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What is Cyber Threat Hunting?

StrongDM Team
Written by
Co-founder / CTO
Schuyler Brown
Reviewed by
Chairman of the Board
Last updated on: May 5, 2023

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What is Cyber Threat Hunting?

Threat hunting is the cyber defense practice of proactively searching for threats within a network. Threat hunters look for threats that may have evaded an organization’s existing endpoint security. Their main aim is to prevent any present threats or attacks from advancing and doing serious harm.

Not to be confused with ordinary threat detection, threat hunting does not simply react to obvious signs of danger. Threat hunters assume that attackers are already inside the network and seek evidence of their presence and activity. To gain insights, they rely on threat intelligence data, MITRE ATT&CK Framework, tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP), indicators of compromise (IOC), and other tools.

Threat hunting is an important defense practice since signs of attack may not be immediately evident. In some cases, attackers may remain in the network for weeks or months undetected. They may spend the time searching for valuable data or login credentials that will enable them to move laterally and expand the attack.

Five Steps of a Cyber Threat Hunting Campaign

Step 1: Hypothesis

Threat hunters use threat intelligence data, aids like MITRE ATT&CK Framework, tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP), as well as their own knowledge and experience to form a threat hypothesis.

Step 2: Trigger

A trigger flags a certain system or area in the environment for further investigation. It may come through advanced detection technology, or a threat hunter’s well-formed hypothesis itself may serve as a trigger.

Step 3: Data gathering

The next step is to gather threat intelligence data with the help of tools such as Security Information and Event Management (SIEM), Security Orchestration, Automation, and Response (SOAR), and Managed Detection and Response (MDR) technologies.

Step 4: Investigation

During the threat investigation process, threat hunters analyze all relevant information they have in order to confirm or rule out malicious activity.

Step 5: Response

After a thorough investigation confirms malicious activity, the security team formulates a response. Depending on the type of attack and the damage sustained, this may include software patching, malware removal, vulnerability analysis, or new protective measures.

The Evolution of Cyber Threat Hunting

The concept of threat hunting has been around for a while, but it is only in recent years that it has become an essential strategy for cybersecurity. Organizations are now recognizing the need to move beyond reactive measures and focus on proactive and preventive measures for cybersecurity. Cyber threat hunting has evolved rapidly from a manual and time-intensive process to a more automated and efficient process through the use of advanced technologies such as AI and machine learning.

AI and machine learning have revolutionized cyber threat hunting by enabling organizations to analyze vast amounts of data in real-time. These technologies can identify patterns and anomalies that may be indicative of a security threat, allowing organizations to respond quickly and effectively.

Another key factor in the evolution of cyber threat hunting is the increasing collaboration between organizations and security professionals. Sharing threat intelligence and best practices has become essential in the fight against cyber threats. By working together, organizations can stay ahead of potential threats and prevent them from causing damage.

Key Components of Cyber Threat Hunting

Cyber threat hunting involves a range of activities that are designed to identify and eliminate cybersecurity threats. The key components of cyber threat hunting include continuous monitoring of network traffic, infrastructure, and system logs, proactive analysis of system and network behavior, and proactive searching for threats within an organization’s security environment.

Continuous monitoring of network traffic, infrastructure, and system logs is essential for identifying potential security threats. This involves analyzing data in real-time to identify any unusual activity that may indicate a security threat.

Proactive analysis of system and network behavior is another key component of cyber threat hunting. This involves analyzing data over time to identify patterns and anomalies that may be indicative of a security threat. By identifying these patterns, organizations can take proactive steps to prevent potential threats from causing damage.

Proactive searching for threats within an organization’s security environment is also essential for effective cyber threat hunting. This involves actively searching for potential threats within an organization's systems and data. By identifying and neutralizing these threats before they can cause harm, organizations can minimize the impact of a cyber-attack.

In conclusion, cyber threat hunting is a proactive approach to cybersecurity that involves continuous monitoring, analysis, and proactive searching for potential threats. By staying ahead of potential threats, organizations can minimize the impact of a cyber-attack and protect their systems, data, and reputation.

The Cyber Threat Hunting Process

The cyber threat hunting process is a proactive approach to identifying and mitigating cyber threats. It involves a series of key stages that help organizations stay ahead of potential cyber attacks.

Preparation and Planning

Before starting the actual threat hunting process, it is essential to identify the scope of the investigation, define goals and objectives, and prepare the necessary tools and resources for the operation. This stage is critical as it sets the foundation for the entire threat hunting process. Threat hunters need to have a clear understanding of the organization's infrastructure, network topology, and potential vulnerabilities. They also need to have a well-defined plan that outlines the investigation's scope and objectives.

During the preparation and planning stage, threat hunters need to identify potential sources of data that may be relevant to the investigation. This may include firewalls, intrusion detection systems, and security information and event management (SIEM) systems. They also need to ensure that they have the necessary tools and resources to collect and analyze this data effectively.

Data Collection and Analysis

Threat hunters collect data from various sources such as firewalls, intrusion detection systems, and security information and event management (SIEM) systems. They then analyze this data to identify suspicious or malicious activity. This stage involves the use of various tools and techniques to identify potential threats, including network traffic analysis, log analysis, and behavior analysis.

Threat hunters need to have a deep understanding of the organization's network and infrastructure to identify potential threats accurately. They also need to be able to differentiate between legitimate and malicious activity to avoid false positives.

Hypothesis Generation

Based on the analysis of data, threat hunters develop hypotheses on the nature and extent of the threat they are investigating. This stage involves using the data collected in the previous stage to develop a hypothesis about the potential threat's origin, method of attack, and potential impact.

Threat hunters need to be able to think creatively and outside the box to develop accurate hypotheses. They also need to consider all potential scenarios and not limit themselves to preconceived notions about potential threats.

Investigation and Validation

In this stage, threat hunters conduct a detailed investigation to validate their hypotheses, gathering additional data to corroborate their findings. They use various techniques such as penetration testing and forensic analysis to identify and investigate any potential threats and determine their attributes, including origin, method of attack, and potential impact.

Threat hunters need to be meticulous in their investigation, leaving no stone unturned. They need to be able to analyze data from multiple sources to validate their hypotheses accurately.

Remediation and Reporting

Once a threat has been identified and validated, remediation steps are taken to neutralize the threat. This stage involves implementing appropriate security measures to prevent similar threats from occurring in the future. The findings of the investigation are documented and reported to the organization's management for future reference and to use in developing security strategies or further security measures.

Threat hunters need to be able to communicate their findings effectively to the organization's management. They need to provide clear and concise reports that outline the potential impact of the threat and the steps taken to neutralize it.

The cyber threat hunting process is an ongoing process that requires constant vigilance and attention to detail. By following these key stages, organizations can stay ahead of potential cyber threats and protect their critical assets from harm.

Cyber Threat Hunting Techniques

Cyber threat hunting is a proactive approach to identifying and mitigating cyber threats before they cause damage. It involves using a variety of techniques to search for potential threats that may have bypassed traditional security measures. In this article, we will explore some of the most common cyber threat hunting techniques used by security professionals.

Indicator-Based Hunting

Indicator-based hunting is one of the primary techniques used in cyber threat hunting. It involves the identification and analysis of specific indicators of compromise (IOC) or tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP) commonly associated with a particular threat. These indicators can include IP addresses, domains, file hashes, or network patterns, regularly used by attackers to target an organization's infrastructure.

For example, if an organization is aware of a specific malware strain that has been used in recent attacks, they can proactively search for indicators associated with that malware, such as file hashes or command and control (C2) server addresses. By identifying these indicators, security professionals can detect and mitigate potential threats before they cause damage.

Behavior-Based Hunting

Behavior-based hunting involves a proactive search for irregularities or anomalies in an organization's infrastructure or network behavior. It looks for deviations from normal system behavior, such as unusual traffic patterns, suspicious user behavior, or abnormal system events, indicating a potential security incident.

For example, if an organization's network traffic suddenly spikes during non-business hours, it could indicate that a cybercriminal is attempting to exfiltrate data. By proactively searching for these anomalies, security professionals can detect and mitigate potential threats before they cause damage.

Anomaly-Based Hunting

Anomaly-based hunting involves the identification of threats that manage to bypass traditional security measures such as firewalls and intrusion detection systems. This technique uses predictive analytics, machine learning, and AI to detect outliers or anomalies in system behavior, which are then flagged as potential threats for further investigation.

For example, if an organization's firewall is configured to block all incoming traffic except for traffic on port 80, an attacker may attempt to bypass the firewall by sending traffic on a different port. Anomaly-based hunting can detect this unusual behavior and flag it as a potential threat for further investigation.

Intelligence-Driven Hunting

Intelligence-driven hunting is a technique that leverages external intelligence sources such as threat intelligence feeds, malware analysis reports, underground forums, and dark web sources to identify and investigate potential security incidents. This technique allows organizations to stay ahead of cyber threats by proactively gathering intelligence on potential threats and vulnerabilities.

For example, if a new malware strain is discovered in the wild, security professionals can proactively search for indicators associated with that malware and use the intelligence gathered to detect and mitigate potential threats before they cause damage.

Conclusion

Cyber threat hunting is a strategy for organizations looking to protect their IT infrastructure from sophisticated cyber threats. It is a proactive approach that complements traditional security measures such as firewalls, antivirus, and intrusion detection systems. By continuously monitoring an organization’s infrastructure and system behavior, threat hunting can help identify and mitigate potential threats before they cause significant damage.


About the Author

, Zero Trust Privileged Access Management (PAM), the StrongDM team is building and delivering a Zero Trust Privileged Access Management (PAM), which delivers unparalleled precision in dynamic privileged action control for any type of infrastructure. The frustration-free access stops unsanctioned actions while ensuring continuous compliance.

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A Policy Enforcement Point (PEP) is a component in a security framework that enforces access control policies. It regulates and monitors access to...

What is Access Discovery?

Access Discovery is the process of identifying and verifying available pathways to digital resources or information within a system or network. It...

What Is Active Directory (AD) Bridging?

Active Directory (AD) bridging lets users log into non-Windows systems with their Microsoft Active Directory account credentials. This extends AD benefits...

What Is an Open Policy Agent (OPA)?

Open Policy Agent (OPA) is an open-source, general-purpose policy engine that enables policy-as-code across diverse software stacks. It provides a unified...

What Is Continuous Authorization?

Continuous Authorization is a security concept ensuring ongoing validation of users' access rights within a system. Employing real-time session monitoring...

What is Continuous Monitoring?

What is Continuous Monitoring? Continuous monitoring is a systematic and ongoing process that uses automated tools and technologies to monitor the...

What is Customer Identity Access Management (CIAM)?

Customer Identity Access Management (CIAM) is a specialized branch of identity and access management designed to facilitate secure and seamless customer...

What is Cyber Threat Hunting?

Threat hunting is the cyber defense practice of proactively searching for threats within a network. Threat hunters look for threats that may have evaded...

What Is Disaster Recovery Policy (DRP)?

Disaster Recovery Policy is a strategic framework outlining procedures and resources to swiftly restore essential business functions after a disruptive...

What Is eXtensible Access Control Markup Language (XACML)?

eXtensible Access Control Markup Language (XACML) is a standard for specifying and exchanging access control policies in computer systems. It provides a...

What Is Fine-Grain Access Controls?

Fine-grain access controls are a type of access control that enables granular access to systems, applications, and data. Access is based on specific...

What Is Group-Based Access Control (GBAC)?

Group-Based Access Control (GBAC) is a security model that regulates access to resources by assigning permissions based on user group membership. It...

What Is Identity Fabric?

Identity Fabric refers to an integrated set of identity and access management services that provide seamless and secure user access across a diverse range...

What Is NoSQL Injection? Examples, Prevention, and More

What is NoSQL Injection? NoSQL Injection is a type of injection attack that exploits vulnerabilities in NoSQL databases by injecting malicious code into...

What Is Policy-as-Code? Tools, Examples, Implementation

Policy-as-Code refers to the practice of managing and implementing policy decisions through code, making them enforceable and verifiable within IT...

What Is Privileged Identity Management (PIM)?

Privileged identity management is the process companies use to manage which privileged users—including human users and machine users—have access to which...

What is Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP)?

What is Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP)? Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) is a proprietary protocol developed by Microsoft that allows users to remotely...

What Is Segregation of Duties (SoD)?

Segregation of Duties (SoD) is a risk management principle that ensures critical tasks are divided among different individuals to prevent conflicts of...

What is Vendor Privileged Access Management (VPAM)?

Vendor Privileged Access Management (VPAM) is a cybersecurity strategy that focuses on controlling and securing third-party access to an organization's...

What Is Zero Trust Data Protection?

Zero Trust Data Protection is a security framework that assumes no inherent trust, requiring verification from anyone trying to access data, regardless of...

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X11 Forwarding: What Is It, Why Use It, How to Set It Up

X11 Forwarding is a feature of the X Window System that allows a user to run graphical applications on a remote server while displaying them locally. This...

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Zero Trust

Zero Trust is a modern security model founded on the design principle “Never trust, always verify.” It requires all devices and users, regardless of...

Zero Trust vs. the Principle of Least Privilege: What's the Differences?

As cyber attacks become more advanced and frequent, organizations are realizing the importance of enhancing their cybersecurity strategies. Two approaches...

Zombie Accounts

Zombie accounts: forgotten accounts that open the door to bad actors looking to insert malware, steal data, and damage your internal systems.

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