With endless cyber threats putting your business at risk, it’s no longer enough to only respond to threats—it’s essential to discover and anticipate threats. Many threats go undetected once they get past automated cybersecurity; more specifically, 20% of threats are sophisticated enough to remain undetected on average for 280 days to cause significant damage.
Cyber threat hunting reduces the time from intrusion to discovery to reduce the harm any breaches cause. An attacker can patiently wait for months before acting on the data they’ve been uncovering for weeks, remaining undetected for long periods. They wait for the right opportunity and prepare for a serious data breach, which can cost your business millions of dollars and destroy its reputation. That’s why threat hunting is so essential to your security solution.
What is Cyber Threat Hunting?
Threat hunting is the proactive search for cyber threats that are otherwise undetected within your network by standard tools and technologies. Your standard security systems are excellent at defending, monitoring, and mitigating threats to your business. However, some threats are advanced enough to slip past your endpoint security. These threats tend to maneuver around typical detection functions and target your network’s security, which makes threat hunting a critical part of your data and network defenses.
Automated threat detection systems are a core element of your security force, too, but it’s cyber threat hunting practices that empower businesses to fully protect their assets by seeking out any undetected, unknown, or non-remediated threats. Cyber threat hunting works using both human experts and software, specifically big data processing.
Professionals use data and gathered intelligence to seek out attackers who may have the ability to overcome your standard defenses. For example, human threat hunters often use data retrieved from security monitoring and analytics tools to identify threats. Add the expertise and creativity of human threat experts to advanced technology and data, and threat hunting is born.
Threat Hunting Methods
So, how do IT and security teams seek out seemingly undetectable threats? There are a couple of techniques that hunters use to analyze and scrutinize data. These steps are designed to work more efficiently than cyber attacks using automation, machine learning, user and entity behavior analytics, and more to alert and support security teams. Here are the core techniques of threat hunting.
In order to see potential red flags during threat hunting, you must first establish a baseline to determine what “normal” operations look like at your organization. Baselining significantly speeds up the process of discovering threats and shortens the time needed for the threat to become visible.
What does typical system administrative activity look like? What indicators can reveal possible attacks? The main idea here is that hunters can lookout for outliers that stick out from authorized events. These anomalies are then put under a microscope by hunters using threat intelligence, security data, and other threat detection technologies.
Baselining gives hunters a benchmark to work with so that they better understand the cyber threat landscape, especially within a single organization or system. Attack-specific threat hunting is far more focused and specifically tracks malicious activity at a faster pace. These hunts narrow in on a specific threat actor or threat, and combined with baselining data, you can often get your ideal results.
When it comes to cyber threats, the last thing you want to be is slow. Any threat hunting is a time-sensitive matter, which means the hunters need to consistently validate and test their baseline. When you make changes to your software to establish a baseline, are you creating unnecessary traffic that creates false-positive data? What about when you find new information—as attackers evolve and modify their approach, hunters need to validate their intelligence-based hunts and ensure everything is running smoothly. This way, your systems and tools aren’t going to put you behind the attacker’s timeline.
Sometimes, internal IT teams don’t have the bandwidth to take on a proactive role like threat hunting, which is why many organizations turn to third-party providers that support threat hunters. Third parties perform tasks like ruling out false positive leads, IP lookups, geolocation, encrypted traffic metadata, log detection, attacker technique overlays, and more.
Types of Threat Hunting
When you do have a lead based on a data trigger and form a hypothesis, you can move into the investigative phase. Many hunters categorize threat hunting into three main types of deeper investigating: structured, unstructured, and situation/entity-driven threat hunting.
- Structured threat hunting. This type of hunting uses an indicator of attack (IoA) and tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP) of an attacker to guide the hunt. Everything is focused on the TTPs of threat actors, which is especially helpful if you’re trying to identify a threat actor before the attack does major damage. As a structured system, all hunts are aligned on the same threat indicator.
- Unstructured threat hunting. The unstructured approach is set in motion based on a trigger, specifically an indicator of compromise (IoC). This type of threat hunting requires a lot of research regarding pre-detection patterns and post-detection patterns. Where structured threat hunting is very intentional and designed, unstructured threat hunting is more reactive and adaptable to specific threats as they come.
- Situational or entity-driven threat hunting. Finally, there are specific hunts that are derived from an internal risk assessment that an organization conducts. For example, if an enterprise conducts a vulnerability analysis for the company’s specific IT landscape, this would be considered a situational hunt where hunters can search for specific behaviors according to the results of the analysis.
Threat Hunting Tools
Expertise and experience are irreplaceable when it comes to security, but so are the cutting-edge tools that threat hunters use. To keep up with the complex techniques of modern cyber attacks, threat hunting has some standard tools that make uncovering hidden attacks possible. Some of those fundamental tools include:
- Managed Detection and Response (MDR). MDR is a type of cybersecurity tool that helps with threat response. It focuses on protecting assets by detecting threats and then responding to breaches in security using threat intelligence, which is a central element of threat hunting. To identify and remediate threats, MDR helps reduce the dwell time of attacks so that teams can make quick and decisive decisions and protect your network.
- Security Information and Event Management (SIEM). SEIM is a combination of security information management (SIM) and security event management (SEM). Some of its main offerings for threat hunting include real-time monitoring of events and analyzing those events, all while logging away security data. SIEM helps discover anomalies in user behaviors and note other outliers in your events, which leads to more detailed investigations.
- Security Analytics. Another essential tool for threat hunting is security analytics, which is designed to dig a little deeper and provide even more detailed insights compared to SIEM. You can gain more understanding of your security data with analytic tools that combine big data with the latest technology, such as integrated machine learning, AI, and more. With sophisticated software, algorithms, and other processes, threat hunters can detect threats much more efficiently. These analytics make observability data far more actionable and accurate.
These tools, combined with skilled and competent threat hunters, can make all the difference when it comes to catching threats and getting to the root of security vulnerabilities.
Threat Hunting Steps
While there are different methods, strategies, and tools that threat hunters use, the basic formula for effective threat hunting can be broken down into three basic steps: the trigger, investigation, and resolution.
Step 1: The trigger
A trigger is what gives a threat hunter direction and identifies a specific system or area of the network that needs more investigation. Triggers occur when malicious activity is potentially at play. Threat hunting is all about being proactive and searching for possible issues, so it’s common for a new threat to pop up when a security team is actively pursuing a specific type of advanced threat.
Step 2: Investigation
The second threat hunting step is an investigation where a threat hunter is using technology and techniques best suited for the type of trigger or threat they are working with. This includes detection tools that can indicate when unusual and suspicious activity is occurring. Threat hunters have to hone in on the details and dig into where and why there is a compromise in the system, gathering as much information as they can, analyzing that data, and discovering important trends, vulnerabilities, and predictions. The investigation stage remains active until the trigger is considered harmless or the source of the malicious behavior is discovered.
Step 3: Resolution
Finally, the last step of threat hunting is communicating the most important and actionable intelligence to operational and security teams to initiate mitigation efforts. This is often done using automated technology.
The Threat Stops Here
In-house cybersecurity is no easy feat and can quickly snowball into a complicated and ineffective system. Your current team likely takes on a lot of work and security procedures as is, and when these teams are overworked, it’s only a matter of time before something slips through the cracks. Pursuing better security using threat hunting is essential in the modern digital environment, but it’s not always a realistic task for your internal task force.
The solution many organizations are turning to is third-party security experts who have the time, experience, and resources to round out your digital defenses. Outsourced cybersecurity teams often offer benefits like
- Human capital/expertise. Rely on real people with real experience, not just tools and automation that come with threat hunting. Attackers are adapting to predictable technologies, and only the human brain can adapt to modern cyber threats.
- Historical data. Get enhanced visibility and threat context with real-time data for greater accuracy during investigations. With so many endpoints and network assets in a single company, it’s essential to have a scalable solution, such as cloud infrastructure, to get real-time data from such large data sets.
- Threat intelligence. Trust not only experts, but accurately gathered, processed, and analyzed data to better understand the risks, behaviors, and attacks your organization faces. An outsourced team can dedicate the time to cross-reference internal data with current trends and tools to ensure that your organization has the top resources and information at hand.
- 24×7 operations. Instead of paying more money to overwork your team, you can rely on a third party to protect and analyze your assets around the clock.
Ontinue offers 24×7 global threat protection by certified experts who are perfectly prepared to understand and protect your business from cybercriminals. While your internal IT teams are making more strategic moves and focusing on your organization’s objectives, Ontinue takes care of your entire fully managed global security operation. Learn what Ontinue’s threat hunting can do for your cybersecurity and request a demo today!