An indicator of compromise (IOC) is a piece of data that indicates a high probability of unauthorised access to a system or network. IOCs are used to identify malicious activity or security threats, such as data breaches, insider threats or malware attacks. IOCs can be found in logs, files, and other areas where hackers might leave their mark.
IOCs are important because they can help improve detection accuracy, speed, and remediation times. Generally speaking, the earlier an organisation can detect an attack, the less impact it will have on the business and the easier it will be to resolve. IOCs, especially those that are recurring, provide the organisation with a window into the techniques and methodologies of their attackers.
There are several types of IOCs that can be used to detect security incidents. They include:
- Network-based IOCs, such as malicious IP addresses, domains, or URLs. These can also include network traffic patterns, unusual port activity, network connections to known malicious hosts, or data exfiltration patterns.
- Host-based IOCs are related to activity on a workstation or server. File names or hashes, registry keys, or suspicious processes executing on the host are examples of host-based IOCs.
- File-based IOCs include malicious files like malware or scripts.
- Behavioral IOCs cover several types of suspicious behaviour, including odd user behaviour, login patterns, network traffic patterns and authentication attempts.
- Metadata IOCs have to do with the metadata associated with a file or document, such as the author, creation date, or version details.
To identify IOCs, security professionals need to use both automated and manual tools to monitor, detect, and analyse evidence of cyber attacks. Some of the tools that can help with IOC detection are:
- Antivirus and antimalware software: Use known IOCs, such as virus signatures or file hashes, to proactively scan and quarantine suspicious files.
- Extended detection and response (XDR) solutions: These tools collect and correlate data from multiple sources, such as endpoints, networks, cloud services, and email, to provide a holistic view of the threat landscape and enable faster response.
- Security information and event management (SIEM) solutions: Helps aggregate and analyse log data from various systems and devices to detect anomalies and generate alerts.
Once security teams identify an IOC, they need to respond effectively to ensure as little damage to the organisation as possible. The following steps can help organisations stay focused and stop threats as quickly as possible:
- Establish an incident response plan: This document outlines the roles and responsibilities of the team members, the procedures and protocols for handling incidents, and the communication channels and escalation paths for reporting incidents.
- Isolate compromised systems and devices: This prevents further infection spread and limits the attackers’ access to sensitive data or resources.
- Conduct forensic analysis: Determine the incident’s scope and impact, identify the attack’s root cause and source, and collect evidence for further investigation or legal action.
- Eliminate the threat: Remove malicious software or files from the affected systems or devices, restore normal operations, and apply patches or updates to prevent recurrence.
- Learn from the incident: Evaluate the effectiveness of the response plan, identify any gaps or weaknesses in the security posture, and implement any improvements or recommendations for future prevention.
IOCs are valuable pieces of information that can help organisations detect and respond to cyber-attacks. Security teams can improve their situational awareness and reduce their risk exposure by using various tools and techniques to monitor for IOCs.