Take a look at the job listings on LinkedIn, Indeed, or any of the major sites, and you'll find hundreds of openings for threat hunters, something you wouldn't have seen just a few years ago. Many of these listings are from big banks, global telecoms, and defense contractors, institutions where data security is of primary importance and signaling others will follow.
As the pace, scale and harm-quotient of cyberthreats continue to grow, companies will increasingly shift thinking and resources to finding attackers before they cause problems. Clearly, the typical breach scenario — where internal teams discover an attack has taken place well after the fact, and then go into damage control — is frustrating for security professionals, customers, and shareholders. If you consider that the dollar amount of damage caused by a data breach is typically about commensurate with the cost of bad publicity resulting from the attack, having your CEO making a public mea culpa is neither a good strategy or investment.
As a result of this changing dynamic, companies are hiring threat hunters to work alongside security analysts to create a continuum of protection — some on the offense, digging for vulnerabilities, others playing defense, protecting assets and patching holes.
Threat Hunter vs. Security Analyst
Threat hunters are, first of all, experienced security analysts. Because the role is to anticipate problems, it's critical for candidates to have a history of dealing with ransomware, phishing schemes, and cryptojacking. Good threat hunters, who are born from security analysts, maintain their education, and keep close watch on cybersecurity information and research, such as the nonprofit, federally funded research and development centers, known as MITRE, which include cybersecurity among its specialties.
Successful threat hunters also must have a broad knowledge of network topology in order to assemble disparate signals into comprehensive views. Combined with a hacker's curiosity, threat hunters are armed to take educated hunches and explore the internal network, within the perimeter, to look for weaknesses and anomalies.
Threat-hunting teams, like hackers, undertake exploratory missions of their networks. They proactively look for specific malware intrusions as they are produced, maintain a steady eye on their organizations most sensitive data silos, and routinely patrol those areas of the network. They also develop a sixth sense for what is normal behavior at endpoints, the better to question subtle changes.
Threat hunters' analytical and technical expertise is complemented by other skill sets, like persuasive communication. Threat hunters often find themselves explaining the hypothetical to stakeholders who may still be stuck in a mindset of dealing with cyberattacks after they happen. That's in contrast to traditional cybersecurity analysts, who are tilted toward intrusion analysis, digital forensics, damage control, and repair. One role complements the other.
A Brave New World
Threat hunters thrive in places where top management understands the flip side of convenience. For example, cloud-based systems and connected devices are great for employees, contractors, and partners to communicate and share information. But this also creates porosity — or holes. The threat landscape is further complicated by today's more sophisticated breed of hacker who is profit-driven and, in some cases, handsomely paid by hostile governments, a trend we expect to accelerate in the next 24 months as the scale, complexity, and persistence of today's modern cyber threats increases. Organizationally, this means that security operations center teams will place a greater focus on dedicated threat hunting.
Furthermore, as part of the threat hunters' new role in identifying bad actors while they are still in reconnaissance mode, they need to write rules to map and detect TTPs (tactics, techniques, and procedures) that will identify who their adversaries are. From malicious pranksters to nation-sponsored attackers, threat hunters can spot emerging problems by knowing and continually mapping their favored TTPs.
The bottom line: Organizations need to adopt an aggressive, threat-hunting posture to compete with the proliferating threat universe. No longer is it sufficient to rely solely on incident-response teams that are already stretched thin and approaching problems after the fact. Threat hunters fight spying with spying, which will bring the proactive mindset of network reconnaissance and repair to protect an enterprise's vital data assets.
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