Security
Threat Hunting 2.0: The Future of Proactive Defense

Threat Hunting 2.0: The Future of Proactive Defense

Today, organizations are confronted with a multitude of cybersecurity risks, both from external and internal threats. The global cost of cybercrime is projected to exceed $10 trillion by 2025. In 2023, a staggering 72% of all organizations worldwide fell victim to ransomware attacks, which is just one type of threat. The reality is that cyber threats are pervasive, and the adversaries behind them are becoming increasingly sophisticated with each passing year.

All companies, regardless of size, are potential targets for cyber attacks. In the realm of cybersecurity, the adage ‘the best defense is a good offense’ holds true. A robust defense strategy involves developing proactive measures and taking the fight to the cybercriminals. Threat hunting, a powerful security posture, empowers enterprise security teams to identify vulnerabilities, risks, and threats, enabling them to neutralize potential attacks before they materialize.

What is Threat Hunting?

Threat hunting is the proactive, iterative search through enterprise networks to identify undetected cybersecurity threats. Through regular threat hunting, security leaders can detect and isolate potential threats before they develop into advanced threats. Likewise, they can catch malicious actors or insider threats that have made it past initial endpoint detection defenses.

Unlike security monitoring, which is a passive security approach, threat hunting should be proactive in finding and mitigating threats.

The Evolution of Threat Hunting

As hackers have grown more sophisticated, the cybersecurity community has risen to the challenge. Today, security analysts are equipped with advanced tools and techniques, ready to fight malicious threat actors directly. This evolution in threat hunting should reassure organizations that they are not alone in this battle.

Traditional Threat Hunting Techniques

Threat hunting has traditionally involved a number of cybersecurity methods designed to help organizations sniff out threats. Several of these methods include:

  • Memory dumps: These files record a system or program’s RAM when it crashes, giving enterprise security teams insight into what may have caused a crash or termination.
  • Server image analysis: A server image captures all activity on a company server, from endpoints to access rights, allowing teams to analyze images for suspicious activity or unusual behavior. Images for threat activity can be a powerful cyber threat-hunting solution.
  • Endpoint protection data: Each device that employees (or unauthorized users) use to connect to the company network is an endpoint, and gathering data on all endpoints facilitates more robust security measures.
  • Disk image analysis: Like a memory dump, disk images capture an image of all files, programs, and systems on a machine, supporting active threat hunting for unusual or suspicious behavior.
  • Network protection infrastructure alerts: Proactive network protection will alert security personnel when someone with legitimate access privileges has gained unauthorized access to the network or is demonstrating abnormal behavior.
  • Stack counting: This threat-hunting technique counts the number of occurrences of a specific action, like sending data to a particular endpoint, and uses machine learning to flag when that action becomes suspiciously less or more common.
  • Clustering: This statistical technique leverages machine learning to create clusters of similar data points, like access to critical assets, and detect outliers.

Limitations of Reactive Threat Hunting

You may have noticed that many traditional threat-hunting methods are actually reactive rather than proactive. As such, there are a range of limitations to this approach:

  • Resource-intensive: Reactive threat hunting requires security personnel or insider risk programs to scour huge datasets, which takes time and keeps team members from other security tasks.
  • Data overload: Organizations use vast amounts of data, and reviewing images or dumps of all that data can result in oversights.
  • Risk of false positives: When teams react to a threat, they’re looking to identify it, which can lead to mistakenly labeling something a threat that it really isn’t.
  • Passive hunting limitations: Passive hunting has several limitations, including difficulty detecting a hacker’s process for infiltrating an organization, finding indicators of compromise (IOC), and analyzing multiple log sources simultaneously.
  • Threat actor innovation: Hackers are clever and always trying to stay on the cutting edge to avoid detection, making it harder to identify malicious behavior while it’s happening.

The Rise of Advanced, Stealthy Threats

According to research by Picus Security, about 70% of recorded malware incidents utilize stealth-oriented techniques. Hackers are more motivated than ever to load malware or stage attacks that actively hide from security teams, dodge standard security tools, and wait in networks until they are ready to deploy. As stealth attacks are rising, engaging in a proactive threat-hunting approach is more critical than ever.

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Proactive Threat Hunting Strategies

Protecting your organization from malicious actors is paramount. These threat-hunting activities can help your security team avert security incidents before they occur.

1. Leverage AI & Machine Learning

Like many industries today, AI and machine learning play a prominent role in modern cybersecurity. By utilizing automation, you can free up human analysts and leave the active threat hunting and detection of anomalous activity to machines. AI can also be even more successful at identifying patterns and outliers that may indicate emerging threats. So long as you continually train models on the latest attack tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs), automated tools can be valuable cyber threat hunters.

2. Employ Deception Technology

A classic hunting trick is also a handy threat-hunting technique. Deception technology lays decoys and honeypots to misdirect hackers and lead them to reveal themselves. Especially useful when hackers target critical assets or employ stealth methods, deception technology allows you to place fake assets to misdirect attackers while you gather crucial intelligence on their methods to close system vulnerabilities. When ready, you can trap them and mitigate the threat entirely. It’s a beneficial security solution that helps meet your goals.

3. Threat Hunt Across the Full Cyber Kill Chain

Any system has several cybersecurity layers, and it’s essential to proactively hunt across the entire cyber kill chain. Focusing only on initial access and actions can lead you to miss an escalating threat or allow a stealth actor to bypass detection. 

By proactively hunting for signs of a hacker’s or malware’s lateral movement through the company network, unauthorized privilege escalation, access rights abuse, and other threats, security teams can recognize potential risks or potential attackers that wouldn’t have been identified initially.

Across the kill chain, look for evidence of data staging and exfiltration attempts that indicate critical assets being compromised.

4. Engage in Adversary Emulation Exercises

If mimicry is akin to flattery, then by all means, flatter cybercriminals. One of the most effective ways to ensure your organization’s security systems are up to snuff is to proactively stress-test defenses against a range of simulated advanced attacks. Through regular, rigorous testing, your security teams can identify threat detection and response gaps before real external threat actors do, allowing them to patch vulnerabilities. This proactive approach should instill a sense of preparedness and confidence in your security teams.

Through adversary emulation exercises, you can develop and refine a threat-hunting procedure that makes sense for your organization based on the most likely attack paths. Not only that, but you’ll develop security practices and threat incident response plans that ensure your entire security team and organization knows how to proactively participate in the organization’s security.

One good method for adversary emulation exercises is purple teaming. This collaborative cybersecurity approach involves offensive security professionals (red teams) and defensive cybersecurity professionals (blue teams) working together to improve an organization’s security. In a live exercise, red teams perform simulated attacks. In contrast, blue teams detect and respond to attacks, showcasing vulnerabilities and updating settings in real-time to verify that security measures are working properly.

5. Participate in Threat Intelligence Sharing

Even competitor organizations can benefit from sharing information about cybersecurity. After all, successful attacks can serve as blueprints for infiltrating other organizations. Collaborating with industry peers to share IOCs and TTPs of specific attacks, risk types, or malicious activity elevates the common threat intelligence knowledge base. It helps all security teams do better work.

Sharing threat intelligence helps security leaders get early warnings about emerging threats targeting their industry. And many attackers do choose to target specific industries. As you create a threat intelligence feed in your security operations center, you can proactively hunt for threat indicators and stop threats when they infiltrate your network.

Implementing Advanced Threat Hunting

The first step is developing the right strategies for proactive threat hunting and real-time analysis. Then, you have to implement your security strategy to fend off attacks.

Build the Right Team and Skills

We touched on purple testing a few sections ago, but it’s worth mentioning here. A successful threat-hunting program starts with a strong threat-hunting team.

Effective threat-hunting teams have diverse offensive and defensive skills, so you can simulate attacks and work to prevent them. Because hackers are constantly innovating, you should foster a culture of continuous learning and improvement — skilled hunters should understand there’s always more to learn and responsibility to earn. 

Each security team member should know his or her threat hunter job role and responsibility and be at least familiar with those of other team members so that everyone can collaborate and support one another for more efficient responses. Emergency response teams should always be trained and ready to respond when potential attacks escalate.

Select Tools and Technologies

Many powerful tools and threat intelligence platforms are available today to support effective threat hunting. As such, it is important to figure out the right platforms for your organization. You should determine your threat-hunting needs based on your industry, security team, and the kinds of threats you expect to encounter.

When you’ve evaluated several threat-hunting platforms and found one that works for your organization, integrate it into your existing security stack and train all team members to leverage the platform to hunt threats effectively and proactively. Understand how it works with other security programs and ensure that your threat-hunting program (like all security programs) is scalable and adaptable as your organization grows and changes.

Develop Hunting Processes and Playbooks

Creating objectives and documenting processes are crucially important to any cybersecurity strategy. You must be able to repeat incident response measures regardless of who is on staff at a given time, and you want to be prepared against persistent threats that can emerge repeatedly.

Begin by defining a clear goal of threat hunting, whether hunting specific types of attacks, defending specific critical assets, or something unique to your organization. As you implement your threat-hunting platform and hone strategies, document all hunting processes to be repeatable. Be specific, creating playbooks for different hunting scenarios and TTPs so that security teams can respond as expediently as possible to future threats.

Measure and Communicate Threat Hunting Effectiveness

Playbooks and processes are better when you’ve proven their effectiveness. As part of your goals and objectives process, establish metrics to gauge threat hunting performance, like Mean Time to Detection (MTTD), time spent hunting, number of reports generated, and completed hunting sessions. These metrics will help you analyze the effectiveness of your threat-hunting strategy and drive insights to make improvements when fighting future threats.

Proactive threat hunting is a continuous process, and therefore, you should regularly report on hunting activities and outcomes. Demonstrating the success of your threat hunting program will help prove the return on investment (ROI), secure the organizational budget for the program, and encourage the organization to invest further in cybersecurity efforts.

FAQs

What is threat hunting for?

Threat hunting is a proactive cybersecurity approach to identify and mitigate potential attacks before they cause harm. It involves actively searching for signs of malicious activity within a network, system, or organization to enhance security measures and protect critical assets.

What does cyber threat hunting do?

Cyber threat hunting involves actively searching for signs of malicious activity within a network or organization to enhance security measures and protect critical assets. It helps organizations identify and mitigate potential attacks before they can cause harm, improving overall cybersecurity.

What is SOC threat hunting?

SOC threat hunting, or Security Operations Center threat hunting, is a proactive cybersecurity approach conducted by specialized teams within an organization’s SOC. It involves actively searching for indicators of compromise and potential threats to identify and mitigate them before they cause harm. SOC threat hunting enhances overall cybersecurity and helps organizations stay one step ahead of cyber attackers.

What is the difference between threat intelligence and threat hunting?

Threat intelligence collects and analyzes information about potential cyber threats and shares it with organizations to enhance their security measures. On the other hand, threat hunting involves actively searching for signs of malicious activity within a network or organization to identify and mitigate potential attacks before they cause harm.

Is threat hunting the same as vulnerability management?

No, threat hunting and vulnerability management are not the same. Threat hunting involves actively searching for signs of malicious activity within a network or organization. At the same time, vulnerability management focuses on identifying and remedying weaknesses in the system to prevent potential attacks and breaches.

Is threat hunting the same as incident response?

No, threat hunting and incident response are not the same. Threat hunting is a proactive approach to identify and mitigate potential attacks before they cause harm. At the same time, incident response involves addressing and managing an ongoing security incident or breach after it has occurred.

What is threat hunting vs monitoring?

Threat hunting involves actively searching for signs of malicious activity within a network or organization to identify and mitigate potential attacks before they cause harm. On the other hand, monitoring refers to the ongoing surveillance and analysis of network traffic and system logs to detect any unusual or suspicious activity.

Conclusion

Cybersecurity attacks are more complex than ever, and hackers are constantly innovating. Organizations face many cyber threats at all levels of their system infrastructure, making proactive threat hunting more important than ever. By following these strategies and implementation tips, your organization can protect itself from the reputational damage or financial harm that may arise from a security incident.