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The Dollars and “Sense” Behind Threat Intelligence Sharing

Pay now or pay later

Within the ThreatConnect Intelligence Research Team (TCIRT), we feel that sharing what we know, whether publicly or privately, helps to grow our organization.  We see information sharing as a key investment area, allowing our team to more efficiently save time and money while helping us achieve broader organizational goals.

We recognize that Threat Intelligence is not a one size fits all solution, but rather a series of tailored processes.  We also see significant benefits to organizations that implement even the most modest Threat Intelligence sharing processes.  As a resource constrained organization ourselves, we understand how limited budgets, thin staffing rosters, and busy schedules can impact an organization's ability to consume, produce, and share fully analyzed Threat Intelligence.

The lack of resources is one of the strongest arguments an organization can make for adopting more comprehensive Threat Intelligence processes.  This is especially true for those who are new to Threat Intelligence consumption, development and sharing discussions.  Many newcomers struggle with identifying their specific intelligence requirements and key data points needed to conduct a broader cost-benefit analysis.  This analysis is critical when evaluating new business investment decisions, and Threat Intelligence programs are no different.

Below, we discuss observations and metrics associated with the TCIRT's Threat Intelligence sharing for the third quarter (Q3) 2013.  We highlight how straightforward it is for motivated organizations to share information regardless of their Threat Intelligence maturity level as consumers /producers of Threat Intelligence.  We review the time it takes to produce actionable Threat Intelligence and how automation makes this process quicker and more affordable.  We highlight some of the organizational benefits recognized by Threat Intelligence contributors as compared to the "naysayers" and information sharing holdouts.

It Takes a Village
We often come across those who are new to the Threat Intelligence sharing scene and although they understand Threat Intelligence should be a priority for them, many are intimidated by the perceived challenges and costs associated with it.  They are the motivated "99%'ers" (as highlighted in a recent Forrester Study), they lack the knowledge or resources to start their journey into the world of Threat Intelligence.  Often, this is the case because they are lacking two key ingredients, Trust and Community.  The majority of organizations are forced to navigate the day-to-day threat landscape alone.  This can also ring true following a major enterprise breach.  After the experts have packed up and gone home, most organizations are left to fend for themselves with only modest security budgets.

Fortunately, the Information Security industry is a highly relational one.  For years it has been collaborating through trusted, email based groups and list servers.  As organizations begin to collaborate and open up with one another, trust is subsequently established, analytic work is broadly recognized, working relationships expand, and collaboration occurs organically.

It is important to realize that these communities and relationships are the essential, non-technical ingredients that enable Threat Intelligence Sharing.  Of the communities that exist, many consist of members with varying levels of experience. As they expand their relationships and professional networks, they earn the trust of their peers and are brought into private communities where information is shared.

Within ThreatConnect, members have the ability to join or create Public or Private Communities and populate them with members of their choosing. The ThreatConnect team demonstrated this by deploying two Communities.  The first was the "Common" (Public) Community, established as an open resource for all ThreatConnect users. Members of the Common Community may choose to self-identity or participate anonymously.  The second community established was the "Subscriber" (a Private) Community.  This Community is a resource for vetted premium ThreatConnect users.  The members of the Subscriber Community also have the option of self-identifying or anonymous participation.

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Figure1

In Q3 2013 more than half of the information the TCIRT shared was done so with our Common Community (Figure1). Much of this information was derived from a variety of publicly available industry sources and enriched to provide more targeted and actionable data.

When we consider that our adversaries are dynamic, static Threat Intelligence reporting provides limited benefits to consuming analysts and organizations. ThreatConnect "Shares" update as the threat changes or as analysts refine their knowledge around a given incident, and provide the analyst with the needed leverage to keep up with the threat. ThreatConnect Shares extend the ability of an analyst or automation (through the ThreatConnect API) to "check in" on an incident or threat to see any updates.  In all cases, ThreatConnect Common Community Shares were automatically associated with related incidents and dynamically updated as the threat changed.  All the while Community members were enabled to enrich this information with additional context.

The TCIRT was responsible for delivering 44% of all shared information within Q3 to the Subscriber Community. The data used to develop content for the exclusive Subscriber Community was based primarily upon independent TCIRT threat discovery, development and enrichment processes.  TCIRT is actively looking for updates to existing threats as well as finding new and emergent threats.  Alongside community specific sharing, 5% of Threat Intelligence was shared system wide across all ThreatConnect Communities.

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Figure 2

Since mid-September, an additional five private ThreatConnect Communities have been established.  These private Communities currently support over 200 private ThreatConnect subscribers who have been vetted and invited to join the respective private Community by their Community Administrators.  This is one of the strongest examples of the information sharing ingredients coming together to establish Communities.  Here, it took leadership, trust, and motivated participants within a private ThreatConnect Community, enabling distributed users to privately collaborate in an effort to develop, track and share Threat Intelligence.

ThreatConnect Information Sharing Metrics: Q3 2013
In the third quarter of 2013, the TCIRT produced 143 "Shares" across our Common and Subscriber Communities.  These "Shares" consisted of individual ThreatConnect container elements such as Incidents, Threats, Emails, and Adversaries.  Within these container elements, many atomic-level threat indicators exist, such as malicious IP Addresses, Domains, Email Addresses, URLs, File hashes and their associated relationships, attributes, and detection signatures and metadata.

ThreatConnect "Shares" are not what many within the industry consider a traditional Threat Intelligence "feed".  Many organizations obtain feeds of raw information, requiring the user to retain and mine the data feed for information of value and analyze it themselves.  ThreatConnect eliminates the "wheat from the chaff" problem with dedicated analysts, as well as Community contributors, who are actively correlating, enriching, and digging deep into what would otherwise be a raw threat data feed with unprocessed indicators.

As a ThreatConnect "Share", the information has already been triaged and analyzed indepth and distributed in a portable and structured manner with rich context.  Shares are also dynamic in that they can update as the threat changes or as analytic understanding of a threat changes.

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Figure 3

The production metrics in Figure 3 show the number of shares in July (39) and August (42) are relatively consistent.  In both months, the TCIRT, on average, shared more than one incident per day.  The number of shares in September (62) jumped 47%.  This spike was a direct result of ThreatConnect establishing the private Subscriber community exclusively for premium ThreatConnect customers, who receive daily threat research from the TCIRT.

The TCIRT's ability to produce more Threat Intelligence and deliver it to an increasing set of customers without additional analytic resources, demonstrates a use case that many organizations will appreciate.  Many groups struggle with an ever-increasing workload but are not given additional resources to offset the burden.  Through automation and streamlined Threat Intelligence production processes, analytic tasks and production times may be reduced, allowing analysts to do more with less.

Throughout Q3, TCIRT provided additional context by proactively including Snort and YARA signatures within the attributes section of the "Shares." Adding these signatures enable analysts to hunt for, classify or mitigate threats within their enterprise.  These signatures, coupled with ThreatConnect's export feature, allowed organizations to repurpose TCIRT research and signatures for their unique Threat Intelligence requirements within their own enterprises and sensors.

ThreatConnect To Enable Home Grown Solutions
One example of how organizations are adopting ThreatConnect "Shares" to support existing organizational process and data management systems is NATO's Computer Incident Response Capability (NCIRC).  As the authors of the Malware Information Sharing Platform (MISP), NCIRC has created the functionality to import information shared within ThreatConnect into their own malware analysis-sharing platform.

misp

As previously highlighted, Threat Intelligence is not a "one size fits all" solution; it comes in many shapes and sizes and is used in many ways by different consumer types.  It is important that those who develop and share information ensure that it is of value, structured, and portable.  Meeting these criteria ensures the shared information can be operationalized by a variety of consumers and used within their unique knowledge management systems equally supporting their unique business process.

Ain't Nobody Got Time For That
Most have heard the saying that "time is money".  This is especially true within the security industry.  Resourced and budget constrained organizations alike need to understand how much time it takes to produce, operationalize, and share information.  This understanding demonstrates the direct "tangible" value of sharing information brings to the organization.  The formula is quite simple, once we understand how long something takes to do, we can then make estimations on the value by factoring an organization's specific labor and operating costs.

In the case of ThreatConnect "Shares", the TCIRT can turn to our production metrics associated with information shared in our "Common" and "Subscriber" Communities.   The illustration in Figure 4 shows the average total time it took for a single security analyst to discover, develop and disseminate content that was shared within both Communities.  Using ThreatConnect, the amount of time TCIRT used to develop a "Share" declined from an average 3.24 hours in July to 3.29 hours in August and finally to 2.18 hours in September.

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Figure 4

The 33% total reduction in Threat Intelligence production times in September, despite an increasing workload for the TCIRT (Figure 3), is due to increased efficiency through ThreatConnect's automation with optimized organizational analytic workflows. This resulted in increased efficiencies and decreasing the total time it takes to discover, develop and share Threat Intelligence.

In addition to the challenges of an increasing workload, many Threat Intelligence teams are challenged with finding the balance between timeliness and accuracy associated with the production of Threat Intelligence.  ThreatConnect has allowed the TCIRT to place an increased emphasis in producing timely Threat Intelligence enabling Community members to act quickly while having the flexibility to dynamically update analysis as new information becomes available.

No Secret Sauce Please
In some cases customers will ask, "What are your sources of information?" The answer is quite simple; the TCIRT conducts "All Source" analysis.  TCIRT information comes from a variety of sources that are fused together.  As our communities and sharing relationships mature, our network of sources, partners and contributors also increase.

It is from these many sources that we also aim to merge our knowledge with the research that is being done elsewhere within the industry.  Over time, this shared perspective reveals overlaps where many narrow perspectives are fused together to provide a wide aperture and understanding of a larger threat.

With all of these overlapping perspectives, intelligence gaps often emerge.  In most cases, we include details of the sources of information whenever possible so ThreatConnect users can always reference the information used to develop the analysis.  This allows them to have a reference point should a recipient choose to make their own assessment based on the information made available.

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Figure 5

As seen within Figure 5, these raw sources of information are often the very same that others within the industry use to develop or augment their own analysis.  The key difference is that rarely are these individual events archived and dynamically fused with other disparate events in order to address both the technical and non-technical aspects of a particular security event or targeting campaign.  This brings immense value for an organization that does not have the analytic manpower to monitor, review and synthesize these public sources of information on a daily basis.

The TCIRT tracks and follows many of these public sources of information and fuses it on behalf of our users.  This is a simple demonstration in time reclamation and highlights how organizations can directly benefit from the time saving efforts of another ThreatConnect user who chooses to share information within any of the Communities or directly through Peer-to-Peer sharing.

There are also instances where both individuals and organizations will desire to share information with the TCIRT but ask us to disseminate that information with our Communities on their behalf.  Using TCIRT to anonymously post Threat Intelligence allows us to warn a large network of potential victims and to elicit feedback from a broader spectrum of ThreatConnect users.

Show Me the Money
Organizations that do not have resources often need additional information to help them understand the value of taking action.  The following hypothetic scenario outlines a tangible use case where quantifiable resources are saved through collaborative analytic exchanges within ThreatConnect.

ACME Corp. identifies that they were targeted by a spearphishing message. On average, it takes an ACME Corp. Security Analyst, at $50/hour, three hours to discover, develop and share information with 1,400+ ThreatConnect users within ThreatConnects public Common Community.  What return can ACME's leadership expect to get back in return for that $150,  three hour investment?

  • Historic Context: The ACME Corp. Security Analyst has retained and documented details of this targeting attempt for historical context, any future ACME Corp. Security Analyst or decision maker has continuity of the associated details to compare with other security events.  This institutional knowledge is memorialized for ACME Corp. despite personnel changes within the security team.
  • Exponential Return on Initial Time Investment: If just 1% of 1,400+ ThreatConnect users respond by each spending 1 hour, adding a single indicator with enrichments and context to the original information shared, ACME Corp. will obtain 14 additional hours of distributed analytics at no additional cost.
  • Increased Visibility & Indicator Identification:  If the 14 ThreatConnect users add a single indicator that was previously unidentified within the original ACME Corp. security event, the ACME Corp. security team has an increased dataset where any number of these new indicators could be used to identify evidence of intrusion attempts, network breaches or for pre-positioning indicators within ACME Corp's defensive sensors.
  • Distributed Defense: All ThreatConnect users would have access to the shared information and would be equally enabled to export and act on the information for network defense purposes based on the total 14-hour time investment.

Conclusion
In recent months, there have been opinion pieces and white papers written that discuss the associated challenges of Threat Intelligence sharing.  While these discussions and debates are occurring, there are numerous individuals and organizations benefiting within informal underground sharing circles, as well as formalized corporate sharing communities.

We have heard from policy makers and government officials that as a nation we need to share cyber Threat Intelligence.  Currently, our industry participates in both formal and informal sharing circles.  Analysts share and "leach" information but why is it, at the end of the day, we are still facing the same challenges?  The problem is that we are not asking the right questions.  We should be asking, "Is NOT sharing information ultimately more costly than investing in Threat Intelligence sharing processes?"

It is the dollars and cents associated with Threat Intelligence sharing that will be the primary motivator that forces our organizations and industries to adopt the implementation, practice, and perfection of it.  The economic benefits of sharing will drive the adoption of the practice, much like previous generations adopted steam powered engines, assembly lines and the telegraph.

Money, protecting and saving it, is what it all comes down to.  Our policies and technical solutions will only go so far.  As threats persist against our enterprises we must have self-awareness of our strengths and weaknesses, prompting us to embrace sharing relationships and community as the 21st critical security control against 21st century threats.  Without self-awareness, antiquated and stubborn attitudes will continue to force many to travel the path alone, leaving them vulnerable to modern cyber threats like a "jackass in a hailstorm".

If you are interested in privately analyzing your own data and developing Threat Intelligence, register for a free ThreatConnect account.  You can join our communities or create your own.  Connect with others and collaborate with those you trust.

More Stories By Rich Barger

Rich is the Chief Intelligence Officer for Cyber Squared and the ThreatConnect Intelligence Research Team (TCIRT) Director. Rich has over 17 years of experience supporting the commercial sector, defense industry, and intelligence community with threat intelligence and computer network operations. Rich is a passionate and creative thought leader that has led talented teams of researchers in producing quality analysis and actionable intelligence. After his commitment to the United States Army, Rich has supported the U.S. Army Command and Control Support Agency, the U.S. Army 1st Information Operations Command, the Joint Task Force Global Network Operations, and the NSA/CSS Threat Operations Center. Rich possesses a variety of industry certifications and a BS in Information Systems Security with Honors from American Military University.