Threat Hunting and Incident Response are two closely related but distinct security practices. Both essentially deal with a security incident that has already occurred. However, the key difference is in how the incident is unfolding as either an acute threat or a dormant but still significant threat.
The objective of Threat Hunting is the proactive identification and investigation of potential security threats within systems and the environment, aka indicators of compromise (IoC). This typically involves analyzing data and events from various sources, such as network traffic logs, user activity logs, and security alerts, in order to identify patterns and anomalies that may indicate the presence of a security threat.
Threat Hunting leverages a combination of tools, techniques, and human expertise to detect and investigate suspicious activity, and then take appropriate action to prevent or mitigate any potential threats. Recently, and in addition to manual and automated techniques, data mining and machine learning algorithms are used to identify potential threats that may not be detected by traditional security systems. The goal of Threat Hunting is to identify and neutralize potential threats that were not prevented and that have succeeded in evading detection but before they can cause (more) harm. It also helps organizations by providing valuable insights and intelligence about the types of threats that they are facing or rather, that are succeeding to circumvent safeguards.
Incident Response, on the other hand, launches as soon as a security incident occurs and is detected or rapidly unfolding. The goal of Incident Response is to minimize the impact of security incidents and restore normal operations as quickly as possible. The first objective is to take immediate action to contain and mitigate the impact of the incident and to prevent further damage. Incident Response also involves conducting a thorough investigation to determine the cause of the incident and to identify any potential vulnerabilities that may have been exploited. Additionally, Incident Response may involve coordinating with other teams and organizations, such as law enforcement and cybersecurity experts, to ensure an effective and comprehensive response to the incident.
Incident Response involves several activities and procedures that are followed in a fairly structured manner including identifying the scope and impact of the incident, taking steps to contain and mitigate the damage, and restoring normal operations. These actions and steps proceed through distinct phases: Identify, Contain, and Respond, Recover and Lessons Learned. Incident Response also often involves conducting investigations to determine the cause of the incident and implementing measures to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future, aka Lessons Learned.
The process and procedures are also organized and typically define a Cyber Incident Response Team (CIRT) composed of trained and experienced security professionals who are responsible for coordinating and executing the organization’s incident response plan.
Overall, the main difference between Threat Hunting and Incident Response is that the former is a proactive practice to identify and mitigate potential threats that have evaded safeguards, but that may not be active yet. It is a less structured process and quite variable from one organization to the next. Incident Response on the other hand is a reactive practice that is focused on responding to and recovering from security incidents that are in process or that have already occurred.
Stig Ravdal is the President & Founder of Ravdal, Inc., a leading cybersecurity strategy and solutions company. He is widely considered an expert in the field and is available for speaking engagements.