TL;DR This is my opinion on Threat Intelligence: Automated Defense using Threat Intelligence feeds is (probably) rebranded anti-virus. Threat Intelligence offers benefit when used to hunt for or design mitigations to defeat advanced adversaries. Blue teams that act on this knowledge have an advantage over that adversary and others that use similar tactics.

Threat Intelligence is one of those topics you either love to scoff at or embrace. In this post, I’ll share my hopes, dreams, and aspirations for the budding discipline of Threat Intelligence.

I define Threat Intelligence as actionable adversary-specific information to help you defend your network. There are several firms that sell threat intelligence. Each of these firms track, collect on, and produce reports and raw indicator information for multiple actors. What’s in these reports and how these companies collect their information depends on the company and the means and relationships at their disposal.

How to best get value from Threat Intelligence is up for debate and there are many theories and products to answer this question. The competing ideas surround what is actionable information and how you should use it.

Anti-virus Reborn as… Anti-virus

One theory for Threat Intelligence is to provide a feed with IP addresses, domain names, and file hashes for known bad activity. Customers subscribe to this feed, their network defense tools ingest it, and now their network is automatically safe from any actor that the Threat Intelligence provider reports on. Many technical experts scoff at this, and not without reason. This is not far off from the anti-virus model.

The above theory is NOT why I care about Threat Intelligence. My interest is driven by my admittedly skewed offensive experiences. Let me put you into my shoes for a moment…

I build hacking tools for a living. These tools get a lot of use at different Cyber Defense Exercises. Year after year, I see repeat defenders and new defenders. For some defenders, Cobalt Strike is part of their threat model. These teams know they need to defend against Cobalt Strike capability. They also know they need to defend against the Metasploit Framework, Dark Comet, and other common tools too. These tools are known. I am quick to embrace and promote alternate capabilities for this exact reason. Diversity is good for offense.

I have to live with defenders that have access to my tools. This forces me to come up with ways for my power users and I to stay ahead of smart defenders. It’s a fun game and it forces my tools to get better.

The low hanging fruit of Threat Intelligence makes little sense to me. As an attacker, I can change my IP addresses easily enough. I stand up core infrastructure, somewhere on the internet, and I use redirectors to protect my infrastructure’s location from network defenders. Redirectors are bounce servers that sit between my infrastructure and the target’s network. I also have no problem changing my hashes or the process I use to generate my executable and DLL artifacts. Cobalt Strike has thought out workflows for this.

I worry about the things that are harder to change.

Why is notepad.exe connecting to the Internet?

Each blue team will latch on to their favorite indicators. I remember one year many blue teams spoke of the notepad.exe malware. They would communicate with each other about the tendency for red team payloads to inject themselves into notepad.exe. This is a lazy indicator, originating from the Metasploit Framework and older versions of Cobalt Strike. It’s something a red operator can change, but few bother to do so. I would expect to see this type of indicator in the technical section of a Threat Intelligence report. This information would help a blue team get ahead of the red teams I worked with that year.

If you’d like to see how this is done, I recommend that you read J.J. Guy‘s case study on how to use Carbon Black to investigate this type of indicator.

Several blue teams worry about Cobalt Strike and its Beacon payload. This is my capability to replicate an advanced adversary. These teams download the trial and pick apart my tool to find indicators that they can use to find Beacon. These teams know they can’t predict my IP addresses, which attack I will use, or what file I will touch disk with. There are other ways to spot or mitigate an attacker’s favorite techniques.

DNS Command and Control

One place you can bring hurt to an attacker is their command and control. If you understand how they communicate, you can design mitigations to break this, or at least spot their activity with the fixed indicators in their communication. One of my favorite stories involves DNS.

Cobalt Strike has had a robust DNS communication capability since 2013. It’s had DNS beaconing since late 2012. This year, several repeat blue teams had strategies to find or defeat DNS C2. One team took my trial and figured out that parts of my DNS communication scheme were case sensitive. They modified their DNS server to randomly change the casing of all DNS replies and break my communication scheme.

This helped them mitigate red team activity longer than other blue teams. This is another example where information about your adversary can help. If you know there’s a critical weakness in your adversary’s toolchain, use that weakness to protect your network against it. This is not much different from spoofing a mutex value or changing a registry option to inoculate a network against a piece of malware.

This story doesn’t end there though. This team fixated on DNS and they saw it as the red team’s silver bullet. Once we proved we could use DNS, we put our efforts towards defeating the proxy restrictions each team had in place. We were eventually able to defeat this team’s proxy and we had another channel to work in their network. We used outbound HTTP requests through their restrictive proxy server to control a host and pivot to others. They were still watching for us over DNS. The lesson? Even though your Threat Intelligence offers an estimate of an adversary’s capability, don’t neglect the basics, and don’t assume that’s the way they will always hit you. A good adversary will adapt.

To Seek Out New Malware in New Processes…

After a National CCDC event, a student team revealed that they would go through each process and look for WinINet artifacts to hunt Beacon. This is beautiful on so many levels. I build technologies, like Malleable C2, to allow a red operator to customize their indicators and give my payload life, even when the payload is known by those who defend against it. This blue team came up with a non-changing indicator in my payload’s behavior. Fixed malware behavior or artifacts in memory are things a Threat Intelligence company can provide a client’s hunt team. These are tools to find the adversary.

It’s (not) always about the Malware

The red teams I work with quickly judge which teams are hard and which teams are not. We adjust our tradecraft to give harder teams a better challenge. There are a few ways we’ll do this.

Sometimes I know I can’t put malware on key servers. When this happens, I’ll try to live on the systems the defenders neglect. I then use configuration backdoors and trust relationships to keep access to the servers that are well protected. When I need to, I’ll use RDP or some other built-in tool to work with the well protected server. In this way, I get what I need without alerting the blue team to my activity. Malware on a target is not a requirement for an attacker to accomplish their goal.

CrowdStrike tracks an actor they call DEEP PANDA. This actor uses very similar tradecraftIf a blue team knew my favored tradecraft and tricks in these situations, they could instrument their tools and scripts to look for my behavior.

A few points…

You may say, that’s one adversary. What about the others? There are several ways to accomplish offensive tasks and each technique has its limitations (e.g., DNS as a channel). If you mitigate or detect a tactic, you’ll likely affect or find other adversaries that use that tactic too. If an adversary comes up with something novel and uses it in the wild, Threat Intelligence is a way to find out about it, and stay ahead of advancing adversary tradecraft. Why not let the adversary’s offensive research work for you?

You may also argue that your organization is still working on the basics. They’re not ready for this. I understand. These concepts are not for every organization. If you have a mature intrusion response capability, these are ideas about how Threat Intelligence can make it better. These concepts are a complement to, not a replacement for, the other best practices in network defense.


You’ll notice that I speak favorably of Threat Intelligence and its possibilities. I read the glossy marketing reports these vendors release to tease their services. The information in the good reports isn’t far off from the information blue teams use to understand and get an edge in different Cyber Defense Exercises.

In each of these stories, you’ll notice a common theme. The red team is in the network or will get in the network (Assume Compromise!). Knowledge of the red actor’s tools AND tradecraft helps the blue teams get an advantage. These teams use their adversary knowledge in one of two ways: they either design a mitigation against that tactic or they hunt for the red team’s activity. When I look at Threat Intelligence, I see the most value when it aids a thinking blue operator in this way. As a red operator, this is where I’ve seen the most challenge.

Further Reading

  • Take a look at The Pyramid of Pain by David Bianco. This post discusses indicators in terms of things you deny the adversary. If you deny the adversary an IP address, you force them to take a routine action. If you deny the adversary use of a tool, you cause them a great deal of pain. David’s post is very much in the spirit of this one. Thanks to J.J. Guy for the link.