There’s an ancient debate within the intelligence community about whether intelligence analysis should be considered an art or a science. Both sides maintain valid points of view, and I remember having countless discussions with my fellow university colleagues about this specific issue in class and the pub (although I must admit that our chats often slided into more mundane topics after the second pint). 

Without presuming to solve this debate once and for all, my opinion is that our beloved intelligence practice is a delicate art, one composed by shaded colors and fine lines. At the same time, when intelligence analysts use tried and tested tools and methodologies, it is possible to create a solid and reliable output, one that can aspire to acquire science-like features.

For this reason, today we will analyze the latest Cybersecurity Threat Landscape (CTL) methodology report, issued by the European Union Agency for Cybersecurity (ENISA). Reports like this help analysts develop a common framework and set a baseline for delivering transparent and systematic reports for a wide audience. Such frameworks are also crucial for intelligence sharing, one of the key objectives of international bodies like ENISA.

“A cyber threat landscape (CTL) represents information or intelligence on past, current and future events, allowing audiences to have a contextual understanding of the threats they face.” 

As with most intelligence reports out there, CTLs should be actionable, timely, and accurate to ensure that they’ll meet their underpinning purpose: inform the stakeholders about potential threats and support any mitigation actions with efficiency. Creating an intelligence product meeting these criteria is no easy task. That’s why I will now highlight the top three tips I’ve extracted from the ENISA report that will ensure you deliver a solid and reliable product to your stakeholders. 

Tip #1: Define Intelligence Requirements

As most of you may already know, the intelligence cycle is one of the most widely used frameworks within the intelligence community. At its core, the intelligence cycle is a model used by intelligence practitioners all over the world to represent and guide the steps needed to ensure a reliable and accurate intelligence product. Although many variations of it exist, the most frequently used model consists of five cyclical phases: Direction, Collection, Processing, Analysis and Production, and Dissemination.  

At the Direction stage, intelligence analysts will establish the purpose, the audience, and the stakeholders of the CTL report. Once these three critical criteria have been established, it is fundamental to define the scope of the report. Intelligence requirements, often abbreviated as IR (sorry International Relations friends!!), are an analyst’s best friends in this instance.

IRs provide direction for an intelligence analyst to gather and collect information, they define the required resources, and will critically influence the end product and whether the stakeholders will be satisfied with the resources.

We’ve already discussed in the past the importance of IRs and how to use them to respond to major events, so here’s some tips on how to write your best IRs ever:

  • Start your question with one of the 5 Ws: Who, What, When, Where, Why. This practice will drive the analyst towards a concrete answer that will satisfy the stakeholders.
  • Focus on a specific timeline agreed with the intelligence consumer. Are you interested in threats against your sector in the last 30 days? Six months? One year? Clarifying this point ahead of your research will go a long way in delivering a high-quality report.
  • Be specific. Is the intelligence consumer looking for information about a specific event? Are they interested in a trending threat? Help them define the most relevant information they may seek, you’re the expert.

Tip #2: Use Taxonomies to Avoid Getting Lost

Conducting intelligence research can be intimidating. The quantity of information that you can collect from open and closed sources is humongous and sometimes it can feel overwhelming. The good news is that you’re not the first analyst having to go through this and there’s plenty of incredibly smart people that in the past have developed taxonomies and frameworks that can help you A LOT. Don’t be shy – tap into this pre-existing body of knowledge to help you drive your research!

The ENISA report provides some great taxonomies that you can use on your everyday tasks. One taxonomy that I find myself using very often is the “OSINT Stairway”, developed by my colleague Nicole Hoffman. In her work, Nicole divided OSINT investigations into nine steps that will support analysts from the beginning of their research to the dissemination of their findings. This taxonomy is a perfect example of how to methodically analyze a process-that may at times seem chaotic-and make it into a science-like, step-by-step practice that generates highly reliable results.

The “OSINT Stairway” Taxonomy developed by our own Nicole Hoffman 

One of the best things about the cyber threat intelligence industry is the people that are constantly sharing their knowledge with the community. For this reason, the Internet is populated by countless taxonomies and methodologies that great analysts have developed while striving for excellence. Go out there and find the one more suitable for you! Don’t be afraid to try a new methodology or to modify existing ones to accommodate your needs – intelligence is a creative practice and only you know what’s best for yourself!

Tip #3: Request and Action Feedback

If you’re in this game, you’re likely striving for excellence when writing intelligence reports. Based on my experience, there’s no better way to improve your writing and assessment skills than by requesting continuous feedback at any stage of your investigation. This process should involve both your colleagues/mentors but also the relevant stakeholders. Trust me, receiving and then acting on that feedback will improve the quality of your work exponentially.

Despite the importance of feedback in the intelligence cycle, I’m well aware that practitioners are always working on borrowed time and that enabling this process can often be too time-consuming. That’s why it’s important to set up smooth, well-oiled practices within your intelligence team to ensure that every report can get a good dose of feedback and ultimately deliver an awesome piece of work to the stakeholders.

Closing thoughts

Crafting high quality intelligence reports is a process that requires endless curiosity and desire to improve. It’s no easy task but, as I mentioned before, our industry is full of incredibly talented people that are constantly sharing their knowledge and experience in the field. Make sure to explore the information freely available out there and find what works best for you!

In the meantime, if you want to stay updated on the latest news in the threat intelligence sphere, please let us help you. Here at Digital Shadows (now ReliaQuest), we’re really passionate about this field and constantly improving our craft to help our clients defend against the most active threat actors. So feel free to test drive SearchLight (now ReliaQuest’s GreyMatter Digital Risk Protection) for a week or request a demo, you won’t be disappointed!