Proactivity in Cybersecurity: What Is Cyber Threat Hunting?

Diana Ipacs

May 19, 2023

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Cyber threat hunting in focus: Check out what exactly cyber threat hunters do, and how it differs from ethical hacking.


Are you confident that your current cybersecurity measures could detect an advanced, stealthy threat hiding within your network? The increasing need for a robust and proactive response to this question is what led to the emergence of cyber threat hunting.

In this article, we will delve deeper into the intricacies of cyber threat hunting, discovering its roots and significance today. We will cover what the role of a cyber threat hunter entails, the methods they use, and the diverse forms of their employment. We will also draw parallels between cyber threat hunting and ethical hacking, two areas that (to many people’s surprise) are related but distinct.

Let’s get right to it!

Cyber threat hunting

Who Hunts the Hunters? The Emergence of Cyber Threat Hunting

Unlike traditional security measures that act reactively, cyber threat hunting adopts a more active approach: It seeks to identify and neutralize threats before they materialize. This novel strategy emerged in the early to mid-2010s as organizations grappled with the mounting challenges of advanced persistent threats (APTs), sophisticated attackers who can dwell undetected in networks for extended periods. (The term "threat hunting" itself has been used for many years in various security contexts, including network security and malware analysis. The specific combination of "cyber threat hunting" likely started gaining traction and recognition in the early 2010s. This was when organizations increasingly recognized the need for proactive measures to detect and respond to advanced cyber threats.)

Cyber threat hunting began its rise in more technologically advanced regions, where high-profile cyberattacks led to significant economic and reputational losses. The now infamous data breach at Target in 2013, for example, was a wake-up call for many organizations. This incident exposed the personal information of up to 70 million individuals and was a prime example of an APT in action.

But it wasn't just high-profile breaches that prompted the widespread adoption of cyber threat hunting. The evolving nature of cyber threats, with their increasing complexity and stealth, was a major driver. Coupled with an expanding digital landscape, cyber threat hunting became a prominent weapon in an organization's cybersecurity arsenal.

Why Cyber Threat Hunting Is More Than Just a Buzzword

Invisible Threats, Tangible Consequences

While some cyber attacks can manifest in obvious ways, causing disruptions and compromising systems, there are also sophisticated threats that operate silently, evading traditional defense mechanisms. Cyber threat hunting takes a proactive stance in uncovering these stealthy actors, continuously scanning networks, analyzing logs, and searching for any signs of abnormal or suspicious behavior.

Put simply, cyber threat hunters are like digital detectives. They are responsible for examining an organization's cyber terrain for any signs of abnormal activity that could indicate a potential threat. They use a blend of technology, analytical thinking, and deep understanding of cyber threats to proactively identify vulnerabilities before they can be exploited.

Tasks and Responsibilities of a Cyber Threat Hunter

Cyber threat hunting involves more than simply monitoring networks and systems for known threats. While this is an important aspect of the role, the real strength of a cyber threat hunter lies in their ability to anticipate and detect previously unidentified threats. They are actively engaged in continuous threat intelligence gathering, anomaly detection, incident response planning, and threat mitigation. With a strong familiarity with threat patterns and the latest in hacking techniques, cyber threat hunters can preemptively address potential threats, bolstering the organization's cybersecurity.

The Arsenal: Top 5 Methods of Cyber Threat Hunting

Cyber threat hunters employ various methods and techniques to uncover hidden threats within networks and systems. These are some of the top methods they utilize, completed with insights into their technical aspects and practical applications:

1. Signature-Based Detection: The Digital Fingerprint

Signature-based detection involves comparing network traffic or files against known patterns or signatures of known threats. While antivirus software automatically scans files for known malware signatures, cyber threat hunters also leverage these signatures but with the advantage of manual analysis. They manually examine suspicious files, network logs, or traffic patterns to gain a deeper understanding of potential threats, even beyond the scope of known ones.

While signature-based detection is effective in identifying known threats, it can still be valuable for cyber threat hunters when encountering novel or sophisticated threats that have yet to be identified and categorized. With their expertise, cyber threat hunters can spot subtle variations or modifications in signatures that may indicate the presence of emerging threats or previously unknown malware. This manual analysis allows them to adapt and stay ahead of cybercriminals who constantly evolve their techniques.

So, while signature-based detection can struggle with new or sophisticated threats, the manual analysis conducted by cyber threat hunters brings a level of expertise and adaptability that can uncover even those threats that have yet to be identified and categorized.

2. Anomaly Detection: Seeking the Unusual

Anomaly detection is a vital technique in cyber threat hunting. As we explained in a previous article on intrusion detection systems, it allows the identification of deviations from expected patterns or behaviors in network traffic or system logs. While automated systems might come more readily to mind for most when it comes to anomaly detection, cyber threat hunters bring a human touch to the process. This adds unique expertise and contextual understanding.

Cyber threat hunters manually examine anomalies detected by automated systems, and they go beyond predefined patterns and known signatures. If they have in-depth knowledge of the organization's IT environment, they can differentiate between false positives and genuine threats, considering factors like business operations and user behavior.

The human-driven analysis of cyber threat hunters allows them to adapt detection techniques, fine-tune machine learning models, and incorporate threat intelligence. Their comprehensive approach enhances the accuracy and efficacy of anomaly detection, so they can discover subtle and nuanced anomalies that automated systems might miss.

In short, cyber threat hunters play a critical role in proactive cybersecurity efforts by complementing the capabilities of automated systems with their human expertise and adaptability.

3. IOC Hunting: Tracing Threats through Digital Clues

IOC (or Indication of Compromise) hunting is another core aspect of cyber threat hunting. It revolves around the search for specific indicators that signal the presence of a threat, like IP addresses, domain names, hashes of malicious files, or patterns in network traffic.

Cyber threat hunters employ their expertise and advanced tools to identify and track these IOCs, discerning potential threats within an environment. By keeping an eye on these digital breadcrumbs, they can respond swiftly to mitigate risks and protect against potential compromises.

Through IOC hunting, cyber threat hunters gain insights into the tactics, techniques, and infrastructure employed by threat actors. This enables them to proactively fortify defenses, update security measures, and disrupt malicious activities before significant damage occurs.

4. Behavior-based Analysis: Uncovering Patterns

At the heart of behavior-based analysis lies the establishment of a baseline of normal behavior. Cyber threat hunters, armed with their deep understanding of the organization's systems and networks, carefully observe and analyze the regular flow of activities. As a result, they gain a comprehensive understanding of what constitutes typical behavior in the digital realm.

Just like an astute observer in a crowded room, cyber threat hunters can detect deviations or anomalies that stand out from the established norm. They rely on their intuition and experience to identify patterns that may indicate a potential compromise. This enables them to recognize subtle nuances and understand the context behind the patterns they observe.

Cyber threat hunters possess a deep understanding of the organization's unique environment, its users, and the intricacies of its digital operations. By applying their expertise, they can contextualize the observed behavior, consider factors such as business processes and system dependencies, and differentiate between genuine anomalies and innocuous variations.

5. Threat Intelligence: The Power of Knowledge

Threat intelligence involves gathering and analyzing information about potential threats, including new vulnerabilities, emerging attack techniques, and indicators of compromise. It's like staying informed about the latest crime trends in your neighborhood to better protect yourself. They monitor reputable sources, collaborate with industry peers, and leverage threat intelligence platforms, which makes for a highly proactive defense against evolving threats.

These five methods, each with its unique strengths, equip cyber threat hunters with a versatile toolkit to detect and neutralize potential threats within complex digital environments.

It's important to note that cyber threat hunting is a continuous and iterative process. Cyber threat hunters continuously adapt their techniques, tools, and strategies to keep up with emerging threats.

Cyber threat hunting methods

In-House Experts vs. External Consultants

Cyber threat hunters can be found both within organizations as in-house experts and as external consultants or freelancers. Larger organizations often opt for an in-house cyber threat hunting team, as they can afford the infrastructure and human resources costs. These teams typically work closely with the organization's security operations center (SOC), ensuring that any detected threats are swiftly and effectively managed.

In contrast, smaller organizations, or those with budget constraints, might choose to hire external consultants or freelance cyber threat hunters. This gives them access to high-level expertise without the associated overheads of a full-time in-house team. Despite not being permanently situated within the organization, these external threat hunters can offer a fresh perspective and a wide range of experience from working with diverse clientele.

Despite the growing importance of cyber threat hunting, there's a notable shortage of skilled professionals in this field. A report from Cybersecurity Ventures predicts that there will be 3.5 million unfilled cybersecurity jobs globally by 2025, many of these in the realm of cyber threat hunting. This fact highlights the urgent need for more trained professionals in this critical area of cybersecurity.

Cyber Threat Hunting vs Ethical Hacking: What’s the Difference?

The Intricacies of Cyber Threat Hunting

Cyber threat hunting, in its essence, is about proactively seeking out adversaries. Rather than waiting for automated tools to alert them about potential intrusions or breaches, cyber threat hunters dig deeper. They analyze a variety of data and log files, use advanced analytics tools, and apply their deep understanding of the latest threat trends to predict and identify cyber threats before they can cause harm.

Often, cyber threat hunters operate on a hypothesis-driven approach. This means they formulate educated guesses about possible threats based on their deep understanding of the organization's IT landscape, current threat intelligence, and historical attack patterns. They then set out to either validate or refute these hypotheses. This proactive approach enables them to uncover subtle, low-and-slow threats that might otherwise go unnoticed.

A vital part of a cyber threat hunter's role is incident response. When they identify a valid threat, they must be equipped to isolate and neutralize it effectively. They also collaborate with other security professionals within the organization to ensure that the threat does not re-emerge and to fortify defenses against similar future threats.

A Walk in the Attacker's Shoes: Ethical Hacking Explained

Ethical hackers, in contrast, don the hat of an attacker. They use the same techniques and tools as malicious hackers, but with the intent to improve security rather than compromise it. Ethical hackers conduct controlled, simulated attacks, known as penetration tests, on their organization's systems and networks to identify vulnerabilities that could be exploited in an actual attack.

While ethical hackers also take a proactive stance towards cybersecurity, they do so by trying to exploit vulnerabilities, whereas cyber threat hunters actively seek out potential threats. It's a subtle distinction but an important one.

Ethical hackers focus on the weaknesses in an organization's defenses, whereas cyber threat hunters focus on detecting, isolating, and responding to the threats themselves.

Ethical hackers report their findings to the organization, allowing it to address vulnerabilities before they can be exploited by real attackers. They also sometimes provide guidance on how to remediate these vulnerabilities effectively.

In the end, both cyber threat hunters and ethical hackers play essential roles in an organization's cybersecurity strategy. They each bring a unique perspective and set of skills, and when they collaborate, they can significantly enhance an organization's ability to defend itself in the face of the ever-evolving cyber threat landscape.

Cyber threat hunting VS ethical hacking

We hope you found our article on cyber threat hunting useful. If your company is looking for IT professionals and you are interested in IT recruitment or IT staff augmentation, please contact us and we will be happy to help you find the right person for the job.

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