As cybercrime continues to grow and evolve at a rapid pace, organizations are faced with difficult decisions in finding solutions to this problem. Deploying security tools to combat cybercrime is a crucial part of this dilemma, but this brings with it the herculean task of attempting to process massive amounts of data in order to keep up in the game defending against cyber-attacks.
In order to get the most up-to-date and accurate cyber threat intelligence, SurfWatch Labs employs talented analysts with a focus on threat intelligence. These threat analysts are the backbone to a new and developing field of cyber threat intel, providing valuable information to organizations that go well beyond identifying threats.
“Being a threat analyst often requires being a chameleon or wearing many hats,” said Aaron Bay, chief analyst at SurfWatch Labs. “You need to be able to understand the technical side of security, navigate among the various hacker and cybercrime forums on the dark web, understand business risk, and then distill all of that information into valuable intelligence that can be easily understood by business executives. It’s not an easy role, but it is one that is becoming increasingly important to organizations.”
We spoke with Bay to get some insight about the role of a threat analyst and how cyber threat intelligence can benefit organizations.
Tell us a little bit about being a threat intelligence analyst.
Being a threat analyst feels a little bit like a cross between a weatherman, an interpreter and someone trying to find a needle in a haystack. It’s not just about knowing the latest attacks and staying up on the latest jargon. There is a lot of translation that has to take place to get that information to the decision makers in such a way that they can actually make a decision based on it. So being able to speak “cyber” but also being able to translate that to someone who is not a cyber person takes some work as well. Powerful Google-fu is also helpful in this position; even though Google is not the only source, knowing how to find data using it and other tools is invaluable.
Describe your typical day.
My typical day is probably a little bit different than most cyber threat intel analysts. Because SurfWatch Labs focuses on the bigger picture, we aren’t typically gathering the latest signatures from the latest malware or putting together snort rules for all the new bad stuff that’s been detected by various sensors or honey pots.
I spend a lot of time reading blogs, Twitter, various forums and general Web searching. To support SurfWatch Labs’ customers, a lot of my focus is on them: what they’ve said is most important to them, things they want to stay aware of, constantly looking for information that may be of interest to them in general, keeping track of that and reporting it to them, and then getting their feedback on what we’ve told them to tailor our internal processes so that we constantly evolve and stay current with their needs, as well as stay current with the threats out there.
Is being a cyber threat intel analyst mostly about IT security?
Firstly, I think the term IT Security is becoming archaic. When it is used, the person who hears it or uses it has a preconceived notion about what IT Security is. Computers and routers and switches and firewalls and all things traditionally associated with IT security come to mind. But our businesses and our personal lives have become so connected and dependent on technology, that just calling it “IT” seems to leave out things that should be included, but aren’t. I have to say that I am not a fan of the term “cyber” or “cybersecurity,” but I can understand the reason for having a new term that’s a little more ambiguous.
Credit cards used to just be numbers printed on plastic read by zip-zap machines until magnetic strips were created and used to save information in a way that could be read by a computer and transmitted via telephone back to your bank. Forty years later, those are being replaced by sophisticated memory cards that keeps your information encrypted. Do you consider your credit card to be IT? You should. Credit card fraud has been around as long as credit cards, and the more IT we throw at the problem, the more it becomes an IT security problem. I know that banks and organizations like Visa consider this an IT security issue, but most people still do not, I would assume. And that’s just one example.
For a Cyber Threat Intel Analyst to do their job correctly, they need to understand that it really is about IT security, but the scope is usually bigger than most people realize. The analyst needs to be aware of that, but they need to help their employer or customer understand that as well.
What is one of the biggest things to understand about cyber risk?
Typically, cyber threats enter an organization by way of something every user touches: browsing the web, reading their email, opening files, etc. Traditional IT security has been tasked with solving that. But that’s not the only way cyber threats can harm an organization. As soon as you do business with another organization, the scope of your risk increases. You have to send and receive information from them, send and receive money from them. This information is at risk if one organization protects it less than the other. If pieces of the business are outsourced, whatever that is, it’s now at risk to however that third party protects its business or its infrastructure.
Some of this even just comes in the form of what software a business chooses to use for its customer portal, where customers can post questions or the business otherwise interacts with its customers. Any vulnerabilities in that software or where that software is hosted translates to risk to the primary organization. Again, none of this is meant as a reason not to function this way, only as a way to say that these risks need to be understood and monitored. As new threats or attacks or vulnerabilities are discovered, an organization needs to be made aware of them so actions can be made to mitigate or remove them.
What are some cybersecurity trends you are seeing as a threat analyst that are concerning?
The biggest trend I am really starting to see is the continuation of cybercriminals using cyber means to make money. They steal credit card numbers, people’s personal identities, and the profits from these crimes and frequency of attacks continues to grow. Ransomware is now growing. It’s not growing because people think it is funny to do. It’s growing because people are making a lot of money off of these attacks. In these attacks, cybercriminals don’t care about obtaining information from our computer. All they care about is getting you into paying them money to get back your information. This is a scary trend, because it is really working.
Denial-of-service is still going on; people will pay to conduct denial-of-service attacks or pay ransoms to have these attacks stopped. It will be interesting to see what attack shows up next in an effort to make money.
To encapsulate that trend, it is becoming a lot more organized. In years past, the traditional “organized crime” groups were the only ones really making money off of cyber attempts. Today, however, all parts of cybercrime are becoming more accessible, and as it becomes easier a lot more people are going to be doing it.
Along that vein, attacks that produce the most results are of course going to trend. Ransomware as I mentioned, but a lot of businesses are getting better at detecting and eliminating threats … but don’t quite understand or monitor threats coming from their third-party suppliers, so attacks will start to come from that angle.
What is your biggest fear as a threat analyst?
My biggest fear is people not taking this information seriously or people not thinking it is useful information. I am fearful that people view this information as no big deal, viewing it as just another report and moving on. I hope that companies feel this information is useful, and it is taken seriously instead of thinking they don’t need the information anymore. Some of that could be that an organization doesn’t quite have a mature enough cybersecurity program so it can’t properly digest and protect against what an analyst may be telling them. The failure of the analyst to correctly translate risks and threats and trends into something meaningful could also contribute to the message being lost.
In the next post, Aaron shares his thoughts about how cyber threat intelligence can help your organization.