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Building an Effective Threat Hunting Program for Proactive Cyber Defense

BY eSentire

April 12, 2024 | 6 MINS READ

Cybersecurity Strategy

Threat Intelligence

Threat Response Unit

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At its core, threat hunting is the practice of proactively searching for signs of malicious activities or indicators of compromise (IOCs) before threat actors gain a deep foothold within your organization’s environment.

This involves observing both attacker behaviors (e.g., evidence of lateral movement, privilege escalation attempts, anomalous user activity) and indicators (e.g., presence of malware artifacts, unusual network traffic, command & control).

The primary objectives of an effective threat hunting program are three-fold:

  1. Identify unknown threats and vulnerabilities before they cause significant damage.
  2. Enhance the security posture by incorporating the insights gained from proactive global threat hunts into the broader cybersecurity strategy.
  3. Reduce the mean time to detect (MTTD) and mean time to respond (MTTR) to threats to minimize potential impact.

Typically, this occurs by operationalizing threat intelligence to perform threat hunts, which then informs whether a novel detection should be built based on the data collected. Once a novel detection and runbook is created, the Elite Threat Hunters can move on to the next unknown threat to repeat the process.

Although threat hunting is a proactive measure, it goes hand-in-hand with traditional, reactive security measures (e.g., firewalls, antivirus software, and intrusion detection systems), which are essential for blocking known threats.

However, threat hunting also goes a step further by actively pursuing more sophisticated emerging threats that evade these initial defenses.

The result of building a strong threat hunting program is simple – it allows your organization to anticipate and withstand potential cyber threats before they cause significant damage. In doing so, it enables your team to build true resilience against sophisticated threats.

How to Assess Your Threat Hunting Capabilities

Developing a strong threat hunting program is an ongoing process that requires a deep understanding of your current capabilities and a clear vision for growth. To evaluate and enhance your in-house threat hunting ability, there are three key questions to consider:

Will my team be able to detect and respond to contain a sophisticated threat within minutes?

Considering the rapid advancements in AI and automation, alongside adversaries' increasingly sophisticated strategies, such as "living off the land" tactics that allow them to infiltrate and move laterally within environments swiftly, it’s critical for your team to rapidly detect and respond to threats effectively.

In fact, it’s likely that the Mean Time to Detect (MTTD) will decrease over time as adversaries can cause operational damage or extract data more quickly than ever before. This underscores the critical importance of enhancing detection capabilities to meet these challenges head-on.

Therefore, it’s essential to engage your security team about their response capabilities by not only focusing on theoretical response times but also looking at real data from past incidents. Understanding how long it takes to classify an initial alert, move it to triage, and eventually to its resolution—whether it be identified as a false positive, true positive, or requiring no action—is crucial.

By analyzing these metrics, you can self-assess whether your response times are improving and tangibly evaluate your team's efficiency and effectiveness for threat hunting.

Do I have the in-house threat hunting capabilities needed to stop an attack before it spreads laterally through my environment and exfiltrates critical data?

Evaluating your organization's in-house threat hunting capabilities to proactively disrupt and eliminate threats before they compromise sensitive data requires you to be realistic about the current state of your security program. Consider the following key elements:

  1. Skilled Team of Threat Hunters and Researchers: Do you have a dedicated team of Elite Threat Hunters with the expertise to proactively hunt threats and build novel detections? This team should be proficient in analyzing patterns of normal behavior to detect anomalies that could signify a breach or an ongoing attack.
  2. Advanced Tools and Technologies: Is your team equipped with advanced threat detection and response tools that can analyze vast amounts of data in real-time? These tools are crucial for identifying subtle signs of compromise that come before lateral movement and data exfiltration.
  3. Continuous Monitoring and Intelligence Gathering: Do your staff continuously monitor network traffic, logs, and endpoint activities to detect threats as early as possible? Coupled with this, they should also have the capability to leverage threat intelligence for anticipating attackers' TTPs to them from progressing down the cyberattack workflow.
  4. Proactive Defense Strategies: Beyond reactive measures, does your organization employ proactive defense strategies such as deception technologies, endpoint isolation, and automated response mechanisms? These can significantly reduce the window of opportunity for attackers to move laterally and access sensitive data.
  5. Incident Response Plan: Is there a clear and practiced incident response plan that includes procedures for containing and neutralizing threats before they can cause significant damage? This plan should be regularly updated to reflect the evolving threat landscape.

Can my team go head-to-head with adversaries that have significant resources to defend my organization from a crippling cyberattack?

Determining if your team can undertake a head-to-head combat against adversaries and defend your organization from a potential crippling cyberattack in real-time involves very specific skillsets and significant cybersecurity expertise. This also means that your security program should account for:

  1. Team Expertise and Training: Evaluate if your cybersecurity team has the depth of knowledge and training necessary to counter sophisticated cyberattack techniques.
  2. Collaboration and Information Sharing: Consider your organization's involvement in cybersecurity communities and information-sharing platforms. Collaborating with industry peers and governmental agencies can provide insights into new threats and defensive tactics.
  3. Advanced Threat Detection and Response Capabilities: Determine the sophistication of your threat detection and response frameworks – are they capable of identifying and mitigating threats in real-time?

Why Outsource Proactive Threat Hunting to a Managed Detection and Response (MDR) Provider Instead

According to a thought leadership survey conducted by Forrester Consulting, 71% of security leaders surveyed stated that they’re prioritizing the operationalization of threat intelligence across their organization. Unfortunately, 67% are also experiencing more friction getting budgetary approval from their senior leadership team.

Although there is merit to building threat hunting capabilities in-house, it’s incredibly difficult to find room in the budget to hire, train, and retain specialized threat hunters who have the security expertise you need. Plus, you must consider the added expense of onboarding the tools and technologies you need to operationalize threat hunting in-house for 24/7 threat detection and response.

On the other hand, partnering with a trusted advisor who leverages a team of Elite Threat Hunters to make sure you stay ahead of sophisticated known and unknown threats can be significantly more cost-effective.

Prevent the Most Advanced Cyberattacks with the eSentire Threat Response Unit (TRU)

Our Threat Response Unit (TRU) is an industry-leading team of threat hunters and researchers committed to building threat detection models across the eSentire XDR Cloud Platform and supporting our 24/7 Security Operations Centers (SOCs) to stop threats before they disrupt your business.

TRU collects and processes threat intelligence from 54 commercial threat feeds and 10+ proprietary intel sources, the Dark Web, social media, security reports, positive SOC-driven threat investigations, and various third-party tools to conduct further investigations and identify potential Indicators of Compromise (IOCs).

In fact, eSentire TRU has discovered some of the most dangerous cyber threats and nation-state attacks in our space. In 2023, TRU circulated 44 threat advisories, performed 1100+ hypothesis-based threat hunts, 200,000+ threat sweeps and built 520+ new detections to protect our customers.

Plus, TRU works as an extension of your security team to continuously improve our Managed Detection and Response (MDR) service so you can rest easy knowing that you’re protected by an MDR provider that law enforcement agencies rely on to identify threat actors and collaborate on threat intelligence.

To learn how the eSentire Threat Response Unit (TRU) can help you reduce your cyber risks and proactively stay ahead of advanced cyber threats, contact an eSentire security specialist now.


eSentire, Inc., the Authority in Managed Detection and Response (MDR), protects the critical data and applications of 2000+ organizations in 80+ countries, across 35 industries from known and unknown cyber threats by providing Exposure Management, Managed Detection and Response and Incident Response services designed to build an organization’s cyber resilience & prevent business disruption. Founded in 2001, eSentire protects the world’s most targeted organizations with 65% of its global base recognized as critical infrastructure, vital to economic health and stability. By combining open XDR platform technology, 24/7 threat hunting, and proven security operations leadership, eSentire's award-winning MDR services and team of experts help organizations anticipate, withstand and recover from cyberattacks. For more information, visit: www.esentire.com and follow @eSentire.

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