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Cyber threat hunting is a proactive search for malicious actors and contents in your system.

Threat hunting is a must-have part of the defense strategy which focuses to detect and respond rapidly to unknown, undetected, and unresolved threats. This means that the security team purposely looks for malicious activities that occur at an endpoint or network level. Threat hunters analyze security data looking for hidden malware or attackers. Searching for patterns of suspicious activity is also on their list.

Rather than waiting for an attack to happen, a threat hunter is actively searching for all events that could affect the system.

Why Is Threat Hunting Important?

Threat actors frequently manage to remain and act unnoticed for months in a network they managed to breach. They often succeed to search and collect data, get login credentials, obtain unauthorized access, and perform a lateral movement across the environment completely undisturbed.

According to Joseph Ochieng’s Cyber Threat Hunting study, on average, cybercriminals spend close to 192 days before being discovered on a system.

Since no system is 100% efficiently protected, companies should focus not only on classical cybersecurity products but also on enhancing their threat hunting techniques. Basic cyber hygiene, correct implementation of firewalls, properly configured DNS filtering and other security tools can stop cyberattacks before they start. Equally important, they can prevent money and other resources loss.

If a threat actor succeeded to evade detection and penetrate the system, you`ll want potential advanced persistent threats out of your network.

Threat hunting is a critical element of the security strategy. It enables you to be one step ahead of malicious actors and respond in a timely manner to their attacks.

The Cyber Threat Hunting Process in 5 Steps

Cyber threat hunting is a multi-stage process that takes place in a cyclic manner. Since the hunt itself is proactive, the hunter doesn’t really know what exactly to look for. The process begins with defining the purpose of the threat hunt. The next step is analysis. The final step is remediation and response to purge the threat from the system. Below is a description of the various stages:

#1. Defining the Cyber Threat Hunt Goal

The first stage of the hunt is to define the main reasons why you are performing the hunt and set clear objectives.

What kind of assets are most valuable and you need to protect? Which ones could lead to further, more impactful damage, if they were attacked? What flaws or vulnerabilities could a threat actor find and exploit?

Since there is a wide variety of potential threats and data to retrieve, conducting a hunt without previously setting the objectives is likely to fail. A series of small sections of a directed hunt is always better than a large undirected one.

#2. Data Collection

Good cyber threat hunting reflects the quality of data collected. Incomplete data often results in a half-good hunt and a false sense of security. Use a Security Information and Event Management (SIEM) solution to gain insights and records of the activities in your enterprise’s IT environment.

Does more data result in a better outcome? Not always, due to the following reasons:

  • Volume – a collection of more data means the team will spend more time processing it. Depending on the hunt’s circumstances, a larger amount of data may only result in more time required.
  • Classifying – some techniques work best with smaller data sets than larger data sets, such as grouping and stack counting.

To answer the core question when performing a threat hunt, it’s essential to focus on the information required. Cyber threat hunting should also be a continuous process, with past hunts forming the base and motivation for future ones.

#3. Data Analysis

This stage can be really challenging since you are dealing with a large amount of data. Encryption and encoding are often used by data logs to remain undisclosed even after collection. Threat hunters should eliminate logs that split attack payload into small packets to fully check every ounce of information, asset, or data.

When the analysis is completed, two results can be expected:

  1. Correct hypothesis – indicating there is no evidence of an attack agent’s presence within the system.
  2. Incorrect hypothesis – if the stated hypothesis is confirmed, the hunter should check the nature, extent, and effect of the attack on the system as soon as possible. What’s more, the threat hunter is required to draft an effective attack response.

#4. Response

After analyzing the data, the threat hunter must generate the best response to the threat, defining both short-term and long-term solutions to counter the attack. The goal here is to terminate the ongoing attack as quickly as possible. The security team should also:

  • protect the affected host
  • prevent system damages
  • eliminate the possibility of a future attack

#5. Lessons Learned

After becoming aware that an attack occurred, the threat hunter should use this information to prevent similar events in the future.

The lessons-learned stage’s main goal should be to improve the security process by taking every element into account. Humans are fallible creatures by nature, therefore the human factor is a significant threat and can be a vulnerability.

For example, failing to patch systems in a timely manner can lead to security breaches. Firing the person involved would not eliminate the threat or resolve the solution. Instead, a better response would be implementing automated patching throughout the organization.

The Cyber Threat Hunting Process in 5 Steps

Threat Hunting Types

  • Structured hunting

The starting points for this type of threat hunt can be indicators of attack (IoAs) and TTPs of malicious actor. The structured threat hunt uses the MITRE Adversary Tactics Techniques and Common Knowledge (ATT&CK) framework.

  • Unstructured hunting

In this case, the indicators of compromise (IoC) work as a trigger for the threat hunting process. IoCs are forensic data that help researchers find malicious activity on networks and devices. Data breaches, malware, and trojans can be among the revealed threats.

  • Situation-driven

Specific business-related risks, trends, and vulnerabilities analysis that are unique to a company`s system can also be the starting point of a threat hunt.

Key Elements of Cyber Threat Hunting

The main job of cyber threat hunting is to monitor day-to-day activities and traffic across the network. During this proactive process, you will investigate possible anomalies to find any undiscovered malicious activities that could lead to a data breach. In this regard, threat hunting presents four key elements:

  • Methodology. For a successful cyber threat hunting process, organizations must engage in a proactive, ongoing, and ever-evolving approach. An ad-hoc, improvised perspective will be counterproductive and only produce minimal results.
  • Technology. Most organizations already have comprehensive endpoint security solutions with automated detection in place. Threat hunting works in addition to these and adds advanced technologies to find anomalies, unusual patterns, and other traces of attackers that shouldn’t be in systems and files.
  • Skilled personnel. Threat hunters are cybersecurity experts who not only know how to use the security technology mentioned. They also combine a persistent aspiration to go on the offensive with instinctive problem-solving capabilities to uncover and mitigate hidden threats.
  • Threat intelligence. Having access to evidence-based global intelligence increases and facilitates the hunt for already existing indicators of compromise (IOCs). Information such as attack classifications for malware and threat group identification, as well as advanced threat indicators, can help identify IOCs.
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Cyber Threat Hunting with Heimdal®

The Heimdal Threat-hunting and Action Center provides security teams with an advanced threat and risk-centric view of their entire IT landscape. It also offers granular telemetry across endpoints and networks thus enabling sysadmins to take swift and efficient decisions.

The platform is powered by our advanced XTP engine and fully integrated with Heimdal`s award-winning suite.

Its built-in hunting and action capabilities are easy to use and manage due to the unified interface we`ve created. Cornerstone elements from Security Information and Event Management (SIEM) and Security Orchestration, Automation and Response (SOAR) are brought together due to a visionary approach to threat hunting.

Briefly, the Heimdal Threat-hunting and Action Center enables your SecOps team to visualize, hunt, and act using the same dashboard. The product offers total visibility, threat intelligence put in context, and actionable tools, all in a unified and integrated platform.

Wrapping It Up

Usually performed by dedicated security experts, cyber threat hunting leverages the latest behavioral monitoring tools and intelligence to proactively detect suspicious patterns of behavior and has the potential to help reduce average detection and response times to just minutes.

By using Heimdal Threat-hunting and Action Center, you can stop faster information-stealing hackers and their tracks.

If you’re interested in professional cyber threat hunting and want to find out more about the process, remember that Heimdal Security always has your back. Our team is here to create a cybersecurity culture to the benefit of anyone who wants to learn more about it.

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Author Profile

Livia Gyongyoși

Communications and PR Officer

Livia Gyongyoși is a Communications and PR Officer within Heimdal®, passionate about cybersecurity. Always interested in being up to date with the latest news regarding this domain, Livia's goal is to keep others informed about best practices and solutions that help avoid cyberattacks.

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