It's only intelligence if you use it

Threat intelligence can be valuable, if you actually have it and you’re prepared to make use of it.

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It has been reported that C-level executives are suffering from a flood of threat intelligence. There is too much of it, it’s too complicated to make sense of, and its utility is questionable. As someone who has spent most of his career in intelligence, I can say with confidence that this isn’t a phenomenon limited to the commercial sector.

When I started my career we still used pencil and paper. You didn’t assault a decision-maker’s senses with 30 pages of PowerPoint, you wrote a report. One page. As the adoption of technology grew, we were able to assemble massive amounts data in new formats for user consumption. In theory, this should have been the start of a golden age in the intelligence business: more data, more analytic power, more insights in front of decision-makers.

Instead it became a nightmare.

What intelligence isn’t

People have been mistaking data for intelligence since before cyber threat intelligence became a thing. An IP address, a person’s name, a given piece of malware are different types of data. Lots of data assembled into a coherent whole is information. Information subjected to methodology and expert input is intelligence. Intelligence tells you something you did not already know, or gives you some measure of confidence, allowing you to make decisions in an informed manner. 

If you find yourself being overwhelmed by “intelligence” you didn’t buy intelligence you bought a data feed. Machines cannot produce intelligence. An algorithm may be able to process data in accordance with a given formula, but it cannot provide the insight that a subject matter expert —social, martial, political, technical, cultural, linguistic — can. Anything delivered to you as a decision-maker that isn’t finished by a human being isn’t intelligence.

Helping those who won’t help themselves

The flip side to the intelligence dilemma is that even if you are provided with well-sourced, well-analyzed, and timely intelligence, the utility of that intelligence is still zero if you’re unwilling to act on it. Instead of being something that helps you get ahead of the problem or competition, it becomes a lagging indicator of what happened because you did not act. History, in other words.

I saw this a lot when I was responsible for disseminating warnings to DOD elements about cyber threats. Such warnings had to fit within a larger framework that included physically dangerous near-peer adversaries like Russia or China. We fielded a lot of phone calls from frustrated Commanders asking why Tiny Nation was now a red light on their threat dashboard. To someone who is trying to stop bad guys and keep good guys alive, you’re an idiot who is unnecessarily complicating their lives.

The icing on that bureaucratic cake would usually come a month or so later when that command would get hacked, and why didn’t we tell them that was going to happen? Well, we did, you just decided that either (a) we were wrong, or (b) it wasn’t as big a problem as we said it was. Fair enough, because in the end every decision-maker is their own intelligence analyst, but the problem wasn’t the intelligence and related assessment.

Bias for action

Intelligence only works if both sides — producers and consumers — are working in harmony and fulfilling their respective roles. From the perspective of the intelligence team it is critical that you:

  • Avoid hyperbole and FUD. Stick to facts and what you can verify. Caveat questionable sources accordingly.
  • Avoid a rush to judgement. First reports of any sort of activity are usually wrong to some degree. Even when seconds count, it's better to be right than first.
  • Provide a “so what” factor. Context is key The boss can read the news, which stories should she pay attention to, and why?
  • Put things into perspective. What’s the worst thing that can happen? What — given historical precedence — is most likely to happen? A decision is more likely when there is a range of options linked to business impact.

Likewise, it is on the consumer of intelligence to make effective use of what is being provided:

  • Make your priorities clear. What matters the most to you? That will help the intelligence team understand what to focus on.
  • Make your consumption preferences known. Do you want slides? Will you read a full page of text or just a paragraph? Would you prefer someone in front of your desk articulating the issues?
  • Use what you’re given. Whether it's a command to act, or another question to answer, the third option — inaction — suggests you have more fundamental issues that need to be addressed before you can make effective use of intelligence.
  • Provide feedback. What did they do that was useful? What are they doing that wastes your time? Absent direction an intelligence team will produce what they think you want, not what you need.

Intelligence failures aren’t always about a failure to have the right information in the right hands at the right time; it is just as often if not more so a factor of decision-makers not believing what they are seeing, and as a consequence not acting. “Go back and look again,” is a completely legitimate request, but there is no such thing as perfect, complete intelligence. At some point a decision has to be made, and that’s something intelligence cannot do for you.

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