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Intelligence Defined and its Impact on Cyber Threat Intelligence

August 25, 2016

Michael Cloppert wrote a great piece to argue for a new definition of cyber threat intelligence. The blog is extremely well written (I personally love the academic style and citations) and puts forth a good discussion on operations. Sergio Caltagirone published a rebuttal equally valuable where he agreed with Mike that there is accuracy missing from current cyber threat intelligence definitions but noted that Mike focused too much on operations. The purpose of this blog is not to rebut their findings but to add to the conversation. In many aspects I agree with both Mike and Sergio; I would highlight that the forms of intelligence discussed though are very policy focused (sometimes even military focused) and influence how we define cyber threat intelligence. I do not envision that between these three blogs we’ve settled a long standing debate on intelligence but the intent is to add to the discussion and encourage thoughts by others.

In Mike’s piece the definition he presented for the field of cyber threat intelligence is the “union of cyber threat intelligence operations and analysis” each of which he previously defined. Sergio responded by stating “Intelligence doesn’t serve operations, intelligence serves decision-making which in turn drives operations to achieve policy outcomes.” I agree with this understanding of intelligence to meet policy needs and while Sergio intentionally does not intend to cover all aspects of intelligence outside of policy I believe it is important to consider. Mike teased out at one point that “…’intelligence’ more broadly is a bias toward a particular type of intelligence, and they continue to overwhelmingly focus on geopolitical outcomes.” He gives an example of business intelligence as another form of intelligence and accepts that the basis of intelligence is interpreted information with an assessment to advance an interest. This is where he stops though in an effort to stay focused on defining cyber threat intelligence. This is where I would like to begin.

Dr. Michael S. Goodman, a professor of intelligence studies at Kings College in London, wrote a piece for the CIA’s Center for the Study of Intelligence where he discussed the challenges and benefits in studying and teaching intelligence. He specifically noted that “The academic study of intelligence is a new phenomenon” although the field of intelligence itself is very old. More relevantly to this blog post he wrote that “Producing an exact definition of intelligence is a much-debated topic.” In a non-government intelligence focused piece the University of Oregon has a page dedicated to the theories and definitions of intelligence. There, they cite psychologists and educators Howard Gardner, David Perkins, and Robert Sternberg to assign attributes to intelligence and state that it is a combination of the ability to:

  • Learn
  • Pose Problems
  • Solve Problems

These three attributes are core to any definition of intelligence whether it’s business intelligence, emotional intelligence, or military intelligence. Additionally, the distinctly human component of this process, for those of you considering artificial intelligence as you read this, is harder to capture but likely exists in the ability to pose and solve problems. Machines can pose and solve problems to an extent but how they do that sets them apart from humans. More to the point, how each of us pose and solve problems is influenced at some level by bias. That bias is often an influence analysts seek to minimize so that it does not jade how we analyze problems and the answers we derive. However, that bias in how we pose and solve problems is likely the only distinctly human component of intelligence. That is a discussion for a longer future piece though.

Further in the University of Oregon piece, different types of intelligences are listed from Gardner, Perkins, and Sternbeg. A few are listed below:

  • Linguistic
  • Intrapersonal
  • Spatial
  • Practical
  • Experiential
  • Neural
  • Reflective

These different types of intelligence are not all encompassing and focus on the psychological more than classic government intelligence. However, they offer a more robust view into what it means to be able to process and analyze information which is in of itself core to cyber threat intelligence. I gravitate more towards Robert Sternberg’s understanding of intelligence and specifically his view of experiential and componential intelligence. According to his 1988 and 1997 writings on intelligence experiential intelligence is “the ability to deal with novel situations; the ability to effectively automate ways of dealing with novel situations so they are easily handled in the future; the ability to think in novel ways.” His understanding of componential intelligence is “the ability to process information effectively. This includes metacognitive, executive, performance, and knowledge-acquisition components that help to steer cognitive processes.”

I enjoy these two the most because they seem to map the closest to the idea of intelligence generation and intelligence consumption. In the field of cyber threat intelligence we often hear vendors, security researchers, and companies talk about “threat intel” and standing up teams to do intel-y things but without specific guidance. There is a stark difference in generating intelligence and in consuming it. Most companies are looking for threat intelligence consumption teams (those that can map their organization’s requirements and search for what is available to help drive defense) not threat intelligence generation teams (those individuals who analyze adversary information to extract knowledge which may or may not be immediately useful). A good team is usually the mix of both but with a clear understanding of which one is the priority and which effort is the goal at any given time. Sternberg’s experiential intelligence speaks more to threat intelligence generation whereas his componential intelligence addresses the ability to process, or consume, intelligence. The definitions are not as simple as this but it is thought provoking.

In reviewing Mike and Sergio’s excellent blog posts with the addition of a wider view on intelligence both from a classical, psychological, and philosophical aspect there are attributes that emerge. These attributes mean that intelligence:

  • Must be analyzed information
    • To perform analysis is a distinctly human trait likely due to our influence of bias and our efforts to minimize it (i.e. no $Vendor your tool does not create intelligence) meaning that it is always up to our interpretation and others may have other valuable and even competing interpretations
  • Must meet a requirement
    • Requirements can be wide ranging such as policy, military operations, geo-political, business, friendly forces movements and tactics, or self-awareness; the lack of a requirement would result in intelligence not being useful and by that extension be an inhibitor to intelligence (i.e. overloading analysts with indicators of compromise is not intelligence)
  • Must respect various forms
    • There is no one definition of intelligence but each definition must allow for different ways of interpreting, processing, and using the intelligence

To further qualify to be threat intelligence the presented intelligence must be about threats; threats are not only geo-political in nature but also may encompass insiders. However, I disagree with the notion that there is an unwitting insider threat because the definition of threat I subscribe to must have the following three attributes:

  • Opportunity
    • There must be the ability to do harm. In many organizations this means knowing your systems, people, vulnerabilities, etc.
  • Intent
    • There must be an intention to do harm, if it is unintentional the harm is still as impactful but it cannot be properly classified as a threat. Understanding adversary intention is difficult but this is where analysis comes in understanding the threat landscape
  • Capability
    • The adversary must have some capability to do you harm. This may be malware, it may be PowerShell left running in your environment, and it could be non-technical such as the means to influence public perception through leaked documents

Therefore, I use the following definition, heavily inspired by classic definitions, for intelligence: “The process and product resulting from the interpretation of raw data into information that meets a requirement.” The product may be knowledge, it may be a report, it could be tradecraft of an adversary, etc. Further, I use the following definition for cyber threat intelligence “The process and product resulting from the interpretation of raw data into information that meets a requirement as it relates to the adversaries that have the intent, opportunity and capability to do harm.” (Note that in this definition of cyber threat intelligence the adversary is distinctly human. Malware isn’t the threat; the human or organization of humans intending you harm is the threat.) Each definition is concise but open-ended enough to serve multiple purposes beyond military intelligence.

I in no way think that this solves any aspect of this debate. And I do not feel that my definitions actually conflict with what Mike and Sergio have put forward but are instead meant simply as an extension of the topic. Mike and Sergio are both extremely competent individuals that I am privileged to call my friends, peers, and over numerous occasions mentors. However, their blogs inspired me to explore the topic for myself and this blog was simply my way to share my opining on my findings. I hope it has been useful in some manner to your own exploration.