Why threat intelligence is more valuable than PII

INDUSTRY INSIGHT

No one wants to share your Social Security number

When Social Security numbers, medical records or credit card information are compromised in cybersecurity attacks, victims worry they’ll be further exposed during an investigation into a breach.

But when a government or business network is breached, investigators are not particularly interested in the personally identifiable information that was stolen –  they want to see and share the threat indicators surrounding an attack.

At the most basic level, cyber threat indicators are pieces of data that describe the infrastructure, malware and tools used in a cyberattack. Investigators can use these indicators to detect future attacks that use the same tools or infrastructure, and in turn better protect the network. Sometimes the indicators are obvious, but oftentimes they are not. In many recent, high-profile breaches, traces of criminal activity weren’t detected for months.

Indicators can be the IP address the hacker uses or the method a hacker employs, like a phishing scam, malware or distributed denial of service (DDoS) event. Does the attack come from a specific URL?  What is the file verification process or hash? Like a criminal without gloves, every cyberattack leaves behind a fingerprint.

Indicators can also paint a picture about attackers, answering questions about the infrastructure commonly used to launch attacks or patterns in pre-attack activity that can be detected.

When observables are known, IP addresses and URLs can be blocked. Filters and monitoring are refined. Using tagged observables, investigators triage threats, so an appropriate defense is deployed. 

Observables also are fed into cybersecurity platforms and tagged to provide context, so that defenders can better utilize that information in defense and analysis. If a threat indicator is tagged to indicate it executes specific actions, an appropriate line of defense becomes clear. When threat indicators are shared, adversaries are discovered sooner and can be shut down earlier. Attacks are even prevented.

Because aggressors are using, sharing and selling the same malicious codes over and over again, they are ultimately tipping their hand because such scripts have been tagged as threat indicators. Many hackers, of course, modify their methods quickly. But when indicators are shared promptly and widely, investigators can shut down threats faster than new ones can be turned out.

The dark web is filled with hacker communities exchanging intelligence, known vulnerabilities, exploits and effective techniques for defeating cybersecurity systems. Government and industry are also sharing information -- just not as quickly as the attackers.

STIX, TAXII and CybOX are the predominant, automated cybersecurity sharing platforms used by the federal government. Known observables entered into these systems can be shared and acted upon in minutes. Public and private sector defenses don’t need to learn the hard way that a specific IP address is malware or a certain file hash is dangerous. And all three technologies are open source, a crucial component of effective cybersecurity sharing.

There simply isn’t a place for something like a Social Security number in STIX and the other systems. Why? That SSN, or any piece of personally identifiable information, is not a cyber threat indicator; there are no fields for PII in cyber-sharing platforms. Personal privacy is protected because PII is deemed irrelevant to cybersecurity defenses by both current and proposed laws.

Ultimately, the good guys have better tools, deeper knowledge and more financial resources to win this cyber arms race. As the cybersecurity community refines the processes and protections of collaboration, personally identifiable information actually becomes more secure. So you can keep your SSN; we just want your cyber threat indicators.

About the Author

Todd Helfrich is director of federal at ThreatStream.

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