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Microsoft Unveils New Intelligence-Sharing Platform

Azure cloud-based system for incident responders and Microsoft Active Protections Program (MAPP) partners automate swapping of threat and attack intel.

Microsoft joined the intelligence-sharing platform party today with a preview of its own offering for sharing attack information among organizations.

The new Interflow platform, based on Microsoft's Azure cloud service, is geared for incident responders and security researchers. "We needed a better and more automated way to exchange information with incident responders. That's how we started on a path developing this platform," says Jerry Bryant, lead senior security strategist with Microsoft Trustworthy Computing. "This allows for automated knowledge exchange."

Bryant says the Azure cloud-based platform initially is intended to be a contribution to the IR community. The data feeds are free, but users need an Azure subscription to get them. Interflow is based on open specifications that provide a uniform way to share intel in machine-readable format so it can be fed automatically into firewalls, IDSes, IPSes, and SIEMS, for instance.

"You can go in the portal and set up communities you want to establish sharing information back and forth with," he says. "Once you've established those communities, you can set trust levels and establish your own watch lists, such as [watch lists] for specific IP ranges, for example."

For some time, vertical industries such as the defense industrial base, financial services, healthcare, and (most recently) retail have had their own intel-sharing mechanisms under the auspices of industry-specific information sharing and analysis centers (ISACs). The concept of sharing intelligence on threats, such as malware, IP addresses, or other artifacts, among organizations is considered a way for the good guys to team up and defend against the bad guys.

[First, there was no official intelligence-sharing mechanism for the retail industry, and now there are two. Read Dual Retail Cyberthreat Intelligence-Sharing Efforts Emerge.]

But the reality is that those organizations that do share intelligence do so manually. About half pass malicious IP addresses, file hashes, URLs, and email addresses used in attacks via email, phone, or in-person meetings, according to a recent Ponemon Institute study. The trouble is that the information is not always timely enough or in a format that can be translated quickly into a machine-readable state for security tools.

Close to 70% of organizations say that intel expires within seconds or minutes, and more than half say they get that information in days, weeks, or months after its discovery, rendering much of it useless. Sharing is not so straightforward, either, because legal and competitive worries often stymie the process.

Mark Clancy, CISO and managing director of technology risk management for DTCC, a member of the Financial Services-ISAC (FS-ISAC), says many of his analysts still must cut and paste threat intelligence from various sources. "Four years ago, we were all saying no one is sharing any data, so there's nothing to use. Now there's so much to use we have to put order into the chaos."

The emerging Structured Threat Information eXpression (STIX) and Trusted Automated eXchange of Indicator Information (TAXII) standards are gradually catching fire as the answer to ingesting the data efficiently. Microsoft's new Interflow uses the Department of Homeland Security-driven specs: STIX, the language architecture for the intelligence information, and TAXII, the protocol for transporting it, as well as the Cyber Observable eXpression (CybOX) spec.

"These are positive developments when you get big producers of content starting to use this standardized language," Clancy says.

Security experts say Microsoft's adoption of STIX, TAXII, and CybOX should help expedite the adoption of automated intelligence sharing.

Microsoft's Bryant says Interflow's API allows end-to-end automation of digesting and incorporating threat intel, but the platform is not meant as a replacement for ISACs or other platforms. "We're trying to promote broader [sharing] across industries in general." For example, "let's say you're spinning up your own ISAC, and you haven't determined a platform to use. If you use Interflow and want to establish sharing back and forth with FS-ISAC," the plug-in allows sharing across the systems. "Or if you had two systems that couldn't talk for some reason, you could put [Interflow] in the middle."

Bryant says Microsoft has been running Interflow in-house. Several of its MAPP partners have signed up for it, including FireEye. Interflow will make it more efficient, for example, for Microsoft to share new zero-day attack information with its MAPP partners. "That is [currently] manual: we send detection guidance, and they send us telemetry back. We're going to use [Interflow] to automate that" process.

Adam Kujawa, head of malware intelligence for Malwarebytes, says: "The biggest problem with intelligence sharing is knowing what to do with it. Microsoft seems to have taken this fact into consideration and allowed for specialized intelligence to be gathered using their Azure cloud technology with plug-ins that gathers and outputs the intelligence in the forms that are most useful to the users."

Kelly Jackson Higgins is Executive Editor at DarkReading.com. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise ... View Full Bio

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Kelly Jackson Higgins
Kelly Jackson Higgins,
User Rank: Strategist
6/25/2014 | 6:40:14 AM
Re: Great development
Legal departments can be the biggest hurdle to intel-sharing. But when you think about how some of the biggest industries around engage in this practice regularly, such as financial services and defense contractors (and most recently, retail), it shouldn't be such an ordeal to get enterprise buy-in.
Marilyn Cohodas
Marilyn Cohodas,
User Rank: Strategist
6/24/2014 | 4:09:02 PM
Re: Great development
I assume the reason that the reasons organizations don't share is because of confidentiality and concerns about protecting proprietary information. At least with Interflow, some of the processing issues are addressed through automation. 
Kelly Jackson Higgins
Kelly Jackson Higgins,
User Rank: Strategist
6/24/2014 | 10:01:54 AM
Re: Great development
The goal of STIX, TAXII specs is to end the manual process of sharing intel. With Microsoft on board, that should help propel the adoption, for sure. But there are still a lot of orgs out there who do not engage in intel-sharing.
Marilyn Cohodas
Marilyn Cohodas,
User Rank: Strategist
6/24/2014 | 8:33:52 AM
Great development
Interflow seems like a great -- and much needed -- intel-sharing platform for the IR team. It's hard to believe that what sharing that has been taking place until now has been cut and paste! What a welcome addition to the toolset. 

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