It’s been a little over a month since I wrote about how intelligence requirements (IRs) can help plan a cyber response to major incidents. At the end of that blog, I mentioned that the next step in the intelligence cycle, collection, involves creating an intelligence collection plan (ICP) to help guide research. In this blog, I’ll give a whistlestop tour of an ICP, how to build one, and, importantly, why all analysts should consider using one.

What are intelligence collection plans?

To anyone not familiar with the intelligence cycle and intelligence collection, an ICP might sound overly fancy or complicated. In reality, it is a straightforward tool that, when designed carefully, can make intelligence collection a lot easier. The initial creation of an ICP may take some time, which is likely why many analysts will skip this part of the process. However, when done correctly, following an ICP should save time in the long run.

After IRs have been set, ICPs are a logical way to structure and manage information collection against those requirements. These plans also help to manage capabilities and resources when project planning. The content of the ICP will depend on the type of intelligence required. In any event, it should be a living document that is updated regularly to provide a single source of information about how collection against the IRs is progressing.

If completed correctly, ICPs should contain all the information required to form a comprehensive and accurate intelligence picture.

Sources are key

So, you’ve read our blog on Lapsus$ and, let’s say, and it inspired you to write an in-depth report on the group and how likely they are to target the organization you work for. You’ve created intelligence requirements, but now what? Here’s how to start building an ICP.

Personally, given my public sector background, I use a Microsoft Excel sheet to build my ICPs. There may be specialist tools available, or another type of program might suit better, but any document/tool that is easy to edit will work.

First, make a grid;

  • Across the top, add headings for IRs (priority & subs), followed by placeholders for the sources of information
  • Down the side, number the rows until you run out of IRs
A very simple example of the beginnings of an ICP

Once the IRs have been added, the next stage of creating an ICP is to consider the sources required to collect information to answer the IRs. It is crucial to consider internal sources first – we need to know what we already know before looking further. An internal source could be a database your organization has, a threat intelligence vendor you have access to, your team, another team, or a subject matter expert within your organization. 

After exhausting internal sources of information, external sources are next. External sources of information are primarily open-source–the Internet, the dark web, or a freedom of information request. Also, intelligence shared by a trusted partner would be considered an external source.

There may be instances when a source needed to answer an IR cannot be accessed, leaving a capability gap. Using an ICP helps identify capability gaps early in the research process, leaving plenty of time to fill the gap before the deadline looms. Without the ICP, this gap would likely have remained hidden until later in the process, by which time it could be too late.

As I mentioned above, ICPs are living documents; therefore, sources can be added as progress is made or if the original sources are not yielding the expected results. Spending time at this stage to ensure the sources are relevant and likely to deliver results will save time in the long run.

Tracking progress

Once all the options for useful sources have been considered and added to the ICP, the next part of the planning process is to decide priorities, assign tasks, and set deadlines for delivery.

The cyber security world is fast-paced, with each week seemingly presenting a new puzzle for security teams to solve. This is why prioritizing collection efforts is so important; as resources get pulled from pillar to post, those remaining can be directed at the most critical problem. Prioritization can also be helpful if the end customer needs an intelligence product, answering a single IR quickly. Resources can be directed at answering this IR in the short term before moving to complete the rest of the research project.

The colleagues listed in this ICP are all fictional; however, it is no coincidence that all the fictional names rhyme with Kim 🙂

Use the ICP to assign tasks to analysts, including yourself, but make sure those analysts know about it! There is little use in an ICP if only the creator uses it – a whole team effort will be needed. Once an analyst has been assigned, set deadlines that match priorities. Deadlines should always be stretching yet realistic and achievable. To easily track deadlines within an ICP, use the tools at your disposal. In Excel, I use formulas to color code deadlines – red for overdue, amber for approaching, and green for the rest.

ICPs can also be used to track progress made against IRs. Analysts who have been assigned tasks can update the ICP with information about what they have or haven’t done. If they have created an intelligence product using the information found during the research phase, then a link to that product should also be included in the ICP. See how it is becoming a one-stop-shop for everything related to the project?

developed ICP
A more developed ICP showing assignments, tasks, progress, and links to reports

Having all this information in a single document or tool makes research more manageable, but it helps those who need to report to management or customers. At a glance, an update can be given about which tasks are outstanding, which are complete, and how many intelligence products have been created from this project. Just like capability gaps, barriers to delivery are also identified early, making them more likely to be resolved or escalated before missed deadlines.

In summary

While it might take some time to create, an ICP will save time in the long run. Regardless, creating an ICP is simple and easy to maintain. Done well, an ICP allows for fair and easy task allocation, the ability to set and track deadlines, and tracking progress against the IRs. When properly maintained by the whole team, ICPs are a single source for all information about a project, easing reporting requirements as well as managing issues that may arise. Whatever tool you choose to use for your ICP, I hope the overriding message from this blog is to use one!

If you’d like to access Digital Shadows (now ReliaQuest)’ constantly-updated threat intelligence library providing insights on a wide range of cyber threats, sign up for a demo of SearchLight (now ReliaQuest’s GreyMatter Digital Risk Protection) here.