What Is Cyber Threat Hunting?
Much like in life, being proactive is a must in IT. MSPs and IT admins who sit back and respond reactively to cyber threats and malicious files are already starting “behind the 8-ball,” which is why savvy MSPs implement an effective strategy for cyber threat hunting.
Cyber threat hunting is the practice of actively pursuing, discovering, and identifying cyber threats that may be hiding within your clients’ networks. MSPs use this strategy to dig deep into the network and search for malicious files that may have slipped past frontline cybersecurity defenses.
Once a digital threat actor slips past a client’s initial layer of cybersecurity, they can potentially remain in the system for days, weeks, or even months. The longer hackers stay within the system, the more data they can collect. Some hackers may even take things further by obtaining sensitive, proprietary files or login credentials.
As scary as lost or corrupted company files can be, what’s even scarier is that most businesses lack the advanced cybersecurity techniques to remove these threats once they’re found in the system. For these reasons, threat hunting is integral to any MSP’s protection plan for their clients.
Threat hunting’s sole focus is removing threats that have already infiltrated your clients’ first line of defense. While it would be nice if your client’s cybersecurity plan was foolproof, that’s unfortunately not the case in the real world. Your clients must understand the importance of cyber threat hunting and how it provides them with the tools to combat any threats that have slipped through the cracks.
Why you need cyber threat hunting
Hackers constantly update their techniques and learn new, innovative ways to infiltrate your clients’ networks. Complex cyber threats like malware and ransomware can infiltrate even the most robust systems virtually undetected. Once inside, these malicious files will lay dormant, essentially “in the shadows” from standard threat prevention measures like system scans, etc. As these attacks continue to remain unseen and increase their dwell time within the system, damages may become more and more significant – sometimes reaching catastrophic levels.
You don’t have to look too far to see evidence of this happening in the real world. Two such attacks nearly toppled the Costa Rican government. Earlier this year, the ransomware group Conti hacked the country’s Ministry of Finance office and almost brought down the Costa Rican economy. Later, in May of 2022, the country’s healthcare system was hacked again, and country officials were forced to take it offline. This attack affected millions of Costa Rican residents and proves why organizations need threat hunting cyber security measures. For a detailed report on Conti and why their group should be on every MSPs radar, check out our in-depth threat profile.
Another thing that shouldn’t go neglected is the fact that implementing threat hunting helps your sales efforts in terms of closing the deal. Implementing threat hunting supports your sales message in four key ways:
Showing your team things ahead with threat management.
- Showcasing that your team is improving and iterating protection as new threats and concerns ebb and flow in popularity.
- Showing that your team integrates threat intelligence into daily operations.
- Making it clear your team integrates specialized insights into their cybersecurity approach.
What is a threat hunting framework?
The threat hunting framework outlines the steps MSPs need to take to effectively probe client systems and potential threats to stop them in their tracks. It can be an in-depth process, but it generally involves 3 main steps:
- The Trigger – The trigger is launched when cyber threat hunting tools call your team’s attention to a specific area of the system or network. These tools flag any actions that seem like suspicious activity. IT teams can target their searches by filtering for specific threats like advanced cyber attacks using fileless malware, trojans, and more.
- Investigation – At this stage, threat hunters may use advanced threat detection technology like EDR, Endpoint Detection & Response. Tools like EDR help MSPs dig deep into any malicious files or compromised areas of client networks to discover the root causes of the attacks. The investigation is ongoing until the file in question is considered benign or until the cybersecurity team determines the full size and scope of the threat. Our cybersecurity glossary contains more information about EDR and other MSP practices that can help you cyber hunt efficiently for your clients.
- Resolution – During the resolution phase, teams communicate the data discovered during the investigation. Any malicious activity or files that could be considered possible threats are related to various team members on the operations and cybersecurity teams. AI and other automation technology can be used during this stage of the cyber hunt to process both benign and malicious data. Leveraging automation tools ensures the cyber threat hunting process remains as efficient as possible by reducing the risk of human error.
Threat hunting vs. threat intelligence
It’s important to distinguish the cyber threat hunting process from threat intelligence. Occasionally, these two concepts become intertwined, but, in actuality, they’re pretty different.
Cyber threat hunting is a more active process. MSPs and their teams are actively probing the system to uncover hidden attacks or malicious files within client networks and remove them. Threat intelligence, on the other hand, is a more reactive process.
Threat intelligence is more passive in comparison to cyber threat hunting since it’s about gathering information after an attack occurs. Although it’s more reactive than proactive, threat intelligence can be just as valuable for shedding light on attacker motives, techniques, and your client’s system vulnerabilities. In some cases, activities can fall into both categories, such as following industry resources like ConnectWise’s MSP Threat Report series.
Ultimately, MSPs and their teams should gather as much data as possible during this process. The idea is to understand as much as possible about the hacker’s methods, goals, and actions to reduce system vulnerabilities, uncover trends in an organization’s cybersecurity performance, and prevent similar attacks from occurring.
Threat hunting methodologies
There are several ways the investigation process can take shape when it comes to cyber threat hunting. When threat hunting, MSPs and other cybersecurity professionals operate under the assumption that hackers are already in the system. At this point, the goal is to find any signs of suspicious behavior or malicious intent and root them out.
This investigation process can take on one of the following methodologies:
- Hypothesis-driven investigation. Occasionally, IT professionals will collaborate and share data. Using this common data pool, cyber threat hunters can spot emerging threats or hacker tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs). Once a new hacker TTP is discovered, MSPs will launch active cyber threat hunting campaigns to see if that same attack has been used in their clients’ networks.
- Indicator-based investigation. Threat hunters launch this type of investigation based on their knowledge of Indicators of Compromise (IOCs) or Indicators of Attack (IOAs). Cybersecurity teams will conduct in-depth research sessions to gather advanced threat intelligence. In this case, cybersecurity teams go deeper than traditional threat intelligence gathering and catalog IOCs and IOAs associated with new threats. This database of IOCs and IOAs is then used as a list of triggers to launch future threat-hunting cybersecurity investigations.
- Advanced analytics and machine learning. This approach leverages advanced technology to sift through large amounts of data to detect malicious activity. Any abnormal activity detected then becomes a possible lead to be inspected further by expert cybersecurity analysts. While algorithms and machines do most of the heavy lifting, these skilled specialists are needed to analyze the data for insights or trends and to spot any hidden threats.
All three threat hunting methodologies are great examples of what a cybersecurity center should be – technology and human expertise coming together to provide solutions to the complex and dangerous challenges presented by digital threat actors.
Implementing cyber threat hunting as an MSP
MSPs should look to implement cyber threat hunting to complement their standard incident detection and response services. You and your team should implement threat-hunting methodologies alongside the standard cybersecurity protocols you have in place. As standard MSP tools analyze raw data and create alerts, threat hunting cybersecurity measures will automatically query that same data for suspicious activity or malicious files and transition any findings into threat hunting leads.
If you’re looking for more information on how to make cyber threat hunting part of your overall MSP services, contact us today. ConnectWise is happy to help you bolster your offerings to your clients and scale your MSP business.