How to establish a threat intelligence program

Instituting an in-house cyber threat intelligence (CTI) program as part of the larger cybersecurity efforts can bring about many positive outcomes:

  • The organization may naturally switch from a reactive cybersecurity posture to a predictive, proactive one.
  • The security team may become more efficient and better prepared for detecting threats, preventing security incidents and data breaches, and reacting to active cyber intrusions.
  • The exchange of pertinent threat intelligence with other organizations may improve collaboration and preparedness.

But these positive results are dependent of several things.

threat intelligence program

Some may think that, for example, cybersecurity is directly proportionate to the amount of threat intelligence they collect.

In reality, though, threat intelligence information can only serve their organization to the extent that they are able to digest the information and rapidly operationalize and deploy countermeasures.

“You may collect information on an ongoing or future threat to your organization to include who the threat actor is, what are they going after, what is the tactic they will utilize to get in your network, how are they going to move laterally, how are they going to exfil information and when will the activity take place. You can collect all the relevant threat information but without the infrastructure in place to analyze the large amount of data coming in, the organization will not succeed in successfully orienting themselves and acting upon the threat information,” Santiago Holley, Global Threat Intelligence Lead at Thermo Fisher Scientific, told Help Net Security.

Working towards a threat intelligence program

Holley has worked in multiple threat intelligence and cyber positions over the past ten years, including a stint as a Threat Intelligence Lead with the FBI, and this allows him to offer some advice to security leaders that have been tasked with setting up a robust threat intelligence program for their organization.

One of the first steps towards establishing a threat intelligence program is to know your risk tolerance and set your priorities early, he says. While doing that, it’s important to keep in mind that it’s not possible to prevent every potential threat.

“Understand what data is most important to you and prioritize your limited resources and staff to make workloads manageable and keep your company safe,” he advised.

“Once you know your risk tolerance you need to understand your environment and perform a comprehensive inventory of internal and external assets to include threat feeds that you have access to. Generally, nobody knows your organization better than your own operators, so do not go on a shopping spree for tools/services without an inventory of what you do/don’t have.

After all that’s out of the way, it’s time to automate security processes so that you can free your limited talented cybersecurity personnel and have them focus their efforts where they will be most effective.

“Always be on the lookout for passionate, qualified and knowledge-thirsty internal personnel that WANT to pivot to threat intelligence and develop them. Having someone that knows your organization, its culture, people and wants to grow goes a long way compared to the unknowns of bringing external talent,” he opined.

The importance of explaining risk

To those who are still fighting to get buy-in for a TI program from the organization’s executives and board members, he advises providing contextualized threat intelligence.

“You must put potential threats in terms that are meaningful to your audience such as how much risk a threat poses in terms of potential damage alongside which assets and data are at risk,” he explained.

“Many times business managers are focused on generating revenue and may see threat intelligence as an unnecessary expense. It is important for security leaders to communicate risk to their business managers and how those contribute to unnecessary cost and time delays if not addressed.”

He also advises getting to know the people they are working with and start building a professional working relationship. “The success of the program correlates to the strength of your team and how successful they are in collaborating and communicating with business managers.”

Avoiding burnout

Cyber threat intelligence is one of the key tools information security operation centers (SOCs) use to carry out their mission. While helpful, it’s also one of the many little things that add to the mounting pile of stress SOC teams often feel.

SOC analysts are tasked with keeping up with the organization’s security needs and getting end users to understand cybersecurity risks and change their behavior, but are often dealing with an overwhelming workload and constant emergencies and disruptions that take analysts away from their primary tasks.

Burnout is often lurking and ready to “grab” SOC team members, so Holley advises them to implement a number of techniques to manage stress:

  • Identify the problem. Understand what is specifically causing your stress in the first place, a good way of doing this is via root cause analysis. Peel the layers of the problem and understand the root
  • Control your time. Take control of your time by blocking your calendar and give yourself time to focus on your own tasks and avoid being oversaturated with meetings
  • Pick your battles. If you are going to go to war, make sure it is worth it. Avoid being dragged into confrontations that ultimately do not matter
  • Stay healthy. Working out has many benefits when it comes to stress reduction, it gives you the opportunity to focus on something for YOU.

“Today’s cyber security environment is challenging and requires analysts to react to changes quickly and effectively. It seems that there is a never-ending demand on flexible intellectual skills and the ability to analyze information and integrate different sources of knowledge to address challenges,” Holley noted.

His own preferred thinking process for making the most appropriate decisions as quickly as possible is the OODA loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act).

“Risk management and being able to sort through large amounts of information and prioritize what needs to be actioned right away helps with problem solving. Keeping a cool head during difficult situations aids critical thinking but also allows for professional interactions with coworkers and stakeholders,” he concluded.

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How to establish a threat intelligence program