What is Cyber Threat Hunting?

  • By Bryan Lee
  • Oct 27, 2023

What is Cyber Threat Hunting

There’s a natural yin and yang relationship in the cyber security sphere. Black hatters find new attack strategies, and white hatters patch them up. This relationship continues in an endless cycle. Describing things this way makes the white hatters sound very reactive, and they are reactive in most ways. However, one aspect of the field has the good guys take a far more proactive role.

Organizations can no longer ignore a threat for months before finding a solution. In that time, an intruder could decrypt sensitive information and steal high-level access information. Cyber threat hunting enables security professionals to identify criminals before they can do much damage.

What Is Cyber Threat Hunting?

Threat hunting is the act of combing through various parts of an organization’s technology infrastructure to find signs of bad actors. The security team takes the initiative to sweep through endpoints, networks, and controls rather than wait for a significant and obvious indicator.

This process should be included in any robust cyber security plan because traditional, automated tools only detect 80 percent of threats. The remaining attacks are too sophisticated to get caught by passive approaches and go unnoticed for an average of 9 months.

Threat Hunting Vs. Threat Intelligence

Threat Hunting and Threat Intelligence are separate but connected parts of cyber security. The latter refers to a database of detected attacks. These attacks are analyzed and used to improve security systems through machine learning.

In other words, threat intelligence tells passive programs like anti-virus software what to flag as dangerous. So, if you’re denied access to a particular website, there’s a high chance that the site is connected to a known threat or one of common cyber attacks.

Threat hunting uses intelligence databases to root out existing threats proactively. The hunts aim to find bad actors that break in before security protocols can adapt. Hunters look at current intelligence to create hypotheses of what to look for.

How Does Cyber Threat Hunting Work?

Cyber threat hunts can only run smoothly if the proper infrastructure exists. The organization must constantly collect data about its various systems as this clues in hunters about what constitutes abnormal activity. Having this in place is the bare minimum for a successful campaign.

In most cases, a team of IT professionals evaluates historical and incoming data. Because they’re actively analyzing threat intelligence, they can consider different possibilities than artificial intelligence. Their input lets them complement passive security systems and detect the more sophisticated threats that fall through.

The four steps of a threat-hunting campaign include:

Forming a Hypothesis

The threat hypothesis is the jumping-off point of the endeavor. Rather than a hypothesis, it might be better to call it a suspicion. The team considers possible risks a bad actor can exploit based on an organization’s infrastructure and current intelligence. The hunt predicts the bad actor’s next steps, assuming they broke through a hypothetical weakness.

By definition, this means that something must ‘tip’ the hunters off before they act, and the process isn’t entirely autonomous. Still, it’s much more proactive than waiting for people to report failing accounts or stolen identities.

Initiating the Search

Having an in-house team handle a threat hunt is ideal because they’re already familiar with the status quo. They know how each system is supposed to look and can more easily recognize when a dataset falls outside the norm. The search is all about finding these abnormalities and confirming the validity of the hypothesis.

Learn the Patterns

Unlike artificial intelligence, cyber threat hunters can’t automatically upload millions of data points into their brains. Instead, they must look at the data and try to figure out what enabled an attack that AI missed to create a reasonable response plan.

The team’s response often addresses more human elements, such as banning individuals or changing employee authorizations. Threat hunters will gradually learn the mindsets of the hackers targeting their organization and how to better respond in the future.

Patch it Up and Start Again

Removing the threat and creating a response plan isn’t the end. As we said at the start of this article, cyber security is entangled in a never-ending war. Criminals will find workarounds to your team’s solutions, and the hunters must find them again.

Threat Hunting Investigation Types

Every hunt starts with a hypothesis created by an anomaly in an organization’s data. Different hypotheses call for changes in how the investigation is carried out.

Structured Hunting

Structured hunts are used for hypotheses where it’s assumed a threat actor has already broken in. They consider this after noticing an Indicator of Attack (IOA), which identifies the goal of an attacker and the likely techniques they’ll employ. The investigation uses these signs to predict how the attacker will attack and is often fast enough to prevent damage.

Unstructured Hunting

Unstructured hunting has less to work with and is more likely to create a false positive. They’re based on hypotheses made through Indicators of Compromise (IoC), which are clues that point toward a security breach. Unstructured investigations focus on detecting patterns from prior cases to identify the attacker’s intent.

Benefits of Cyber Threat Hunting

There are clear benefits to proactively going after cyber threats rather than waiting to see ransomware on your devices. Not only do you remove the attackers dramatically faster, but you can protect your reputation when it’s reported to the public.

Reduces the Cost of a Breach

In 2023, the average cost of a data breach was USD 4.45 million. The more massive violations somewhat inflate this number, but it’s undeniable that cyber threats have severe consequences. Employing cyber threat hunting can help reduce the cost of a breach to nothing, and even catching it within a month is estimated to reduce the cost by a million dollars.

Creates Better Data Infrastructure

Creating a solid data infrastructure and intelligence system is the priority for successful data hunting. However, the collected data is helpful for so much more than cyber security. Properly using your organization’s data helps to optimize processes and cut the fat from daily operations. It also plays a significant role in assisting internal investigations.

Raises the Skills of Your Security Team

Threat hunting requires a specific skill set. Along with familiarity with the organization, threat hunters should have skills in forensic analysis, networking, reverse engineering, and many other areas. Hiring for these skills will automatically raise the quality of your security team and better protect you in other areas as well.

Instead of hiring new members, it may be best to encourage your existing IT team to pursue certifications in relevant fields. Reward them for studying new threats and encourage them to teach others.

Reduces the Risk of False Positives

Artificial intelligence flags any file or action that poses the slightest threat. This is a great thing about AI, but it also creates a lot of annoying false positives. Threat hunting is a heavily manual process that reduces the number of threats passing through artificial intelligence.

While it’s tedious to address every false positive, it’s even more dangerous to desensitize yourself to them. Some of the most significant data breaches of the past decade were caused by a team member ignoring a possible threat because it looked like a common false positive.

Challenges of Cyber Threat Hunting

Cyber threat hunting attempts to bolster automated security measures using human proactivity. Doing so requires significant qualifications and infrastructure from an organization. There are two requirements for a threat-hunting program to be successful:

Finding the Right Hunters

Threat hunting is a human endeavor. Finding and training the right professionals for your organization is a requirement. They must understand your infrastructure well enough to notice and jump on red flags intuitively.

Hiring the right talent often means spending a decent amount of money. This is a challenge in itself for smaller businesses. However, finding someone early and training them alongside your operations is a worthwhile investment.

Setting Up the Right Infrastructure

You can get the best hunters in the world, but they can’t do anything without all the data. Organizations must build an infrastructure that seamlessly records and sorts data into ways your team can understand.

Hunters require complete visibility into all operations to notice when something goes wrong quickly. Without this element, there is no hypothesis; the team just repeats the work that AI security programs can do.

Keep Yourself Informed About Cyber Threats

Improving the cyber security of your organization is a tall task. The number of threats increases by the day, and staying up to date with them is a near-impossible task. This makes initiating a threat-hunting campaign even more complicated since it requires proper groundwork and cyber hygiene to begin with.

If you want to learn how to prepare your organization for the future, contact our team at IDStrong to learn how to safeguard your data best. We keep a library of posts designed to educate you on how to scale your business alongside the growing importance of cyber security.

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