A popular saying in the cyber security space is that given enough time, any system can be compromised. Scary as it sounds, the statement highlights the true nature of cyber security.
Even the best security measures are not foolproof. Threats are constantly evolving, and new ways of attacks are being formulated. It is safe to assume that an attack on a system is inevitable.
Therefore, any organization keen on protecting the security of its systems needs to invest in threat identification even before an attack happens. By early detection of threats, organizations can swiftly implement damage control measures to minimize the risk and impact of the attack and even stop the attackers before they deploy full-blown attacks.
In addition to stopping attacks, threat detection can flush out malicious actors who may steal data, gather information to be used in future attacks or even leave loopholes that can be exploited in the future.
A good way to detect threats and vulnerabilities before they are exploited by malicious actors is through threat hunting.
Whenever a cyber attack occurs, such as a data breach, malware attack, or even a denial of service attack, it is often the result of cyber attackers lurking in a system for some time. This can span anywhere from a few days to weeks or even months.
The more time attackers spend undetected in a network, the more damage they can cause. It is, therefore, necessary to weed out attackers who can be lurking in a network without detection before they actually launch an attack. This is where threat hunting comes in.
Threat hunting is a proactive cyber security measure where security experts do a thorough search in a network to discover and root out potential threats or vulnerabilities that may have evaded existing security measures.
Unlike passive cyber security measures such as automatic threat detection, threat hunting is an active process involving an in-depth search of network endpoints and data stored in a network to discover malicious or suspicious activities that may indicate a threat lurking in a network.
Threat hunting goes beyond looking for what is known also to weed out new and unknown threats in a network or threats that could have evaded a network’s defenses and have not yet been remedied.
By implementing an effective threat hunt, organizations can find and stop malicious actors before they execute their attacks, thus reducing the damage done and securing their systems.
How Threat Hunting Works
To be both successful and effective, threat hunting relies heavily on the intuition, strategic, ethical, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills possessed by cyber security experts. These uniquely human skills complement what can be done through automated security systems.
To conduct a threat hunt, security experts start by defining and understanding the scope of networks and systems where they’ll perform the threat hunt. All relevant data, such as log files and traffic data, are then collected and analyzed.
In-house security experts are crucial in these initial steps as they usually have a clear understanding of the networks and systems in place.
The gathered security data is analyzed using various techniques to identify anomalies, hidden malware or attackers, suspicious or risky activity, and threats that security systems may have flagged as resolved but were not actually resolved.
In the event that a threat is detected, it is investigated and remedied to prevent exploitation by malicious actors. In case malicious actors are discovered, they are expunged from the system, and measures are implemented to secure further and prevent a compromise on the system.
Threat hunting provides organizations with an opportunity to learn about their security measures and improve their systems to better secure them and prevent future attacks.
Importance of Threat Hunting
Some of the benefits of threat hunting include:
Reduce the damages of a full-blown cyber attack
Threat hunting has the benefit of detecting and stopping cyber attackers who have breached a system before they can gather enough sensitive data to conduct a more lethal attack.
Stopping attackers right in their tracks reduces the damages that would have been incurred due to a data breach. With the proactive nature of threat hunting, organizations can respond to attacks much faster and hence reduce the risk and impact of cyber attacks.
Reduce false positives
When using automated cybersecurity tools, which are configured to detect and identify threats using a set of rules, cases arise where they raise alerts where there are no real threats. This may lead to the deployment of countermeasures to threats that do not exist.
Threat hunting which is human-driven, eliminates false positives as security experts can conduct in-depth analysis and make expert judgments on the true nature of a perceived threat. This eliminates false positives.
Help security experts to understand a company’s systems
A challenge that arises after installing security systems is verifying whether they are effective or not. Threat hunting can answer this question as security experts conduct in-depth investigations and analyses to detect and eliminate threats that may have escaped the installed security measures.
This also has the benefit of allowing in-house security experts to gain a better understanding of the systems in place, how they work, and how to better secure them.
Keeps security teams up to date
Conducting a threat hunt involves using the latest available technology to detect and mitigate threats and vulnerabilities before they are exploited.
This benefits keeping an organization’s security team up to date with the threat landscape and actively engaging them in discovering unknown vulnerabilities that can be exploited.
Such a proactive activity results in better-prepared security teams who are informed of new and emerging threats, thus preventing them from being surprised by attackers.
Shortens investigation time
Regular threat hunting creates a knowledge bank that can be leveraged to hasten the process of investigating an attack in the event that it occurs.
Threat hunting involves in-depth study and analysis of systems and vulnerabilities that have been detected. This, in turn, results in a build-up of knowledge on a system and its security.
Therefore, in the event of an attack, an investigation can leverage gathered data from previous threat hunts to make the investigation process much faster, allowing an organization to respond to an attack better and faster.
Organizations stand to benefit tremendously by doing regular threat hunts.
Threat Hunting vs. Threat Intelligence
Although related and often used together to enhance the cyber security of an organization, threat intelligence, and threat hunting are distinct concepts.
Threat intelligence involves collecting and analyzing data on emerging and existing cyber threats to understand the tactics, techniques, procedures, motives, targets, and behaviors of the threat actors behind the cyber threats and attacks.
This information is then shared with organizations to aid them in detecting, preventing, and mitigating cyber attacks.
On the other hand, threat hunting is a proactive process of searching for potential threats and vulnerabilities that may exist in a system to address them before they are exploited by threat actors. This process is led by security experts. The threat intelligence information is used by security experts conducting a threat hunt.
Types of Threat Hunting
There are three main types of threat hunting. This includes:
#1. Structured hunting
This is a threat hunt based on an indicator of attack(IoA). An indicator of attack is proof that a system is currently being accessed by unauthorized actors. IoA occurs before a data breach.
Therefore structured hunting is aligned with the tactics, techniques, and procedures(TTPs) that are employed by an attacker with the aim of identifying the attacker, what they are trying to achieve, and responding before they do any damage.
#2. Unstructured hunting
This is a type of threat hunt done based on an indicator of compromise(IoC). An indicator of compromise is evidence that a security breach occurred and a system was accessed by unauthorized actors in the past. In this type of threat hunting, security experts look for patterns throughout a network before and after an indicator of compromise is identified.
#3. Situational or Entity Driven
These are threat hunts based on an organization’s internal risk assessment of its systems and the vulnerabilities they found. Security experts use externally available and latest attack data to look for similar patterns and behaviors of attack in a system.
Key Elements of Threat Hunting
An effective threat hunt involves in-depth data collection and analysis to identify suspicious behaviors and patterns that may indicate potential threats in a system.
Once such activities are detected in a system, they need to be fully investigated and understood through the use of advanced security investigation tools.
The investigation should then yield actionable strategies that can be implemented to resolve the vulnerabilities found and mediate the threats before they can be exploited by attackers.
A final key component of the process is reporting the findings of the threat hunt and providing recommendations that can be implemented to secure an organization’s systems better.
Steps in Threat Hunting
An effective threat hunt involves the following steps:
#1. Formulating a hypothesis
Threat hunting aims to uncover unknown threats or vulnerabilities that can be exploited by attacks. Since threat hunting aims to find the unknown, the first step is formulating a hypothesis based on the security standing and knowledge of vulnerabilities in an organization’s system.
This hypothesis gives threat hunting a bearing and a foundation upon which strategies for the whole exercise can be laid.
#2. Data Collection and analysis
Once a hypothesis has been formulated, the next step is gathering data and threat intelligence from network logs, threat intelligence reports to historical attack data, with the aim of proving or disapproving the hypothesis. Specialized tools can be used for data collection and analysis.
#3. Identify triggers
Triggers are suspicious cases that warrant further and in-depth investigation. Information gotten from data collection and analysis may prove the initial hypothesis, such as the existence of unauthorized actors in a network.
During the analysis of collected data, suspicious behaviors in a system may be uncovered. These suspicious activities are triggers that need to be investigated further.
Once triggers have been uncovered in a system, they are investigated to understand the full nature of the risk at hand, how the incident might have happened, the motive of the attackers, and the potential impact of the attack. The result of this investigation stage informs the measures that will be put in place to resolve the uncovered risks.
Once a threat has been fully investigated and understood, strategies are implemented to resolve the risk, prevent future attacks, and improve the security of the existing systems to address the newly uncovered vulnerabilities or techniques that can be exploited by attackers.
Once all the steps are completed, the exercise and repeated to look for more vulnerabilities and better secure the systems.
Challenges in Threat Hunting
Some of the top challenges that arise in a threat hunt include:
Lack of skilled personnel
Threat hunting is a human-driven security activity, and thus its effectiveness is heavily pegged on the skills and the experience of the threat hunters conducting the activity.
With more experience and skills, threat hunters can be able to identify vulnerabilities or threats that slip traditional security systems or other security personnel. Getting and retaining expert threat hunters is both costly and challenging for organizations.
Difficulty in identifying unknown threats
Threat hunting is very difficult to conduct because it requires the identification of threats that have evaded traditional security systems. Therefore, these threats have no known signatures or patterns for easy identification, making the entire very difficult.
Collecting comprehensive data
Threat hunting relies heavily on collecting large amounts of data on systems and threats to guide hypothesis testing and investigation of triggers.
This data collection can prove to be challenging as it may require advanced third-party tools, and there’s also a risk of the exercise not being compliant with data privacy regulations. Additionally, experts will have to work with large amounts of data which can be challenging to do.
Being up to date with threat intelligence
For a threat hunt to be both successful and effective, the experts conducting the exercise need to have up-to-date threat intelligence and knowledge of the tactics, techniques, and procedures being employed by attackers.
Without access to information on the latest tactic, techniques, and procedures used by attacks, the whole threat-hunting process may be hindered and rendered ineffective.
Threat hunting is a proactive process that organizations should consider implementing to secure their systems better.
Since attackers work round the clock to find ways of exploiting vulnerabilities in a system, it is beneficial for organizations to be proactive and hunt for vulnerabilities and new threats before attackers find them and exploit them to the detriment of organizations.
You may also explore some free forensic investigation tools for IT security experts.