What Is Cybersecurity Threat Intelligence?

By Sydney Butler / December 23, 2020

In the world of cybersecurity, knowledge is power. An attacker's best chance of success depends on keeping their victims as ignorant as possible. If you don't know what's happening, how it's happening, or why, then you're powerless to do anything about it.

Cybersecurity Threat Intelligence (CTI) is the antidote to this. It describes not only the knowledge needed to prevent or mitigate attacks and their risks but also the body of knowledge and practices that help gather that data.

Threat Intelligence Defined

In practice, what do you actually do when practicing threat intelligence? For the most part, it's all about working through mountains of data. The idea is to understand what happened in the past and then apply that to new threat data in the present.

Threat intelligence tries to answer questions about whether potential threats are real or how serious they are. We want to know what motivated a threat actor. Who are they targeting? Why are they targeting them?

The ideal outcome is when you can predict who a threat actor will attack next, based on the historical data you have at hand. Allowing pre-emptive action against the threat actor when an attack does happen. Spotting patterns in attack data is, of course, not as simple as it sounds, but the methods and approaches are constantly developing.

How Important Is Threat Intelligence?

ransomware hacker

If you have a good methodology and threat intelligence becomes actionable in the way it's meant to, then it can be crucially important.

Threat intelligence allows the custodians of precious data to prevent data breaches from happening in the first place. Prevention is always preferable to damage control, after all. Threat intelligence also lets us build a picture of howw= hackers and other threat actors operate.

It's thanks to threat intelligence practices that we know about hacker tactics such as phishing. It's not as if they publish their playbooks, so the details of these attacks and methods have to be inferred from the data. Once you understand the threat, it becomes possible to package that knowledge as best practices and specific steps people should take to neutralize or mitigate the risk.

Standardizing threat intelligence methodology also makes it much easier to spread and share knowledge. If cybersecurity professionals spread across the industry all speak the same language, it makes it fast and efficient to pool resources. Hackers do exactly this on the Dark Web, and cybersecurity professionals need a similar industry network to keep up with them.

When Does Something Become Intelligence?

Data by itself isn't intelligence. At the same time, an action plan that's not supported by data isn't intelligence either. For something to qualify as cybersecurity threat intelligence, it has to conform to three minimum requirements.

First of all, it has to be evidence-based. This means real data has to be gathered from real-world threats. Whether it's data gathered from hacker forums, malware infection patterns, or anything related to cybersecurity, what matters is that it is real data.

Next, that data must have the potential to be useful. It has to have some potential impact or relevance to cybersecurity incidents. You could also say that it has to be in the right scope.

Finally, the data that's within the correct scope of relevance has to lead to something actionable. The data should lead to actual plans and protocols aimed at preventing, mitigating and recovering from threat incidents. Only then is it real threat intelligence.

Threat Intelligence Programs

A threat intelligence program is a structured project. One that aims to build the capacity in an organization to create actionable threat intelligence. It involves putting together a threat intelligence team—a group of experts who each bring something unique to the talent pool. Then the program has to adopt or develop threat modeling tools and apply them to a proven process.

A threat intelligence program never ends. It's an ongoing, evolving thing, which must keep pace with the changing world of technology and the people who devise new threats.

Threat intelligence programs are also meant to produce specific outcomes after defining exactly what those outcomes should be for the organization in question. So the key purpose of such programs is to figure out the unique cybersecurity outcomes the intelligence should facilitate and then measuring whether those outcomes have actually been reached at the end of the day.

Tactical vs. Strategic Threat Intelligence


Just as in other spheres, there's a difference between tactics and strategy that's often misunderstood. Threat intelligence generates both tactical intelligence and strategic intelligence.

Tactical intelligence focuses on the technical data and how it represents specific tactics, methods, and procedures followed by threat actors. This type of intelligence is applied on the front lines of the cybersecurity battle in order to counter threats directly.

Strategic intelligence, on the other hand, informs high-level decision-makers. It lets them steer the overall program or organization to keep it agile and relevant in a chaotic theater of war.

The Threat Intelligence Community

The most important part of threat intelligence is the creation of lines of communication. Lines that allow different programs and organizations to share their intelligence with each other. No one can ever have a complete picture of what threat actors are doing. So if one threat intelligence program shares the results of a breach using new tactics or exploits, others can immediately use that intelligence to protect themselves.

It's an excellent example of how cooperation between otherwise unaffiliated or even competing organizations can be mutually beneficial. Everyone benefits from quality threat intelligence, so it's best to be generous with sharing yours because you'll get a hundredfold of the value back when others share their intelligence with you.

For a better user experience we recommend using a more modern browser. We support the latest version of the following browsers: For a better user experience we recommend using the latest version of the following browsers: Chrome, Edge, Firefox, Safari