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Cyber Threat Hunting: A Complete Guide for 2023

Cyber Threat Hunting: A Complete Guide for 2023

Cyber Threat Hunting: A Complete Guide for 2023

With the emergence of the cloud and the ever-changing nature of IT architecture, organizations worldwide are faced with an increasingly complex technological landscape. This complexity brings with it new challenges and added threats, which, in turn, require an innovative approach to cybersecurity.

A passive approach to threat intelligence is no longer sufficient. New techniques utilizing cutting-edge technology to identify and track down cyber threats are coming into play, changing the shape of cybersecurity and providing unprecedented levels of protection for modern businesses and enterprises. 

In this paper, we will explore the emerging cybersecurity process known as cyber threat hunting. From the wide variety of techniques used by cyber threat hunters to considerations on why this form of forward-looking, proactive cybersecurity is so effective, we will demonstrate just how important the threat hunting methodology is for modern organizations.    

What is cyber threat hunting?  

Cyber threat hunting is a proactive cybersecurity method that aims to search for, identify, and destroy any cyber threats within an organization’s network. Taking a far more effective and aggressive approach than traditional cybersecurity, cyber threat hunting is based on a key philosophical standpoint:

Attack is the best form of defense.

However, cyber threat hunting is not a replacement for high-level detection and monitoring methodologies. Instead, it augments them, creating a comprehensive multi-pronged approach to securing an organization’s IT architecture. Cyber threat hunting is used to detect anomalous and unusual behavior which could be a result of a wide range of malicious activities, including malware infections, data breaches, and targeted attacks.

Why is threat hunting important?

Effective threat hunting is an essential part of any good cyber defense strategy. With the ever-shifting nature of cyber threats and the recent transformations in typical IT infrastructures, the importance of a proactive, forward-looking method becomes increasingly apparent. 

Recent studies back this up. In 2022, data breaches affected 83% of organizations, while the cost of an average breach has risen 13% between 2020 and 2022.[1] Meanwhile, ransomware continues to rise, with a 13% increase in 2022 – an upward trend that surpasses the previous five years combined.[2]

Moreover, the way we store data is changing irrevocably. Estimates state that 60% of all corporate data is now stored in a public or private cloud, or a combination of both.[3] And cloud migration shows no signs of slowing down – by 2025, investment in cloud infrastructure will reach €110 billion.[4] This transformation brings with it an increased vulnerability, with a wider attack surface and a more complex environment that gives malicious actors the potential to gain access to sensitive data. 

Against this backdrop of increased vulnerability and complexity, the benefits of cyber threat hunting come to the fore. These benefits include:

Increased response speed

On average, it takes companies nine months to identify and contain a data breach.[5] The longer it takes to respond to cyberattacks, the more damage to the company’s systems and data, and the larger the cost to repair the wide-ranging repercussions of the attack. Threat hunting helps to get information rapidly, putting the cybersecurity team on the front foot so they can act early and mitigate threats before they materialize.

Shorter investigation time

Picking up the pieces following a cybersecurity incident can be a complex process. Cyber threat hunting simplifies and speeds up these investigative processes, providing valuable analytical data that enables organizations to recover quickly and strengthen their system to better prepare for any future attacks.

Deep insights into security posture

Cyber threat hunting uses threat intelligence tools to construct a panoramic view of an organization’s security architecture and capabilities. This increased visibility allows cybersecurity teams to pinpoint vulnerabilities before cyber attackers do, providing a more robust defense that will prevent future cybersecurity risks.

Combats emerging threats

The nature of cyberattacks is changing consistently. Increasingly sophisticated threats are finding new ways to bypass passive automated cybersecurity systems. Cyber threat hunting takes a proactive approach to capturing, analyzing, and neutralizing these sophisticated attacks while learning from them and adapting accordingly.

Mitigates overall risk

When a threat slips through undetected, costs can be devastating. From data breaches and expensive system repairs to reputational damage and expensive settlements, there are numerous consequences of a cyber incident. The ability of cyber threat hunting to dramatically decrease the effects of cyberattacks is hugely significant for the overall health of a company’s IT environment.

What do cyber threat hunters do? 

Although there are ever-more sophisticated tools and techniques bringing next-level protection to enterprises and organizations, the human element is still a crucial aspect of cybersecurity. Threat hunters bring this element, using skills and experience to go beyond traditional threat detection methods. They use their expertise to search for anomalous patterns and unusual activity, detecting threats that might have otherwise gone undetected.   

Types of threat hunting

Structured threat hunting

A proactive threat hunting model, structured threat hunting is also known as hypothesis hunting.  

It is based on indicators of attack (IoAs – physical evidence that an attack is likely to take place) and tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs – used to identify patterns of behavior of the attacker.)

Structured threat hunting uses an established framework or threat hunting library such as the MITRE Adversary Tactics Techniques and Common Knowledge (ATT&CK) framework to identify a cyber threat before it can do damage within the network.

Unstructured threat hunting

A far more free-flowing approach to threat hunting, unstructured hunts are based on triggers, or an IoC (indicator of compromise) – an initial suggestion that a potential threat requires investigating. Sometimes referred to as ‘ad hoc’ or ‘data-driven’ hunting, unstructured threat hunting revolves around observing pre- and post-detection patterns in data and pinpointing changes in behavior.

This cyber hunting model is sometimes referred to as ‘intel-based threat hunting’, and aside from indicators of compromise (IoCs), uses domain names, IP addresses, hash values, and more to investigate malicious activity. The threat hunter can do this via a set of predefined rules established by the SIEM, identifying security compromises swiftly and effectively. 

Situational or entity-driven threat hunting

Oftentimes, following a risk assessment or cybersecurity audit, the need arises for an in-depth investigation into a particular vulnerability within the organization’s network. This nuanced, tailored approach to cyber hunting is known as situational or entity-driven hunting, or sometimes custom hunting. 

Expert cyber threat hunters will use a custom hunting approach for a certain situation to gain a focused insight into a potential threat. Custom hunting makes use of certain aspects of both hypothesis hunting and intel-based hunting, with both IoA and IoC data used to get the best results by investigating high-risk/high-value assets. These can include sensitive data, crucial network assets, or critical computing resources.

Threat hunting steps

Cyber threat hunting typically takes a three-step approach. The steps are as follows:

The trigger or hypothesis

The springboard for any cyber threat investigation, a hypothesis or trigger (depending on whether the method used is structured or unstructured hunting) cues the threat hunter to look for patterns within a certain area that might indicate a cyber security threat. 

The investigation

Next, the threat hunter will use specific tools such as security information and event management (SIEM), endpoint detection and response (EDR) and security analytics. They use these tools to conduct a deep search within the specific area, gaining a comprehensive view of the potential attack and the effects on the system. 


During the third phase, the information obtained during the investigation process is communicated to cybersecurity and operations teams. This intelligence is then used to analyze, prioritize, and respond, implementing relevant tools to protect vulnerabilities and strengthen the system. Furthermore, an analysis of the attack methods enables the team to predict potential future attacks.

What are the most common cyber threat hunting techniques?

Creating logs and alerts to identify malicious activities

Every security device used within an organization creates a log – a list of activities or actions created by this device. Threat hunters monitor this log to search for suspicious patterns and anomalies, such as error codes, failed login attempts, and anything else that indicates malicious activity.

Using network data to identify abnormal activity

Threat hunters use this technique to analyze network traffic patterns, performance data, and packet signatures to unearth covert attacks. Tools used to analyze network data include firewalls and intrusion detection systems. 

Sandbox isolation to analyze suspicious files

A recently developed technique used by cyber threat hunters, this involves isolating suspicious files in a ‘sandbox environment’, where they can get a better idea of the level of threat it poses. When other techniques fail, this hands-on method is highly effective at providing a clearer picture of a potential threat’s behavior.

Cyber threat scouting exercises

Organizations can conduct cyber threat scouting exercises to improve their ability to identify malicious activity. This affords a deeper understanding of proven techniques and tools used for leveraging threat intelligence and builds a familiarity with the MITRE ATT&CK framework – a globally accessible knowledge base of adversary tactics and techniques based on real-world observations.

Threat hunting frameworks

There are many popular frameworks utilized as a source for creating threat hunting hypotheses. These are two of the most employed:

The MITRE PRE-ATT&CK and ATT&CK frameworks 

The most commonly used cyber threat hunting frameworks, the MITRE PRE-ATT&CK and ATT&CK frameworks are a foundational knowledge base that threat hunters can leverage for specific threat models and methodologies across multiple sectors.

Targeted Hunting integrating Threat Intelligence (TaHiTI) framework

The TaHiTI framework provides organizations with a standardized and repeatable approach to threat hunting investigations. This framework uses three phrases and six steps throughout the process and easily integrates with other threat hunting processes, such as threat intelligence. 

What is required to initiate the threat hunting search?

Human capital

For all the emergence of key technologies (AI, machine learning, etc.) taking cybersecurity towards a more automated future, the human side remains a pivotal part of threat detection. As modern-day hackers focus on developing methods to understand and bypass automated defenses, human threat hunters bring a nuanced level of skill and experience that can prove far harder to evade. 

From data analytics and pattern recognition to data forensics and communication skills, the best cyber threat hunting teams bring a balanced mix of abilities to counteract the most sophisticated cyber attackers.

Data collection

Cyber threat hunters may have exceptional abilities, but they can only work with the information that is available. That’s why a good infrastructure is essential, with full visibility into endpoint data, network data, and security data.

Threat hunters carry out data collection techniques including: 

  • Clustering: Used to create specific data points to segment a large set of data. This is particularly useful to pinpoint anomalous behavior within the data set.
  • Grouping: This is most effective when searching for multiple instances of unique artifacts, enabling hunters to identify when they appear together within certain criteria (such as time period). 
  • Searching: The simplest data collection technique. It involves querying data to search for a specific artifact. Searching is not effective when finding anomalies and is only used to identify a specific known artifact.
  • Stack counting: A method used to investigate hypotheses, stack counting determines the frequency of specific value types, before analyzing outliers within the stack.

Threat intelligence

Finally, next-generation threat intelligence tools are vital to discover, analyze, and remediate malicious threats. As most enterprise organizations aren’t equipped to deploy these tools on a 24/7 basis, a managed security solution is often utilized.  

Such dedicated attack services bring huge value for large, medium, and small organizations. A SaaS-based security function provides 24x7x365 monitoring, detection, and response, harnessing AI-powered technology to proactively hunt for and mitigate cyber threats.

How Ackcent’s managed threat search service can help your company

Our team of expert threat hunters uses next-generation threat intelligence tools as a foundational security technology to secure your digital infrastructure. These tools use a blend of machine learning, statistical modeling, behavioral analytics, and heuristic techniques to proactively hunt for, analyze, and act on security events and observations to protect your network infrastructure. 

Ackcent’s MDR services protect organizations through:

  • Prevention: monitoring activity and trafic across your network.
  • Detection: using the best threat detection tools and technologies to locate suspicious activity.
  • Response: Responding to incidents on a 24x7x365 basis.

Our tailored SaaS solution affords the following benefits for enterprises and organizations:

Get protection from a team of experts

Our team of experienced experts are primed to hunt for cyber threats and protect your network. They know all the latest cybersecurity technologies and methodologies and take a multi-source approach to effectively deal with a variety of security threats. We employ resilient detection methods, with threat intelligence that detects higher-order tools, tactics, and TTPs.

Free up resources

Our security operations center (SOC) is available 24x7x365. This enables your team to break free from the time and resource burden of daily network security activities, giving them the chance to focus on driving your organization’s strategic vision. 

Eliminate distractions

Legacy cybersecurity systems are not equipped to deal with threats and potential incidents in an efficient and streamlined manner. An expert MDR service reduces the noise from alert overload and obtains actionable intelligence and effective threat prioritization. 

Build a solid partnership

We build trusting, robust relationships with our partners, offering transparent communication and a consistent, reliable service. As an MDR provider, we strive to provide peace of mind and to act as an extension to the teams of our partners. We are passionate about bringing stability to IT  environments, understanding what works best in any given environment, and building high-functioning long-lasting relationships that propel organizations toward a successful future. 

Contact Ackcent today to find out more about how our managed threat hunting service can help your organization.