Industry Perspectives Blog

The Value of Context: Using Comprehensive Cyber Threat Intelligence to Increase Security Effectiveness

In order to level the playing field between unknown adversaries (with seemingly limitless resources) and organizations, security leaders need to continually assess every aspect of their security program. People, processes and technologies must be reviewed to ensure each critical component is optimized to combat modern attackers. But what are they basing their decisions on? And is it 100% reliable?

Cyber threat intelligence (CTI) is an essential capability in an organization's security program. Used properly, CTI can enable better-informed security and business decisions, and ultimately allow organizations to take decisive action to protect their users, data and reputation against adversaries. Unfortunately, threat intelligence is a broad term used inconsistently through the cyber security community. 

Information vs. Intelligence

Simplification and misuse of the term "cyber threat intelligence" can make it difficult for security leaders to evaluate the wide range of options available for increasing security effectiveness. At best, an organization receives true intelligence, which facilitates proactive, effective decisions. At worst, they receive information that in its raw state is not actionable:

Cyber Threat Information is…

Cyber Threat Intelligence is…

  • Raw, unfiltered data feed
  • Unevaluated when delivered
  • Aggregated from virtually every source
  • Possibly true, false, misleading, incomplete, relevant or irrelevant
  • Not actionable
  • Processed, sorted information
  • Evaluated and interpreted by trained intelligence analysts
  • Aggregated from reliable sources and cross- correlated for accuracy
  • Accurate, timely, complete (as possible), assessed for relevancy
  • Actionable

Always on Alert With Threat Information

Threat information is most commonly known as data feeds and can be categorized as:

  • Signature and reputation feeds: Typically providing a stream of malware signatures (file hashes), URL reputation data and intrusion indicators, sometimes supplemented with basic statistics.
  • Threat feeds: Data streams that may provide a basic level of human analysis, including statistical breakdowns of the prevalence, source and targets of malware and other attack activities.

Both types of data feeds have some value; signature and reputation feeds improve the effectiveness of next-generation firewalls (NGFW), intrusion prevention systems (IPS), secure web gateways (SWG), anti-malware and antispam packages, and other blocking technologies. Threat feeds are useful for security operations center (SOC) and incident response teams because they help them identify patterns associated with attacks, rather than simply isolated indicators. The information they provide can also increase a team’s understanding of how to remediate compromised systems.


One of the main limitations with data feeds are that they use information gleaned from attacks that have already happened.  They help block many mass-scale known attacks, but they often miss new or targeted attacks for which no signature exists. Any available analysis is likely retrospective and can often lack guidance and context on when actors are preparing to attack or any new tactics they may employ.

Data feeds are not easily extracted or evaluated and the quality of information they provide varies significantly by vendor capability, sourcing and analytical strength. Without context, an organization may receive thousands of alerts a day, making it difficult for security teams to respond to the alerts that matter. The resulting effect is that businesses are left in a predominantly reactive state.

The Value of Comprehensive Cyber Threat Intelligence

Cyber threat intelligence often includes signature, reputation and threat data feeds, but goes beyond them in almost every way. Typical activities involve:

  • Constant human and technical information gathering on a global scale
  • The provision of adversary-focused and forward looking rich contextual data
  • Customization for individual organizations

Comprehensive CTI allows organizations to be proactive and prepare themselves for tomorrow’s adversaries and threats, rather than reacting to yesterday’s news stories. Without the ability to consider all risks and options available to them, cyber security professionals will be unable to make the best possible security decisions for their organization. 

Here are some of the benefits of cyber threat intelligence:

  • Valuable insight and context: Detailing information on what threats are most likely to affect an organization or industry, and indicators to help prevent and detect more attacks
  • Improved incident response times: Prioritizing alerts, which enables an organization to respond faster to real threats and reduce the risk of serious breach consequences.
  • Improved communication, planning and investment: Security teams can communicate real risks to the business and focus on protecting high-risk targets from actual threats via additional security investment and planning.

CTI not only reduces the risk of costly security breaches, it helps organizations align security spending with their requirements.

Reviewing the Options

Once an organization knows what to look for, identifying the specific form of intelligence a provider delivers, the potential value of its adoption and the challenges that teams may face becomes clearer.

True cyber threat intelligence helps an organization improve their security posture by providing context around the threats that matter. It is important for organizations to recognize the pros and cons of each option available to ensure the respective risks and rewards are understood before a purchasing decision is made. 

Signature, reputation and threat data feeds can make blocking technologies more effective; however, the information provided is based on historical events and will not provide enough information to identify new or targeted attacks. Comprehensive CTI fuses a diverse set of technical and human-derived data sources into intelligence that is actionable across strategic, operational and technical risk management levels.

Download our eBook, The Value of Context, to learn about the importance of a true cyber threat intelligence capability, and visit our Intel page to learn more about improving security posture.