Intelligence operations will not get off the ground without well-curated intelligence requirements. Yet with an overwhelming number of internal and external data sources firing off alerts and notifications about potential incidents and threat actor activity, it’s challenging to put together IRs that prioritize a program’s needs.
Intelligence requirements mandate some foundational activities be in place, such as asset inventory, adversary evaluation, and a narrow operational focus, all of which can help inform the prioritization of needs, allocation of resources, determination of data sources, and the types of analysis and expertise required to process that data into intelligence.
Let’s dig into each foundational activity:
1. Asset Inventory is First Step
Commercial-sector intelligence operations are meant to protect a business from adversaries. To get to that point, however, requires an organization identify and prioritize the assets that make it a target. In other words, ask what cyber, physical, tangible and irreplaceable assets exist that would be worth stealing or disrupting?
Critical assets, those which are the backbone of business and operational continuity, are of the highest value. These assets including intellectual property, product road maps, physical and technical infrastructure, proprietary customer information, employees, stakeholders and shareholders, and if they were to be compromised or physically attacked, the ramifications for the business would substantial.
Once you’ve identified your business’s assets, you need to prioritize them. Few intelligence operations have limitless resources, so prioritizing the assets that are most critical to your business can help you allocate your resources more effectively.
2. Identify Adversaries and What They’re After
It’s important to consider that threat actors will not target all assets. So after you’ve identified and prioritized your business’s assets, you need to consider what types of threats and adversaries could be motivated to compromise them and why. To start, it can be helpful to consider the following questions:
- Are you aware of any threats and/or adversaries that have previously targeted your business’s assets?
- Are you aware of any threats and/or adversaries that have previously targeted other, similar businesses and/or assets?
- Has your business previously experienced any security incidents or breaches? If so, what assets were compromised, how, and by whom?
Cybercriminals and fraudsters, for example, are usually financially motivated and known to seek personally identifiable information (PII), financial information, login credentials, and other types of relatively common assets to be monetized within various schemes. Malicious insiders, meanwhile, are commonly motivated by revenge, ideology, coercion, or ego. In any case, the more you know about the extent to which your business’s assets could potentially be targeted and why, the more focused and successful your intelligence requirements and resulting intelligence operation are likely to be.
3. Narrow Your Focus
The information compiled during an asset inventory and an adversarial evaluation is central the creation of a narrowly focused and tightly defined intelligence requirement. Effective IRs identify specific information that could reveal targeting of your most valuable assets. It’s important to keep in mind that IRs are typically framed as questions your intelligence operation should be designed to answer.
For example, your business has suffered substantial financial losses following numerous successful business email compromise (BEC) scams. As a result, you wish to establish an IR to help combat these attacks in the future. The asset in this situation would be the funds the employees had mistakenly wired to BEC scammers, whereas the means of successful exploitation would be the targeted employees’ inability to identify the BEC emails as such.
Within this context, a properly focused IR could look like the following:
- What types of social engineering tactics are most likely to result in a successful BEC scam?
- What types of employee training initiatives could help prevent future BEC scams from being successful?
Another key consideration is how an IR will influence the outcome of an intelligence operation. More specifically, the examples above would likely result in intelligence pertaining to BEC social engineering tactics and additional insights that could be used to inform employee training initiatives and ultimately help combat future BEC scams. This also means that if the anticipated answer to any IR does not appear as if it will provide value to the business, it should be revised accordingly and before continuing with the intelligence operation.
It’s important to remember that intelligence requirements, though essential, are only one component of an intelligence operation. The outcome of any such operation also depends on the quality of its data sources, the expertise and skill sets of its analysts, as well as the relevance, actionability, and timeliness of the resulting intelligence, among other factors. Intelligence operations can be extremely complex and difficult to navigate for even highly sophisticated teams, which is why it can be beneficial for businesses to seek third-party support from intelligence vendors, information-sharing communities, and other trusted partners as necessary.
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