization has previously received email-borne delivery attacks.

[What] Our hunting goal: collect intelligence on adversary attacks in the email delivery phase.

[Where & How] Therefore, our victim-centered hunting approach includes gaining visibility into the victim email and apply tools which illuminate likely malicious elements (links, attachments).  Our primary method will involve detonating attachments and hyperlinks.  Our secondary method will involve sender-receiver graph analysis and header inconsistencies.

[When] We will apply this approach and methodology for 2 weeks after achieving access to data.

This hunting strategy reveals:

  • Capabilities: the tools and techniques used by an adversary to compromise and operate against a victim (e.g., in our example: the malicious attachments)
  • Infrastructure: the logical and physical elements necessary to manage capabilities (e.g., in our example: the email source, malicious attachment C2, URLs)

The Infrastructure-Centered Approach

While network defenders will generally take the victim-centered approach.  That’s not the only hunting approach available.  The infrastructure-centered approach enables hunters to identify malicious infrastructure and possibly pivot to identify capabilities, victims, and more infrastructure.  Most importantly, because generally infrastructure must operational before capabilities and victims connect – new infrastructure can provide preemptive defense.

There are several methods to leverage this approach.  Depending on access and visibility some are easier than others.  For instance, one method is to monitor domain name servers known to host malicious domains.  Another may be to monitor all new domain registrations for a known pattern used by an adversary.

Another popular method is SSL certificate chaining.  PassiveTotal has written a post, “Harnessing SSL Certificates Using Infrastructure Chaining” detailing the method.  Mark Parsons (@markpars0ns) has a great presentation on “Hunting Threat Actors with TLS Certificates.”

Lastly, and one of the most difficult is direct observation of malicious infrastructure.  This could be done through a service provider – or via infrastructure take-over (such as a sinkhole).  Through this method, significant intelligence can be gained including: capabilities used through the infrastructure, victims contacting the infrastructure, and potentially other related infrastructure.

Don’t forget about the opportunities to use the Diamond Model to chain multiple approaches together.  For example, after discovering new infrastructure an analyst is able to pivot an ask for additional information about Diamond-connected features, such as capabilities.  This might be through pivoting across a malware zoo like Virus Total for any reference to the infrastructure.

Advantages: Good tools exist to support the approach (PassiveTotal), finding infrastructure prior to operational use provides preemptive defense

Disadvantages: Limited data access, findings not relevant to many organizations

Tips: Data, Data, More Data

See more in the Diamond Model Section 7.1.3

Example Infrastructure-Centered Hunting Strategy

[Why] We hypothesize adversaries establish infrastructure prior to operations

[Why] We hypothesize adversary X continues to structure their domains using the pattern badstuff-<victimname>.com

[Why] We hypothesize adversary X continues to use the name server to host their infrastructure and the same

[What] Our hunting goal: monitoring the name server for new names matching the pattern we may find new names prior to their operations providing proactive defense.  Further, because the adversary uses the victim name in their domain we will likely identify victims.

[Where] The name server

[How] Monitor the name server by querying the server every morning for all domains and identifying the domains not seen the previous day.  Further, looking for any domains on the server with the known pattern.

[When] We will leverage this strategy for 1 month to provide for any dips in adversary activity during that period

The Capability-Centered Approach

Aside from the victim-centered approach employed by most network defenders, the capability-centered approach is the second-most popular.  This is largely due to the broad accessibility of a massive malware zoo – VirusTotal.  If VirusTotal didn’t exist, this approach would likely be limited to only anti-virus vendors and others with potentially large collections of malicious binaries.

The capability-centered approach focuses on discovering intelligence from adversary tools – namely “malware” (but the category is larger than malware and includes legitimate tools used illegitimately).  The most advanced hunters using this approach take advantage of the VirusTotal retrohunt feature enabling analysts to run YARA rules over the VirusTotal zoo looking for lesser known samples.

Advantages: easy access to large malware library (VirusTotal), easily written analytics (YARA)

Disadvantages: without your own malware zoo – limited to VirusTotal features

Tips: take advantage of VirusTotal

See more in the Diamond Model Section 7.1.2

Example Capability-Centered Hunting Strategy

[Why] We hypothesize that network defenders share adversary capabilities via VirusTotal

[Why] We hypothesize that we can identify unique malware via a malware zoo using static analysis

[What] Our hunting goal: find undiscovered malware and its associated command and control (C2) channel to feed host- and network-based detection to enhance protection

[Where] VirusTotal

[How] Author and execute YARA rules over the VirusTotal data and monitor the zoo daily for new samples meeting our criteria

[When] We will author and improve rules for 2 weeks and run them perpetually

The Adversary-Centered Approach

The adversary-centered approach focuses on visibility on the adversary themselves – meaning few organizations have the requisite visibility.  Usually, limited to only service providers and those with extraordinary capabilities.  However, achieving visibility directly on the adversary themselves generally provides tremendous, almost perfect, insight.  This includes infrastructure creation and management, capabilities (sometimes those in development), attribution details, and at times victim information.

However, others may access some methods within this approach.  For instance, knowing an adversary persona may allow an analyst to leverage open source intelligence (OSINT) to track the persona across sites potentially gaining insight into operations.  Further, an analyst may leverage adversary operations security (OPSEC) mistakes to achieve attribution based on their persona.  ThreatConnect’s CameraShy work illustrates the adversary-centered approach to achieve attribution through persona development and tracking.

However, while this approach leads to “newsworthy” items regarding attribution – their direct application to network defense is limited.  Therefore, generally only those with a vested interested in attribution leverage this approach.

Advantages: possible adversary attribution, deeper visibility into

Disadvantages: the most difficult approach requiring significant (and sometimes extraordinary) visibility or adversary mistakes, does not generally result in actionable intelligence, adversary “false flag” mis-attribution may trip up undisciplined analysts

Tips: leverage OSINT and pray for a mistake 🙂

See more in the Diamond Model Section 7.1.4

Example Adversary-Centered Hunting Strategy

[Why] We hypothesize adversaries use personas to register malicious domain names

[Why] We hypothesize that some of these domain registration aliases relate to real people

[Why] We hypothesize that adversaries have mistakenly tied their operational alias to their real personas revealing their personal details

[What] Our hunting goal: uncover the real people behind malicious domains providing attribution

[Where] Domain registration data and other open sources

[How] Take 500 known malicious domains, extract aliases details from their registration, pivot across open sources looking for correlation with real people

[When] Spend 3 days collating known malicious domains, 2 weeks pivoting across open sources


Why Threat Intelligence Sharing is Not Working: Towards An Incentive-Based Model

The juggernaut known as the “threat intelligence sharing imperative.”  Security and industry conferences fill their time with “sharing.”  How many sharing groups and platforms do we require?  Too many exist.  Alien Vault recently reported that 76% of survey respondents reported a “moral obligation to share threat intelligence.”  McAfee says sharing threat intelligence “is the only way we win” (that isn’t even remotely true).  However, it’s not working.

According to Robert Lemos in eWeek, even with the most recent US cyber security legislation providing legal immunity organizations are not rushing to share.  The reason is simple.  That was only one component of a complicated problem.  While the legislation addressed one policy element, it didn’t address that sharing has never been proven (with data) to benefit sharing organizations.

We must move beyond these “religious” arguments and provide clear incentives for defenders to share.

In January, President Obama signed the Cybersecurity Act of 2015, but companies remain in a holding pattern, waiting for legal clarity and demonstrable benefits before sharing sensitive information.

– Robert Lemos, eWeek “Cyber-Threat Data Sharing Off to Slow Start Despite U.S. Legislation” [2016-10-02]

The Loudest in the Room

There is one thing I notice – security vendors yell the loudest about sharing. I don’t claim their sharing narrative is FUD, but the sharing narrative is a net positive for them.  The more data and intelligence they receive strengthen their products and services adding value to their organization. Security vendors have strong incentives to promote threat intelligence sharing.  But, what is the case that the cost of sharing to defenders is a net benefit to them?

Security vendors have strong incentives to promote threat intelligence sharing.  But, what is the case that the cost of sharing to defenders is a net benefit to them?

Sharing is Costly

I’ve been involved in threat intelligence sharing for a long time.  I am the first to support the notion of sharing.  I have story up on story which supports the sharing narrative.  But, I qualify my support: the value of sharing must exceed the cost.

Most network defenders will agree: sharing is costly.

  1. It requires significant cost to integrate externally shared threat intelligence effectively.
  2. Once you consume that threat intelligence you quickly discover it may consume your security team with poor quality – and requires significant tuning.  There is risk.
  3. Establishing a sharing mechanism, program, and process is costly.  It usually requires engineering effort.
  4. Management support for sharing usually requires political capital from network defense leaders.  They must prove that the resources spent on sharing are more important than the 20 other components competing for resources.  Also, let’s not forget about the legal support.

An Incentive-Based Approach

Sharing must go beyond a “religious” argument.  Instead, we must take an incentive-based approach.  We must create and promote incentives for defenders to share – with demonstrable results.  Therefore, those promoting sharing must provide a coherent and consistent data-driven case that sharing overcomes these costs to defending organizations.  “Share because it is good for you” is not enough.

So, next time you advocate for sharing – enumerate why network defenders should share.  Make it meaningful.  Make it data-driven.


4 Qualities of Defensible Products – Secure Products Are Not Enough

For decades the industry worked to build secure products: products which can withstand attacks usually by reducing vulnerabilities and exposures.

However, what happens when that fails and an attack is successful in spite of the work done to secure the product?  I propose that we require both secure products AND defensible products; products which not only resist attacks but successfully defended when attacks bypass protection.

4 Qualities of Defensible Products

  1. Visibility – the visibility necessary to detect unauthorized use and malicious attacks
  2. Transparency –  the transparency into the product’s operations to conduct a proper investigation and response after detection
  3. Controls –  the controls necessary to remediate a threat after detection and investigation
  4. Resilience – a product returns to an working state quickly after remediation (or remain operational during an attack)

Indicators and Security Analytics: Their Place in Detection and Response

Indicators for research and response; analytics for detection

Indicators of Compromise (IOCs), the lingua franca of threat intelligence.  Almost every intel sharing conversation begins and ends with indicators; commercial intelligence platforms revolve around them; most intelligence consumers end their interest there.  Does a better way exist?  Security analytics!

The Problem with Indicators in Detection

For all the focus given to indicators we know that they have the shortest lifespan of all intelligence exhaust (see the Pyramid of Pain by David J. Bianco).  In many cases, we see single use or victim specific indicators making sharing of these useless.  In general, adversaries tend towards shortening the indicator lifespan – or removing them; for instance Locky recently transitioned to hardcoded RSA keys to remove the vulnerability of connecting to a command and control (C2) server.

Broad based indicator sharing is fraught with problems.  First, it assumes that the same indicators will be leveraged against multiple victims.  This is certainly the case for some threats.  But not all.  Second, quality will likely be a problem.  For instance, DHS Automated Indicator Sharing (AIS) states:

Indicators are not validated by DHS as the emphasis is on velocity and volume: our partners tell us they will vet the indicators they receive through AIS, so the Department’s goal is to share as many indicators as possible as quickly as possible. However, when the government has useful information about an indicator, we will assign a reputation score.   – DHS Automated Information Sharing

Further, AIS contributors can choose to remain anonymous.  Think about the problems of blindly consuming thousands of non-validated anonymously sourced indicators.  How exactly do you effectively validate an anonymously contributed indicator?  Previously, I wrote on the cost of poor intelligence.  Just one instance of by an anonymous contributor could cause massive issues.

Indicators of Compromise are only threat exhaust –  the necessary by-product of malicious activity.  Short-lived and increasingly single use, indicators pose a poor basis for detection – and it’s getting worse.  I’m not advocating for throwing indicators out entirely – they serve their purpose, but should not form the entire basis of threat intelligence detection.

Analytics For Detection

As the Pyramid of Pain suggests, we must move towards behavioral based detection focusing on whole classes of threats.  I’d much rather rely on an analytic detecting overwriting Windows registry keys for a “sticky keys” attack than hoping someone shares an IP address of a random hop point used before to remote desktop (RDP) into a host.  In the analytic case I catch every adversary using sticky keys, in the case of the indicator I catch only one adversary – with the hope they use the same infrastructure again.

Where do you find analytics?

  • The best place is your red team – ask them to describe their techniques and procedures.  Read their reports!  (I know – a stretch for some)
  • Read threat intelligence reports on adversary behaviors.
  • Ask your threat intelligence provider!  (Who you already abuse with information requests anyways – right?)
  • Check out MITRE’s Cyber Analtyics Repository.

The Place for Indicators – Research and Response

Indicator sharing works within a small group of organizations that share a “victim space” (as the Diamond Model refers to victims with shared threats).  This greatly increases the value of shared indicators because the likelihood of attackers reusing indicators increases.  However, indicator sharing outside the “shared victim space” reduces their value and increases their cost.  Research and response receive the greatest value from shared indicators as it allows a method of communicating observables discovered in attacks allowing analysts to pivot deeper into malicious activity seen by others.

Your Own Intelligence is the Best

In the end, to achieve greater detection capability organizations must invest in security analytics and reduce their reliance (and insistence) on indicators from externals.  The best indicators in the world are those from your organization’s own telemetry – your own threat intelligence is the most relevant.  Otherwise, look suspiciously at indicators from others and instead ask to share analytics!

Note: Security analytics are a dirty word – overused and often misused.  To be clear, I define analytics in this post as indicator-independent behavioral detection derived from the knowledge of bad stuff (i.e. Threat Intelligence)


The Laws of Cyber Threat: Diamond Model Axioms

Many confuse the purpose of the Diamond Model.  Most believe the Diamond Model exists for analysts, but that is an ancillary benefit.  Instead, think of the Diamond Model like a model airplane used to study the principles of aerodynamics.  It is not an exact copy but rather a good approximation of the full-scale airplane being studied.  The model exposes elements to test and study in a controlled environment improving the performance of the plane in an operational environment.  The Diamond Model does the same, except for cyber threat analysis.

When describing the Diamond Model to others, I usually start with, “we didn’t create the Diamond Model, we simply expressed some fundamental elements which always existed.”  Surprisingly, I learned while writing the Diamond Model how exposing this fundamental nature improved cyber threat intelligence.

The Diamond Model captures this fundamental nature about threats in seven axioms and one corollary.  This post will highlight those axioms.

Axiom 1

For every intrusion event there exists an adversary taking a step towards an intended goal by using a capability over infrastructure against a victim to produce a result.

What it means: every malicious event contains four necessary elements: an adversary, a victim, a capability, and infrastructure.  Using this fundamental nature we can create analytic and detective strategies for finding, following, and mitigating malicious activity.

Axiom 2

There exists a set of adversaries (insiders, outsiders, individuals, groups, and organizations) which seek to compromise computer systems or networks to further their intent and satisfy their needs.

What it means: there are bad actors working to compromise computers and networks – and they do it for a reason.  Understanding the intent of an adversary helps developing analytic and detective strategies which can create more effective mitigation.  For example, if we know that an adversary is driven by financial data, maybe we should focus our efforts on assets that control and hold financial data instead of other places.

Axiom 3

Every system, and by extension every victim asset, has vulnerabilities and exposures.

What it means: vulnerabilities and exposures exist in every computer and every network.  We must assume assets can (and will) be breached – other express this notion as “assume breach.”

Axiom 4

Every malicious activity contains two or more phases which must be successfully executed in succession to achieve the desired result.

What it means: malicious activity takes place in multiple steps (at least two), and each step must be successful for the next to be successful.  One popular implementation of this axiom is the Kill Chain.  But, the Kill Chain was not the first to express this notion – another popular phase-based expression is from the classic, Hacking Exposed.

Axiom 5

Every intrusion event requires one or more external resources to be satisfied prior to success.

What it means: adversaries don’t exist in a vacuum, they require facilities, network connectivity, access to victim, software, hardware, etc.  These resources can also be their vulnerability when exploring mitigation options.

Axiom 6

A relationship always exists between the Adversary and their Victim(s) even if distant, fleeting, or indirect.

What it means: exploitation and compromise takes time and effort – adversaries don’t do it for no reason.  An adversary targeted and compromised a victim for a reason – maybe they were vulnerable to a botnet port scan because the adversary looks to compromise resources to enlarge the botnet, maybe the victim owns very specific intellectual property of interest to the adversary’s business requirements.  There is always a reason and a purpose.

Axiom 7

There exists a sub-set of the set of adversaries which have the motivation, resources, and capabilities to sustain malicious effects for a significant length of time against one or more victims while resisting mitigation efforts. Adversary-Victim relationships in this sub-set are called persistent adversary relationships.

What it means: what we call “persistence” (such as in Advanced Persistent Threat) is really an expression of the victim-adversary relationship.  Some adversaries need long-term access and sustained operations against a set of victims to achieve their intent.  Importantly, just because an adversary is persistent against one victim doesn’t mean they will be against all victims!  There is no universal “persistent” adversary.  It depends entirely on each relationship at that time.


There exists varying degrees of adversary persistence predicated on the fundamentals of the Adversary-Victim relationship.

What it means: not all persistence is created equal.  Some adversary-victim relationships are more persistent than others.  Sometime a victim will mitigate a years long intrusion only to be compromised again by the adversary that same week; at other times the adversary will never return.


Diamond Model or Kill Chain?

Rob MacGregor at PwC in “Diamonds or chains” asked , do you choose the Diamond Model or Kill Chain?  I get asked this question often.  The question assumes that the models are mutually exclusive when, in fact, they are not only complementary but interconnected.  Both models express fundamental elements of network exploitation in methods usable by network defenders.  You can’t expect complete intelligence or network defense without using both the Diamond Model and the Kill Chain.

Most understand that the Diamond Model expresses the first axiom encompassing the basic components of any malicious event: “For every intrusion event there exists an adversary taking a step towards an intended goal by using a capability over infrastructure against a victim to produce a result.”  However, most readers stop there, at page 15 – only 25% of the model.

Adversaries don’t just conduct one activity and move on – no, they must conduct several in a phased approach each successfully completing before the next.  As expressed on page 15 via Axiom 4: “Every malicious activity contains two or more phases which must be successfully executed in succession to achieve the desired result.” Axiom 4 effectively describes the Intrusion Kill Chain (section 3.2 of the Kill Chain).  Therefore, Events interconnect via Activity Threads which describe campaigns.

One may notice a great similarity between the figure describing key campaign indicators (Kill Chain pg. 8) and the Activity Threads illustration (Diamond Model pg. 31).  The two approaches interconnect at this point!

Diamond Model Activity Threads; The Diamond Model of Intrusion Analysis pg. 31

Diamond Model Activity Threads; The Diamond Model of Intrusion Analysis pg. 31











Dependent Events (composed of a victim, adversary, capability, victim) create Activity Threads across the Kill Chain.  These threads compose (using key campaign indicator analysis) adversary campaigns.  Ta Da!  The first interconnection between the two models.

The Diamond Model and Kill Chain analysis are highly complementary. Kill Chain analysis allows an analyst “to target and engage an adversary to create desired effects.” (Kill Chain pg. 4) The Diamond allows analysts to develop tradecraft and understanding to build and organize the knowledge necessary to execute the Kill Chain analysis.

  • Once an analyst develops an activity thread, courses of action for each event along the thread can be identified using the Kill Chain’s course of action matrix. As illustrated in the figures, courses of action for each of the Kill Chain stages are identified for activity threads. The power of the Diamond Model is that courses of action can be designed to span multiple victims and across the activity of an adversary making the actions even more powerful as they further reduce the capacity of the adversary.
  • Activity groups clustered by same likely adversary (i.e., clustering by attribution) with analysis of the largest common feature set amongst the events in a group can provide the Kill Chain’s required key campaign indicators necessary to focus and prioritize courses of actions.

In the end, don’t ask: do we use the Diamond Model or the Kill Chain. Instead ask: are you using them both effectively?

Threat Intelligence Definition: What is Old is New Again

Michael Cloppert, whom I hold in great esteem and friendship, argues for a new and unconventional definition of “cyber threat intelligence.”  His post is excellent and well-done.  His argument is simple: that the existing definitions of intelligence and cyber threat intelligence are lacking based on his professional experience of the domain and fail to capture its unique elements.   He offers several definitions:

Cyber threat operations as actions taken in cyberspace to compromise and defend protected information and capabilities available in that domain

Cyber Threat Intelligence Analysis as the analysis of those actions and the actors, tools, and techniques behind them so as to support Operations

I define the Cyber Threat Intelligence domain as the union of Cyber Threat Intelligence Operations and Analysis.

Michael Cloppert, Defining Cyber Threat Intelligence (2016)

I agree with his assessment that existing cyber threat intelligence definitions lack accuracy.  But, Mike’s definitions are too constrained by operations and lack inclusion of the key element of intelligence in any discipline: that intelligence serves to inform decision-making (whether that decision-making is of the technical/tactical nature such as in firewalls, or strategic at the executive level).  Intelligence doesn’t serve operations, intelligence serves decision-making which in turn drives operations to achieve policy outcomes.

Mike references some key CIA thought-pieces on their definitions of intelligence, namely by Martin T. Bimfort in A Definition of Intelligence. Mike is correct that taken at face value, Bimfort’s definition is too constrained with concern about national security to be of much value to cyber threat intelligence.

Intelligence is the collecting and processing of that information about foreign countries and their agents which is needed by a government for its foreign policy and for national security, the conduct of non-attributable activities abroad to facilitate the implementation of foreign policy, and the protection of both process and product, as well as persons and organizations concerned with these, against unauthorized disclosure.

Martin T. Bimfort’s definition of intelligence in A Definition of Intelligence

However, instead of taking Bimfort’s definition at face value, let’s instead look at its essence by removing the domain-specific (state-only) language.  By doing so, I arrive at the following revised definition:

Intelligence is the collecting and processing of that information about threats and their agents which is needed by an organization for its policy and for security, the conduct of non-attributable activities outside the organization’s boundaries to facilitate the implementation of policy, and the protection of both process and product, as well as persons and organizations concerned with these, against unauthorized disclosure.

This definition fits well what we do in cyber threat intelligence: we uncover the hidden threats to an organization (be it a company or country) to protect them against threats both attributable and non-attributable to enable their policy (which for a private company is to return value to shareholders), protect their operations, and prevent disclosure of secrets.

I propose that cyber threat intelligence is nothing more than the application of intelligence principles and tradecraft to information security.  Its outcome is nothing different from traditional intelligence: to inform and empower decision-making at all levels with knowledge of threats.  We don’t require a radical new definition of cyber threat intelligence, because the traditional definitions of intelligence are applicable by simply broadening them outside of their state-only constraint.

EDIT: Robert M. Lee blogged in response – “Intelligence Defined and its Impact on Cyber Threat Intelligence“.  He came to the conclusion that the definition is, “the process and product resulting from the interpretation of raw data into information that meets a requirement as it relates to the adversaries that have the intent, opportunity and capability to do harm.”


The Darker Side of Threat Intelligence: Cyber Stockholm Syndrome

Stockholm Syndrome is a psychological phenomenon described in 1973 in which hostages express empathy and sympathy and have positive feelings toward their captors, sometimes to the point of defending and identifying with the captors. - Wikipedia

Maturing as a threat intelligence analyst involves “living with your threat.”  In my interview process I ask potential analysts about threats they’ve tracked in their career.  Tracking a threat for months or years creates a unique learning environment and I look for that in analysts.  Unsurprisingly, in that environment an analyst becomes intimate with the adversary’s routines, their interests, and even begins to distinguish characteristics of individuals from within a larger group.  An analyst gets truly connected when they can successfully predict a threat’s activity.

However, while this sounds like an analytic panacea and also something threat intelligence production cells strive to build, it comes at a cost.  The risk is that analysts go beyond being closely connected and become “married” to a threat.  In living with that threat every day, spending all of your professional time studying them, spending hundreds of hours discussing them with others, it is impossible not to closely connect with the adversary on the other side of your screen.  Analysts become personally attached to the “bad guys” – a “Cyber Stockholm Syndrome.”  I personally know analysts who have fallen into depression when their threat goes away.

Not only is this unhealthy for the analyst, this relationship also affects their communication and infects their analytic capabilities reducing objectivity.

Symptoms of “Cyber Stockholm Syndrome”

  • An analyst gets particularly protective and defensive regarding perceived encroachment on their territory
  • An analyst unnecessarily hides intelligence and data to prevent others from knowing details helping to maintain their superiority
  • Overwhelming and obvious confirmation bias – an analyst “seeing their threat in everything”
  • An unwillingness to work on other threats even given clear direction and obvious priorities
  • An analyst continues to work on a threat even after the threat is “gone” against overwhelming evidence and analytic consensus

What may cause this?

One hypothesis: an analyst may associate their self-worth with an adversary.  As the analyst grows in mastery of knowledge of an adversary, they produce spectacular intelligence and amazing insight providing great value to others; this results in praise from leaders and admiration from peers creating a feedback loop.  The cycle strengthens the bond the analyst builds with a threat as the threat continues to provide value to the analyst.

What should happen?

When this happens managers may respond by immediately separating the analyst from the threat.  I don’t believe that is the right answer.  Separation causes resentment and potential psychological problems such as depression.  Instead, managers of analysts should look to slowly incorporate other analysts into the equation and ultimately strive to return the analyst to a proper relationship so they don’t lose that valuable expertise.

Most importantly, analysts must recognize this problem in themselves.  For their own professional and personal well-being.

Additional Discussion

Chris Sanders (@chrissanders88) made an excellent point that Stockholm Syndrome requires empathy with an aggressor which is lacking in my description.  I agree that the syndrome’s description includes that requirement but its exclusion from the DSM means there is no consistent definition.  Further, active academic discussion on the topic includes whether Stockholm Syndrome actually exists or is really one facet of a larger aggressor-bonding trait. While empathy is not the right aspect of the bond I describe here there is an attachment bond created either through the return on investment (ROI) the analyst receives through the adversary or otherwise.  This is evidenced by both the confirmation bias present and the sense of depression described by analysts.  I agree that the application of the Stockholm Syndrome may be imprecise.

Pie Chart

Keeping up with the Stream: How I Maintain External Situational Awareness

In any field related to intelligence and security it is critical to stay abreast with external news and developments.  But, your time is a zero-sum game and all security and intelligence analysts must balance their time “reading the news” (consuming news from others) with “creating the news” (generating new intelligence and insight for others) – this is how I view my work time strategically.  Building tools and techniques to more efficiently “read the news” allows you to spend more time “creating the news.”  So it is no surprise that I get asked regularly what I do to stay connected with the world and the community.  Here is my answer, for my particular situation and need.  Mileage will vary.

For me, the key is to take advantage of curated news/information streams instead of curating it myself.  However, just like relying on any one news source, relying on one or a few curators for your news will quickly introduce you to the bias of the curators themselves.  Therefore, I don’t rely entirely on this method and also self-curate to a small extent to lower that risk.

I organize my professional reading into three categories: world, profession (computer science/security/analysis/data science), and discipline (threat intelligence).  Usually, I begin by reading the world news, followed by threat intelligence, and lastly information I need about my profession.  I feel that this appropriately prioritizes my time and gives me the best perspective to solve problems throughout the day.

Here is my particular strategy:

  1. I begin with the top stories on Google News and then to the Economist.  I then browse the front page of Reddit.  Together this gives me a healthy sense of major events in the larger world.  This is critical because my discipline is heavily influenced by larger world events.  However, within this set I also focus my time reading articles which have direct impact on areas of world my daily work touches.
  2. I read curated security and intelligence emails: Team Cymru Dragon News Bytes; SANS NewsBites (weekly); and two others which come from paid services via my employer.
  3. Twitter.  I use key hashtags and user lists to pare down the stream to a consumable chunk.  This is very much an art form and I’ve yet to feel a mastery.
  4. RSS Feeds.  I use Feedly to curate my RSS feeds.  However, over time I’ve found that my other strategies tend to surface most of the gems from the feeds.
  5. If I have time, I’ll then use a financial news site to browse the news about my company as well as major players in cyber security to maintain awareness about the larger business pressures and events which may impact my work.
  6. Return to Twitter.  About 2-3 times/day I’ll return to Twitter to scroll through tweets by key hashtags and user lists to make sure I find anything critical right away.

The Long & Important Ones

About once-per-day I find a white paper or article on which I want to focus and absorb.  For those, I print them out (yes, on paper) and read them later with a pen in my hand so that I practice Active Reading; making marks, underlining, and making comments which help me absorb the material and create an internal conversation.  I find this a highly enjoyable activity which stimulates creativity and engagement helping to foster new ideas.

How do you maintain your external situational awareness?  Please comment below or tweet @cnoanalysis


13 Principles of Threat Intelligence Communication

I have written at length about bad threat intelligence.  However, I think it is time that I spend the effort communicating my key principles to making great threat intelligence.  One aspect of great threat intelligence is great communication.  As I have said before, you may be the greatest analyst in the world, but if you can’t effectively communicate your knowledge then it is of little use.

I’ve found these principles apply to all modes of my communication when discussing threat intelligence with others.  They’ve guided me well and I hope they do the same for you.

Answer the Three Questions

All threat intelligence communication should work towards answering three critical questions, if you clearly articulate the answer to these questions your communication will be generally successful.

  1. What is it? (give me the information)
  2. Why should I care? (tell me about the threat and its relevance to me)
  3. What am I going to do? (enable my decision and action)

Maintain Your Focus

Focus is key to your communication – understand your audience and your objective and maintain that throughout.  Here are some elements which help me:

  • Remember the four qualities of good intelligence (CART): completeness, accuracy, relevance, and timeliness.  Fulfill them as best you can.
  • Remember the purpose of threat intelligence to inform and enable effective decision-making, whether that be tactical/technical, operational, or strategic.  You don’t need to provide EVERYTHING, only that which will support and enhance the intelligence.
  • Length matters: your communication should be as long as it needs to be but never longer than it should be.  Here’s a secret: it’s okay to not communicate everything in one vehicle – sometimes separating the material makes the threat intelligence more effective.
  • Don’t derail your audience.  After reading your 30 page report, make sure I know the value of the information and that you’ve addressed the key questions.  For example: don’t all of a sudden drop an unrelated element in your conclusion just because you want to make a point.

Analytic Integrity is All You Have

Intelligence is about trust.  When people can’t independently verify your findings and conclusions (which most won’t/can’t) then they must trust you.  You must create, support, and encourage that trust by practicing analytic integrity in your communications.  If you break that trust you lose your integrity and nobody will listen to you. Here are some of my rules to creating and encouraging trust with your audience:

  1. Don’t lie – if you don’t know, just say that
  2. Don’t embellish – don’t use hyperbole or language which might cause an over-reaction
  3. Don’t plagiarize – never intentionally (and avoid accidents) copy the work of another
  4. Practice humility – hubris infers overcompensation for weakness, be bold but not stupid

Be a Storyteller

Threat intelligence is a story – tell it as one.  Threat intelligence should have a beginning, middle, and an end.  Engage your audience.

The Summary IS the Communication

I know it sounds weird, but your summary is the most important part of your communication.  This is what people will remember and what they’ll rely on most afterwards.  For many, this is the only part to which they’ll pay attention.  The summary (or key points, etc.) should be par excellence.  I instruct analysts to spend at least 20% of their time on their summary and conclusion – it is that important.

As the old adage goes: “tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you told them.”  This is CRITICAL advice and not often heeded by technical analysts.

However, I want to caution you.  Others suggest that following this old adage only bores an audience.  I agree that it is a pitfall for most, only because many follow the guidance without understanding it.  Avoid the summary and conclusion containing the same bullet points or phrasing – that is boring.  However, your summary/introduction/key points/etc.  and your conclusion should carry your key message and information, but in different ways.

Language Matters

The language you use greatly determines the effectiveness of your communication.

  • Use Active Voice – this isn’t some joke or regurgitation of high-school English.  It matters.  Active voice has been proven to decrease ambiguity and increase comprehension.  It improves your intelligence.
    • Science: “Certain syntactic constructions are known to cause the processor to work harder than others. Sentences with passive verbs are more difficult to comprehend than those with active verbs (Gough 1966; Slobin 1966; Olson and Filby 1972; Ferreira 2003) since they not only reverse the standard subject-verb-object order of the participants but are often used without a byphrase , which omits one participant altogether and can obscure the grammatical relations.”
  • Use Estimative Probability – judgements, hypotheses, and conclusions are never 100% certain; use words of estimative probability to clarify your certainty to your audience.
  • Clarity wins over all – don’t use complex language when simple will do.
  • Minimize subjective qualifications – avoid words/phrases like (sophisticated adversary) or (complex encryption) unless you can measure them either objectively or in comparison with others.  These phrases only add ambiguity.
  • Words mean things – don’t dilute your language or create a phrase when one already exists.
  • Analysis is not a religion – don’t use the word believe; hold measured judgements expressed in language differentiating fact and hypothesis.

Value Your Audience

Value their intelligence and their time.  They are not fish caught by click-bait or hyperbole but respected for their interest in your work.  Your audience is spending time with you because they think you have something valuable to communicate and they have come to learn something new – GIVE IT TO THEM!  Or, they will leave you.

Images are Powerful

Use images strategically to tell your story, reinforce critical concepts, and increase accessibility and understanding.  Images should not become overwhelming, distracting, or superfluous.

Write for Your Future Self

Communicating intelligence and analysis is HARD.  It’s hard because you’re trying to take a very complex cognitive process and share that with others.  I’m not the only one who has read something they wrote a year ago only to scratch my head and wonder what I was smoking.  I’ve found that to make this easy I simply imagine that I’m communicating to my future self – say 1, 2, or 3 years from now.  This helps ensure that I include important details which are obvious now but will be lost later.  Further, it ensures that I make my logic chains clear and easily followed by others.

Don’t be an Island

Be part of the community.  Respect the community.  Expand on the work of others and fill in knowledge gaps.  Confirm others’ findings and add support to their conclusions or hypotheses.  Add exculpatory evidence and provide alternative hypotheses.  And here’s a secret: it’s okay to point to the analysis of others in your communication – you don’t always have to self-reference.  This actually adds value for your audience and makes you more valuable to them because they trust you’re going to tell them the whole story – not just your story.

Respect Your Adversaries

Don’t belittle adversaries in your threat intelligence.  Don’t give them undue credit, but also don’t take away from their effectiveness.  This will only lead to hubris – and hubris is deadly.  We all know of an analyst who called a threat “unsophisticated” or “simple” only to later report a massive compromise.

Be Bold, Be Honest, Be Right, But Always Be Willing to be Wrong

I’ve said it before, I like my analysis like I enjoy my coffee, bold.  I want analysts to be analysts – not reporters.  I want to hear ideas, conjecture, assessment, opinions.  I want those clearly separated from the facts.

Separate Fact From Everything Else

This is a pretty simple rule.  But harder to follow in practice while working through a complex analysis.  Strive to use language, format, font, etc. to separate fact from hypothesis.  Because threat intelligence enables decision-making, decision makers (whether a SOC analyst, a CIO, or whoever) should make their own judgement based on your analysis.  If your facts and hypotheses are indistinguishable it is highly likely they’ll make poor decisions based on misinterpreted analysis.

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