The Intelligence Trinity

Steve Townsley | 30 October 2014

The Intelligence Trinity

My name is Steve and I’ve been working in intelligence for seven years, both in the private and public sectors. Currently I head up the threat intelligence side of Digital Shadows, and in this blog series I intend to offer an insight into our threat intelligence work.


In my first blog I thought it would be worthwhile addressing what we consider intelligence to be at Digital Shadows. For several years now there has been considerable hype and hubris around the term ‘intelligence’ within the cyber security industry. It feels as if the term has been diluted as its usage has extended to include vendors dealing in a range of issues from bad IPs and Indicators of Compromise, to tip-offs that hacktivist groups are targeting particular sectors and the activities of APT groups, and everything in-between.


Without diving into academic literature – there’s quite a lot of it regarding intelligence definitions - let’s consider three relevant definitions of varying lengths:

The Bank of England: “Information that provides relevant and sufficient understanding for mitigating the impact of a potentially harmful event.” (http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/financialstability/fsc/Documents/cbestthreatintelligenceframework.pdf)

UK Ministry of Defence: “The directed and co-ordinated acquisition and analysis of information to assess capabilities, intent and opportunities for exploitation by leaders at all levels.” (https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/311572/20110830_jdp2_00_ed3_with_change1.pdf)

Gartner: “Evidence-based knowledge, including context, mechanisms, indicators, implications and actionable advice, about an existing or emerging menace or hazard to assets that can be used to inform decisions regarding the subject's response to that menace or hazard.” (https://www.gartner.com/doc/2487216/definition-threat-intelligence)

Ultimately these definitions are all subject to interpretation, and I would not argue that any are wrong. However, it strikes me that for intelligence to be effective it must encompass a range of attributes, and that perhaps for a definition, the less prescriptive the better. Therefore, we use the Bank of England’s definition, that intelligence is “information that provides relevant and sufficient understanding for mitigating the impact of a potentially harmful event”.

Of course definitions are useful, and it’s important to have a solid definition at the core of what we do, however there’s more to providing an effective intelligence capability than how you define it. In our work at Digital Shadows we use the intelligence trinity of situational awareness, insight, and forecasting. This is at the core of our intelligence offering, and provides an effective diet for all users, accommodating those who are fighting fires and have a short term outlook, to those with a more established intelligence capability who are looking out to the longer term.

intelligence trinity

 

Situational Awareness

Situational awareness provides an understanding of what is happening right now. Through our near real time monitoring and unique collection capabilities, we maintain an industry leading coverage of cyber threat actors. Because we cover the broad threat landscape and are not focussed on a specific sector, we can provide true situational awareness of threats. This is particularly prevalent when we consider that adversaries do not necessarily target specific sectors, and therefore a threat which today does not affect your sector, could very easily do so tomorrow. We are constantly adding incidents to our portal and building up a rich intelligence base in order to maintain situational awareness.

Whilst situational awareness can provide organisations with intelligence – for instance, that their sector is being targeted by hacktivist groups – it doesn’t provide all of the pieces in order to provide true intelligence value.

Insight

Defined as “the ability to discern the true nature of a situation” insight is where intelligence can begin to really add value. Insight can be considered as the product of maintaining situational awareness, whereby patterns can be identified, sources evaluated, and correlations and relationships deduced.

The product of insight is included in the intelligence alerts and reports, where we don’t just provide situational awareness, but also offer an assessment of why an event has taken place, its credibility, and if it is expected behaviour for that particular threat group or operation.  

Forecasting

Taking the two previous steps of situational awareness and insight, we can build on these and add forecasting. It’s one thing to provide intelligence on what has happened (situational awareness) and why it happened (insight) but the real value in threat intelligence is offering more forward looking assessments on what may happen (forecasting). This may be a short term assessment where a client is alerted to a credible threat, or a longer term look into the future where we assess the threat over the next 3-5 years in order to inform the purchase of security systems.


Conclusion

By approaching intelligence as a combination of situational awareness, insight, and forecasting, we’re able to offer more comprehensive and robust service to our clients. I would argue that the process of developing intelligence in this way is sequential, in that forecasting is dependent on insight, which in turn is dependent on maintaining situational awareness. Therefore, without all three an intelligence capability cannot be fully effective.

In my next blog series I’ll be writing about the importance of record keeping and data in intelligence analysis, and how this underpins the intelligence trinity.

 

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