What Are Indicators of Compromise (IOCs)?

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As digital technology continues to evolve in nearly every business today, threat intelligence data collection has garnered a lot of attention, helping companies make informed decisions about their network security. Threat intelligence analyst rely on accurate data collected on Indicators of Compromise (IOCs) to effectively carry out their roles and responsibilities in the security system.

Threat intelligence is a beneficial investment for organizational security as it allows you to identify and stop attacks. The main objective of threat intelligence is to provide you with an in-depth overview of the cyber threats that could become a great risk to your data and help you protect your business.

Whether you’re a CISO worried about attacks or an aspiring Threat Intelligence Analyst, this blog will help you on everything you need to know about IOCs and the part they play in threat intelligence.

What Is Threat Intelligence in Cybersecurity?

Threat or information security intelligence in cybersecurity is the knowledge of collecting and analyzing data to understand and prevent cyberattacks. It also outlines the security vulnerabilities in your system that need to get fixed to protect your sensitive data from the paws of cybercriminals. This detailed and strategic cyber threat intelligence presents a clear roadmap for your IT security team to enhance your security posture.

What Does Threat Intelligence Data Do? Why Is It Important?

Nowadays, organizations collect and analyze a massive amount of data across multiple security systems. On top of that, there are limited professionals available to handle data streams, increasing the few data analysts’ burdens. Threat intelligence is the solution to data collection issues. Some of the best threat intelligence solutions utilize the latest Machine Learning (ML) tools to automate everything from data collection and processing to loading it into your application database. ML tools help organize data collected from various sources and try to match a common point between these data. The tools feed in the Indicators of Compromise (IoCs) and Indicators of Attack (IRAs) and the tactics of threat actors to get an optimal result.

What Are IOCs?

IOCs are pieces of data collected by incident handlers, threat hunters, digital forensic analysts, or the Security Operations Center (SOC) that indicate a breach/compromise of the organization’s system or network.

IOCs are proof that a cyberattack took place and provides information on what happened. It is an ongoing process, especially for IT companies, to identify malicious data and manage cybersecurity so it is used in the future to prevent cyberattacks. Organizations develop a specific capability to understand and identify IOCs on their network and use an incident response plan to avoid the thread and recover the affected malicious system.

Any unnatural element or a tampered element found within the network/system could be considered an Indicator of Compromise. The typical Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) acknowledged examples of IOCs are virus signatures, IP addresses, MD5 hashes of malware files, URLs and domain names of bot or botnet command and control servers, encrypted files, logs, etc.

Many open-source threat exchange (OTX) platforms, such as AlienVault, IBM X-Force, Anomali Threat Stream, SolarWinds, Palo Alto Networks Autofocus, LogRhythm, etc., provide IoC details shared by many industries and organizations. These IOC lists generally consist of suspicious and blacklisted email IDs, File Hash (Imp hash, MD5, SHA, Pehash), IP address, NIDS, URI, URL, Bitcoin address, etc.

The SOC of an organization could incorporate these details into their IDS (Intrusion Detection System), and IPS (Intrusion Prevention System) rules to monitor and validate against the incoming traffic. These open-source indicators are also known as Indicators of Concern, which the vulnerability assessment system could use to match and identify IOCs.

IOCs to Watch Out For

Compromises can happen anywhere, anytime. Here’s a list of what you should be on the lookout for.

  • Login anomalies

Login failures indicate that an authorized user is trying to login into an existing account to access the data.

  • Increase in database read volume

Many companies and organizations store essential data in databases, making them the prime target for the attacker. Hence, as the read volume in the database increases, it is an identification of the attack.

  • Huge HTML response 

Extracting the essential data from a web application by SQL injections contains a huge HTML response size compared to a general request.

  • Identifying web traffic

Detect web traffic that does not look like human activity.

  • Mobile setting changes:

Most cyberattacks are through mobile devices. It is always good to check the settings or app replacement used for a cyberattack.

What Are IOAs?

IRAs are the detection of the attacker’s tactic and techniques to perform the attack. IOA takes place before an attack becomes real. It takes up the gap left by IOCs. It also allows the company to act before the malware can be exploited. It is a collection of multiple IOCs used to create threat models. With the aid of an intelligent program, IOAs identify defensive strategies against new threats.

How Are IOCs Used in Threat Intelligence?

Cyber threat intelligence is information that an organization or a company uses to understand immediate and future threats. In the context of threat intelligence, IOCs also play an essential role in determining the future threats’ characteristics by taking necessary steps to prevent attacks. For example:

  • Domain names URL and IP addresses

Malware targets the internal host that is in contact with the attacker.

  • Attachment and email address

In a phishing attack, the attacker sends an email containing a link or an attachment, initiating a malware command once accessed. For instance, by clicking on the link sent by the hacker, you are redirected to an official-looking organization’s page, which is a bogus page appearing precisely like the real page, where both new and existing passwords are requested. The attacker, monitoring the page, hijacks the first password to access the secured areas on the network. The user is redirected to the password renewal page. However, while being turned, a malicious script activates the background to hijack the user’s cookies. Always double-check the links and attachments you receive.

Differences Between IOCs and IOAs

IOCs are responsive measures. IOA are proactive measures.
IOCs are used after an attack occurs. IOAs are used in real time when an event occurs.
IOCs detect security events. IOAs detect the intent of the attacker.
IOCs help IT professionals and security teams to identify the intrusion of the attacker. IOAs are used to back up the data gathered by the IOCs.

Why Is Cyber Threat Intelligence Important?

There are tons of advanced and sophisticated cyber threats trying to outsmart the security system of vulnerable organizations. Cyber threat intelligence will provide an overview of your attacker, allowing you to work at mitigating the threats and forestall future attacks proactively. In the context of cyber intelligence analysis, IOCs play a defining role in determining the characteristics, motives, and tactics behind an impending attack. The IT security team can zero-in on the specific data set out of the large chunks of data on the ground. This data condensation lessens the security team’s burden as they don’t need to deal with a massive chunk of data.

According to security experts, even though not all cyberattacks are related to each other, most of them are just a variant of one or the other. During threat analysis on a compromised system, threat hunters and analysts look for suspicious URLs and IP addresses to bypass network security.

Threat intelligence helps analyze these IOCs and provides a detailed picture of how to safeguard your system against these kinds of threats in the future.

How Do You Use Cyber Threat Intelligence?

Your organizations can take advantage of cyber threat intelligence to accomplish the following:

Predict: The best threat intelligence programs handled by experienced and skilled professionals can help organizations to mitigate any cyber threats in the future.

Prevent: Businesses mostly rely on threat intelligence reports to predict any impending attacks and stop them in the first place. These cyberthreat programs can utilize malware and virus signatures to detect and prevent virus attacks.

Detect: Threat intelligence cybersecurity programs help organizations detect attacks in the future and detect any current anomalies or vulnerabilities.

Respond: With all the data on hand, including the motive, tactics, and threat actors involved in the impending attacks, you can plan your next move easily. Threat intelligence reports help organizations to respond to attacks in the best way possible by enhancing their security posture.

Kick-Start Your Threat Intelligence Career

IOCs are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to threat intelligence. For a deep dive into its depths, you should opt for a reputed certification course that explores IOCs and beyond. EC-Council’s Certified Threat Intelligence Analyst (CTIA) certification is one of the best options in the market. It covers a wide range of concepts from planning the threat intelligence project to building a report to disseminating threat intelligence, all in the span of three days, so you’ll be able to balance your work and load up on new skills that will keep attackers at bay.

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