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4 Skills Every Threat Hunter Should Have

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By Carl Manion January 3, 2017

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Carl Manion is a managing principal of Raytheon Foreground Security.

Targeted attack campaigns by advanced cyber adversaries have become a mainstay that most—if not all—organizations now need to be concerned about. This type of threat may stay hidden on your network, undetected for long periods of time, laterally moving across your systems as the attackers try to find the valuable information they’re interested in stealing.

Although such targeted attacks are difficult to detect, there are proven techniques and best practices, such as threat hunting, that can be implemented to significantly improve your chances of finding clues that serve as indicators of ongoing attacks. As such, it’s highly critical for enterprises to incorporate best practices into their security operations to mitigate the risks that targeted attacks pose.

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Implementing a threat-hunting capability, along with standard IT security controls and monitoring systems, can improve an organization’s ability to detect and respond to threats. Because threat hunting is primarily a human-based activity, it takes skilled threat-hunting experts to implement an effective program.

So what makes a threat hunter successful? Here’s a list of four critical skills:

1. Pattern Recognition/Deductive Reasoning: Attackers are constantly finding new, creative ways to exploit weaknesses in popular operating systems and applications. Unforeseen zero-day exploits with no existing signatures are nearly an everyday occurrence, therefore, threat hunters need to look for patterns that match the tactics, techniques and procedures of known threat actors, advanced malware and unusual behaviors. To detect such patterns, a skilled threat hunter must also understand what normal behavior and patterns look like on their network. They must also be able to formulate and develop logical theories on how to access a network or exploit a system to gain access to specific critical information. Once they’ve developed their theory, they need to be able to work backward, using deductive reasoning, to look for likely clues and traces that would be left behind by attackers within those scenarios.

2. Data Analytics: Threat hunters rely on technology to monitor environments and collect logs and other data to perform data analytics. As such, threat hunters must have a solid understanding of data analytics and data science approaches, tools and techniques. Leveraging best practices such as the use of data visualization tools to create charts and diagrams significantly helps threat hunters identify patterns so they can determine the best actions to take in conducting threat-hunting activities and related investigations.

3. Malware Analysis/Data Forensics: When threat hunters find new threats, they often have to analyze and reverse engineer newly discovered malware and data forensics activities to understand how the malware was initially deployed, what its capabilities are and the extent of any damage or exposure it may have caused.

4. Communication: Once a threat hunter detects a threat, vulnerability, or weakness within the target network, they must effectively communicate to the appropriate stakeholders and staff members so the issue can be addressed and mitigated. If threats and related risks aren’t properly communicated to the right stakeholders, attackers will continue to have the upper hand. 

As cyber adversaries continue to evolve, skilled threat analysts are needed to help defend our networks. Fortunately, a recent survey conducted by the National Cyber Security Alliance found 37 percent of young adults say they’re more likely to consider a cyber career than they were a year ago. Young adults also said they’re interested in career opportunities that will allow them to use their problem-solving, data analysis and communication skills. Threat hunting is an opportunity for them to use all of those skills.

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