Threat Intelligence Feeds: Why Context is Key

Threat Intelligence Feeds: Why Context is Key
Photon Research Team
Read More From Photon Research Team
May 7, 2020 | 10 Min Read

Key Takeaways:

  • Choosing which threat intelligence feeds to rely on can be a daunting task: Different feeds provide varying levels of raw data and information. Organizations need to have a clear set of requirements in mind to ensure what they pull in can be relevant.
  • Context is king. Understanding how and from where your feeds get their information will help determine the process that turns data points into actionable intelligence.
  • Threat intelligence feeds can be consumed and processed in a variety of ways. Digital Shadows SearchLight and Shadow Search can help enrich information from feeds and provide critical context to power investigations.

What are Threat Intelligence Feeds?

Whether you’re a security operations center (SOC) analyst, part of an incident response team, or just an infosec nerd, you’ve likely felt the pain associated with threat intelligence feeds. On the surface, threat intelligence feeds are precisely what they sound like: Continuously updated feeds that provide external information or data on existing or potential risks and threats. In practice, however, there are a few differences that set different feeds apart from each other. Mainly, the type of content they provide.

Threat intelligence feeds are a bit of a misnomer. Whether they provide hashes, indicators of compromise (IOCs), or domain names, very few feeds provide actual “intelligence.” It is then up to security analysts to take this data or information, process it, and turn it into actionable intelligence (which almost always requires additional effort).

Information vs. intelligence (and to an extent, data). David Bianco’s well known (https://twitter.com/davidjbianco) “Pyramid of Pain” is an excellent way illustrating the types of indicators that are out there, but also how much pain they can cause your adversaries. The “good stuff” is at the top of the pyramid.

The Pyramid of Pain

Data vs. information vs. intelligence

These terms are often used interchangeably, but when it comes to threat intelligence feeds, there are differences. Though they’re called “intelligence” feeds, many consist of information or data, rather than curated intelligence. For defenders, continuous streams of alerts without context can become exhausting, turning indicators of compromise into what Digital Shadows CISO Rick Holland calls “indicators of exhaustion.” Information overload can result in security teams drowning in alerts.

Data can be understood as being raw and unprocessed. Think of these feeds as those who provide data points like IP addresses, URLs, and IOCs. This type of data is useful, but only provides a small part of the story.

Information is data that is structured and given context. This brings data into focus and answers specific questions e.g., is this domain actively hosting malicious content?

Intelligence can be broadly defined as actionable information that is taken in context alongside specific requirements. This is the next step up from information; intelligence can help inform decisions: Being actionable is a critical differentiating factor between intelligence and data/information. Good intelligence allows an organization to prioritize its efforts and take proactive action against cyber threats.

This doesn’t necessarily make feeds that provide raw data useless: They can still play a role in producing intelligence. Often, feeds are the first place groups start on their threat intelligence journey: Less mature security teams may gravitate towards threat intelligence feeds because they seem to be the most accessible, especially when you are budget constrained. But knowing precisely what you are looking for, what problem you want to solve, and also recognizing the limitations of threat intelligence feeds is critical. One of the ways security teams can do this is by establishing intelligence requirements and aligning these to threat intelligence feeds. Practices like threat modeling (structuring thinking around what critical assets an organization has and which are the likely threats to that organization) can streamline this process and provide direction.

This not only makes the daunting task of narrowing down which feeds to use a little bit easier but also helps teams get the most value.

Threat intelligence feeds examples

There are a ton of different threat intelligence feeds out there. This GitHub page is a great resource that has links to over 75 different feeds, as well as useful information on different standardized formats, frameworks, platforms, and services for sharing threat intelligence.

One thing we like about this list is that it highlights the importance of context and analysis we mentioned above:

“A certain amount of (domain- or business-specific) analysis is necessary to create true threat intelligence.”

Here are a couple of recommended feeds picked by Digital Shadows that have been particularly useful, just be aware of the limitations of threat feeds.

  1. AlienVault OTX
    AlienVault Open Threat Exchange (OTX) (https://twitter.com/OTX) is a crowd-sourced threat intelligence sharing platform. Threat data in OTX is referred to as pulses, which can consist of anything from IOCs to IP addresses: These pulses can be commented on and upvoted by the OTX community. Any contributions are stripped of any identifiers, allowing organizations to safely share their data. OTX also facilitates information sharing via closed communities, where participants can have in-depth discussions on cyber threat trends.

  2. DomainTools
    DomainTools (https://twitter.com/DomainTools) provides a variety of services related to WHOIS and DNS lookups. Their Iris tool is incredibly useful for digital investigations and has an excellent user interface that supports link and association analysis for malicious domains. Though DomainTools isn’t a traditional threat intelligence feed, it is perhaps one of the most topical: DomainTools currently curates a free list of potentially suspicious domains related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic to help organizations mitigate against threat actors taking advantage of the pandemic. This list is updated daily, provides domain names, creation dates, risk scores, and currently sits at over 138,000 registered domains.

  3. Abuse.ch
    Abuse.ch (https://twitter.com/abuse_ch) is an excellent non-profit source that maintains different projects which provide data to help protect organizations from various types of malicious activity. This includes MalwareBazaar, which consists of a database of malware types, hashes, and signatures from members of the the infosec community, antivirus vendors, and threat intelligence providers; Feodo Tracker, which shares botnet command-and-control (C2) servers and blocklists associated with the Feodo malware family; I Got Phished, which collects and shares information on known phishing campaigns; SSL Blacklist (SSLBL), which has information on malicious SSL connections and blacklisted SSL certificates used by botnet C2 servers; and URLhaus, which shares malicious URLs that are being used for malware distribution.

  4. The Spamhaus Project
    SpamHaus, created by Steve Linford (https://twitter.com/stevelinford) is a non-profit project that tracks spam and other related cyber threats such as phishing, malware, and botnets. Data from SpamHaus is used by Internet service providers (ISPs) and email providers around the globe to identify and block malicious traffic. The organization also works with law enforcement agencies to identify and pursue spam and malware sources worldwide and compiles profiles, backgrounds, and evidence on spam operators.

  5. PhishTank
    PhishTank is a crowd-sourced anti-phishing service operated by OpenDNS that provides free data as well as API access. PhishTank contributors can submit, verify, track, and share data related to phishing attacks. Their website can also be used to spot-check potentially malicious domains to see if other users have previously reported them.

  6. ThreatMiner
    ThreatMiner, created by Michael Yip (https://twitter.com/michael_yip) is a service designed “to free analysts from data collection and provide intelligence analysts with a portal on which they can carry out their tasks, from reading reports to pivoting and data enrichment – all on a single portal.” It serves as an open-source search engine for information on IOCs such as domains, IP addresses, and malware hashes. Importantly, ThreatMiner also provides critical context for every IOC. As they state:

    “Without contextual information, an IOC is just a data point.”

  7. FireHOL IP Lists
    FireHOL focuses on cybercrime, and analyses and combines various security IP feeds related to cyber attacks, service abuse, malware, botnets, and C2 servers. FireHOL documents their evolution, geo-map, age, retention policy, and overlaps. The IP list combined by FireHOL can be used in conjunction with a firewall to block traffic to and from listed IP addresses.

  8. Shadowserver
    Popular among computer emergency response teams (CERTs), the Shadowserver Foundation (https://twitter.com/Shadowserver) is a non-profit organization that collects and analyzes data on a wide range of cyber threats, including malware and botnet activity; Shadowserver also runs a wide range of honeypots and honeyclients. When an organization subscribes to Shadowserver, they can provide data such as IP addresses, to get tailored reports with detected malicious traffic involving their assets. Report subscribers  can also filter and limit their feeds by various parameters such as geo-coordinates or Autonomous System Number (ASN): This helps ensure that the data you receive is more relevant.

And although not technically a threat intelligence feed, the Malware Information Sharing Platform (MISP) deserves a shoutout. MISP is a free and open-source threat intelligence platform co-financed by the European Union. It allows access to a variety of different feeds and also facilitates collecting, storing, distributing, and sharing IOCs and analyses of malware samples. Intelligence sharing between trusted partners is crucial for identifying threats, as MISP duly notes:

“Quite often similar organisations are targeted by the same Threat Actor, in the same or different Campaign. MISP will make it easier for you to share with, but also to receive from trusted partners and trust-groups. Sharing also enables collaborative analysis and prevents you from doing the work someone else already did before.”

How to enrich threat intelligence feeds with SearchLight

While many of the feeds mentioned in this blog are about the general threat landscape, in contrast, our SearchLight service provides intelligence that is fully tailored to an organization. We work with our customers to build unique collection plans based on their most valuable assets. Alerts from SearchLight are built around specific requirements to ensure they are directly relevant to the threats and risks customers are most concerned with.

Digital Shadows intelligence can also be integrated into a range of platforms. SearchLight integrates with all the leading threat intelligence platforms, such as Anomali, ThreatConnect, ThreatQuotient, and TruStar – as well as with a host of SIEM, Ticketing, SOAR, and Enforcement platforms. You can read all about our various integrations on our dedicated integrations page.

Increasingly, however, organizations have been using the data within SearchLight to enrich further their observables (access to SearchLight also grants access to Cylance Infinity, AlienVault, PhishTank, and Webroot – as well pastes, criminal forum posts, Twitter posts, and other data sources).

Customers can also use Shadow Search to investigate information from SearchLight alerts or threat intelligence feeds and enrich their investigations. For example, if a customer receives an alert on exposed internal employee credentials, they can plug that information into Shadow Search to get critical contextual information on where the data leak originated/has been shared. If SearchLight detects a vulnerability on an organizations’ internet-facing applications, they can pivot into Shadow Search to gain additional context from NIST CVD, ExploitDB, and mentions across criminal locations. Additionally, if a customer uses a feed to gather IOCs about an active cyber campaign targeting their sector, Shadow Search can be used to help build a profile of previous activity or dark web forums and marketplaces where that threat actor is active. For example, this blog we published, Using Shadow Search to Power Investigations: Sextortion Campaigns, provides an overview of how to use Shadow Search to investigate a sextortion attack. These same methodologies can easily be applied to many other types of investigation.

If you want to have a play around with Shadow Search and see what results you get back, you can do so by signing up for Test Drive. This will give you seven days of free access to perform your own searches, as well as see some of the example alerts you would expect to receive.

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