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The Essentials of Cybersecurity Threat Hunting: Cybersecurity in CT

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The increased frequency and sophistication of cyberattacks have recently been a cause for concern. Malicious actors consistently refine their tactics to infiltrate critical infrastructure and compromise sensitive data. From malware that is difficult to discover to elaborate phishing schemes that more and more successfully capture unsuspecting end users, it's no longer a question of if an organization will be targeted but when. 

Organizations of all sizes have often relied on traditional threat prevention mechanisms, such as firewalls and antivirus software, to keep away threat actors. However, these approaches are no longer sufficient to defend against modern cyber threats' complex and dynamic nature. Organizations contend with advanced persistent threats, highly developed supply chain attacks, and cross-site scripting, among many others. They must adopt a proactive stance to find and neutralize them.

Cybersecurity threat hunting is a proactive and systematic technique aimed at protecting modern systems. It relies on human expertise, intuition, and a proficient understanding of the organization’s threat environment and attack mechanisms to find and mitigate potential threats before they cause damage to the system and its resources. 

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An Overview of Cybersecurity Threat Hunting

Modern systems are at risk of advanced threats such as polymorphic malware, zero-day exploits, and persistent, targeted attacks designed to bypass traditional security defenses and remain undetected for extended periods. These advanced threats need more than just firewalls; threat hunting is one of the best ways to mitigate them. 

Cybersecurity threat hunting is the systematic human-driven analysis and investigation of a system to discover signs of malicious activity or security breaches. It performs better for sophisticated threats because it doesn’t rely only on automated alert-based detection systems based on predefined rules or signatures but complements them with cybersecurity proficiency.

Threat hunting offers numerous benefits. For instance, identifying these threats early allows organizations to mitigate them before they cause significant damage and data breaches. The process also allows for early and efficient incident response activities.

Key Components of Cybersecurity Threat Hunting

Threat hunting activities can be categorized into steps, including data collection and analysis, hypothesis generation, investigation and validation,  and Response and Mitigation. 

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Data Collection and Analysis

Data collection is the crucial first step of all threat hunting operations; all other steps depend on results from the analysis of the collected data. It’s important to cast a wide net and collect data from multiple sources across the company’s digital ecosystem. 

Collect logs from servers, firewalls, and intrusion detection systems. These logs contain crucial information about user activities and system and application behaviors. They indicate who has been using a specific computing resource and for what time. Logs can provide substantial information on threat actors who accessed the network resources and the user accounts they used to gain access.

Secondly, collect network traffic data. This data provides visibility into data flows and communication patterns. Cybersecurity professionals often use deep packet inspection tools and network sensors to collect network traffic data and identify any signs of anomalies. 

Finally, collect data from endpoint devices, such as servers, embedded devices, computer workstations, laptops, and mobile devices. Attackers commonly target these endpoint devices, and checking their system logs and registry entries can expose indicators of compromise. 

After data collection, the next step is data analysis to identify potential threats. Cybersecurity analysis expertise is needed at this step. Modern forms of cybersecurity analytics utilize advanced analytics tools and machine learning algorithms for behavioral analysis, pattern recognition, correlation, and contextualization. 

Cybersecurity analysts use time series analysis and other forms of analytics to identify user patterns. This strategy works because deviation from normal user patterns would raise alarms about anomalies. Behavioral analysis techniques go further than just pattern recognition. They recognize baseline profiles and use heuristic algorithms to flag deviations from expected user behavior. Multiple unauthorized account access attempts, excessive data transfers, and unusual login times are examples of abnormal behaviors. Correlation and contextualization techniques also help with the identification of complex attack scenarios.

Hypothesis Generation

Hypotheses are informed assumptions based on preliminary observations and domain expertise requiring further investigations and studies to be accepted or refuted. In the case of threat hunting, hypothesis generation involves synthesizing the results of the anomalies observed from the data collection and analytics steps with domain knowledge of cyber threats and attack vectors.

To illustrate, in an example where an analyst discovers unusual network traffic patterns, they may develop a hypothesis that the organization is experiencing a denial-of-service (DoS) attack or a reconnaissance operation. The hypotheses should be actionable and testable since analysts need to perform empirical tests to prove them.

Formulating the right hypotheses and iterative testing and refinement is crucial since it informs the rest of the investigation. That is, each hypothesis will direct cybersecurity professionals on the most relevant and suitable data sources, threat indicators, and techniques to use for investigation.

Investigation and Validation

The investigation and validation stage seeks to validate hypotheses from the previous step by conducting thorough investigations and finding evidence of threats. This step utilizes popular analysis tools and techniques. Intrusion detection systems (IDS) and packet capture (PCAP) tools are examples of network analysis tools that provide insights into network traffic patterns and help identify potential threats. 

On the other hand, forensic analysis tools enable the reconstruction of cyber incidents to assist with analyzing evidence collected from compromised file systems and registry entries. Cybersecurity professionals use forensic analysis tools to recognize the tactics, techniques, and procedures used by cybercriminals. 

Analysts use endpoint detection and response tools to access endpoint activity information, which they use to monitor for threats and malicious software. Additionally, threat intelligence feeds and services are also important tools for cybersecurity professionals. They provide background information on known threats, vulnerabilities, and attack mechanisms.

Response and Mitigation

After identifying and validating threats in an organization’s system, the next step is to respond swiftly and precisely to contain them and minimize their impacts. It’s common for threats to be identified when ongoing, especially when actively threat hunting. In such situations, the first step should be to terminate unauthorized connections and revoke compromised credentials. After that, it’s always best practice to isolate compromised network components from the rest of the system to prevent the spread of malware.

Stopping an active threat doesn’t guarantee the ultimate protection from the same threat actors in the future. It's very common for attacked systems to experience the same form of attack later. Beyond the immediate response, organizations should conduct remediation measures to fix security issues that led to the attack and prevent similar attacks in the future. Remediation measures include performing a thorough post-incident analysis to identify more weaknesses, reevaluating security configurations, patching exploited vulnerabilities, hardening intrusion detection rules, and updating antivirus software.

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Best Practices for Effective Cybersecurity Threat Hunting

It’s best practice to perform regular threat hunting and cybersecurity training for professionals and people from other departments in the company to ensure the process is effective. 

Continuous Monitoring and Analysis

Proactive maintenance should never stop since attacks can happen anytime, and continuous monitoring enables real-time detection. Leverage monitoring tools such as Endpoint Detection and Response (EDR) solutions, Network Intrusion Detection Systems (NIDs), and security information and event management (SIEM) platforms to keep track of network-wide traffic and events. It’s also best practice to backup logs in case the attacker deletes them and review them regularly to identify anomalous activity. 

Regular Cybersecurity Training

The threat landscape is always growing and evolving. Organizations should ensure their cybersecurity professionals are always up-to-date with trends in the industry by offering regular training for upskilling. Invest in training workshops on threat hunting techniques and methodologies that address the company’s unique threats. 

In addition, it’s a common agreement among cybersecurity professionals that end users are the weakest link in the system’s security. However, they can also be the strongest point with relevant, comprehensive, and up-to-date training.

Challenges in Cybersecurity Threat Hunting

While cybersecurity threat hunting offers numerous benefits, it poses several challenges and considerations that may affect its applicability to organizations. 

Skills and Expertise

Threat hunting relies heavily on professional expertise and informed intuition. Threat hunting experts need to have a deep understanding of cybersecurity principles, cybercriminals’ tactics, familiarity with the tools and technologies used during the process, and a lot of experience in the field that enables them to trust their intuition. Companies, especially SMBs may struggle to attract and retain the right talent for the process. 

Data Volume and Complexity

Organizations have large amounts of data from numerous sources, including logs, network traffic, and endpoint telemetry, that cybersecurity professionals need to collect, clean, and analyze, often in real-time. They must be proficient in advanced analytics and use sophisticated machine learning algorithms.


Resource Constraints

Limited security budgets and staffing shortages are common problems that affect SMBs seeking to establish and maintain regular threat hunting practices, often leaving them vulnerable to attacks.

Download our e-book to explore solutions for these and more security challenges: Cybersecurity Essentials for Business Owners

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Proactive threat hunting can help organizations boost their defenses and safeguard their most valuable assets. It involves a systematic approach, including data collection and analysis, hypothesis generation, investigation and validation, and response and mitigation.

While threat hunting can help your organization stay ahead of cyber adversaries, it requires a high level of skills and expertise in the field since it can be complex and involves vast amounts of data. Let Cymbrella handle the technicalities of your security system so your employees can focus on revenue-generating tasks. Reach out for Cybersecurity in CT services.



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