Putting the Model to Work: Enabling Defenders With Vulnerability Intelligence — Intelligence for Vulnerability Management, Part Four

Katie Bowen, Stu Reynolds
Apr 27, 2020
9 mins read
Threat Research

One of the critical strategic and tactical roles that cyber threat intelligence (CTI) plays is in the tracking, analysis, and prioritization of software vulnerabilities that could potentially put an organization’s data, employees and customers at risk. In this four-part blog series, FireEye Mandiant Threat Intelligence highlights the value of CTI in enabling vulnerability management, and unveils new research into the latest threats, trends and recommendations.

Organizations often have to make difficult choices when it comes to patch prioritization. Many are faced with securing complex network infrastructure with thousands of systems, different operating systems, and disparate geographical locations. Even when armed with a simplified vulnerability rating system, it can be hard to know where to start. This problem is compounded by the ever-changing threat landscape and increased access to zero-days.

At FireEye, we apply the rich body of knowledge accumulated over years of global intelligence collection, incident response investigations, and device detections, to help our customers defend their networks. This understanding helps us to discern between hundreds of newly disclosed vulnerabilities to provide ratings and assessments that empower network defenders to focus on the most significant threats and effectively mitigate risk to their organizations. 

In this blog post, we’ll demonstrate how we apply intelligence to help organizations assess risk and make informed decisions about vulnerability management and patching in their environments.

Functions of Vulnerability Intelligence

Vulnerability intelligence helps clients to protect their organizations, assets, and users in three main ways:

Vulnerability intelligence can help with risk assessment and informed decision making
Figure 1: Vulnerability intelligence can help with risk assessment and informed decision making

Tailoring Vulnerability Prioritization

We believe it is important for organizations to build a defensive strategy that prioritizes the types of threats that are most likely to impact their environment, and the threats that could cause the most damage. When organizations have a clear picture of the spectrum of threat actors, malware families, campaigns, and tactics that are most relevant to their organization, they can make more nuanced prioritization decisions when those threats are linked to exploitation of vulnerabilities. A lower risk vulnerability that is actively being exploited in the wild against your organization or similar organizations likely has a greater potential impact to you than a vulnerability with a higher rating that is not actively being exploited.

Patch Prioritization Philosophy
Figure 2: Patch Prioritization Philosophy

Integration of Vulnerability Intelligence in Internal Workflows

Based on our experience assisting organizations globally with enacting intelligence-led security, we outline three use cases for integrating vulnerability intelligence into internal workflows.

Integration of vulnerability intelligence into internal workflows
Figure 3: Integration of vulnerability intelligence into internal workflows

Tools and Use Cases for Operationalizing Vulnerability Intelligence

1. Automate Processes by Fusing Intelligence with Internal Data

Automation is valuable to security teams with limited resources. Similar to automated detecting and blocking of indicator data, vulnerability threat intelligence can be automated by merging data from internal vulnerability scans with threat intelligence (via systems like the Mandiant Intelligence API) and aggregated into a SIEM, Threat Intelligence Platform, and/or ticketing system. This enhances visibility into various sources of both internal and external data with vulnerability intelligence providing risk ratings and indicating which vulnerabilities are being actively exploited. FireEye also offers a custom tool called FireEye Intelligence Vulnerability Explorer (“FIVE”), described in more detail below for quickly correlating vulnerabilities found in logs and scans with Mandiant ratings.

Security teams can similarly automate communication and workflow tracking processes using threat intelligence by defining rules for auto-generating tickets based on certain combinations of Mandiant risk and exploitation ratings; for example, internal service-level-agreements (SLAs) could state that ‘high’ risk vulnerabilities that have an exploitation rating of ‘available,’ ‘confirmed,’ or ‘wide’ must be patched within a set number of days. Of course, the SLA will depend on the company’s operational needs, the capability of the team that is advising the patch process, and executive buy-in to the SLA process. Similarly, there may be an SLA defined for patching vulnerabilities that are of a certain age. Threat intelligence tells us that adversaries continue to use older vulnerabilities as long as they remain effective. For example, as recently as January 2020, we observed a Chinese cyber espionage group use an exploit for CVE-2012-0158, a Microsoft Office stack-based buffer overflow vulnerability originally released in 2012, in malicious email attachments to target organizations in Southeast Asia. Automating the vulnerability-scan-to-vulnerability-intelligence correlation process can help bring this type of issue to light. 

Another potential use case employing automation would be incorporating vulnerability intelligence as security teams are testing updates or new hardware and software prior to introduction into the production environment. This could dramatically reduce the number of vulnerabilities that need to be patched in production and help prioritize those vulnerabilities that need to be patched first based on your organization’s unique threat profile and business operations.

2. Communicating with Internal Stakeholders

Teams can leverage vulnerability reporting to send internal messaging, such as flash-style notifications, to alert other teams when Mandiant rates a vulnerability known to impact your systems high or critical. These are the vulnerabilities that should take priority in patching and should be patched outside of the regular cycle.

Data-informed intelligence analysis may help convince stakeholders outside of the security organization the importance of patching quickly, even when this is inconvenient to business operations. Threat Intelligence can inform an organization’s appropriate use of resources for security given the potential business impact of security incidents.

3. Threat Modeling

Organizations can leverage vulnerability threat intelligence to inform their threat modeling to gain insight into the most likely threats to their organization, and better prepare to address threats in the mid to long term. Knowledge of which adversaries pose the greatest threat to your organization, and then knowledge of which vulnerabilities those threat groups are exploiting in their operations, can enable your organization to build out security controls and monitoring based on those specific CVEs.


The following examples illustrate workflows supported by vulnerability threat intelligence to demonstrate how organizations can operationalize threat intelligence in their existing security teams to automate processes and increase efficiency given limited resources.

Example 1: Using FIVE for Ad-hoc Vulnerability Prioritization

The FireEye Intelligence Vulnerability Explorer (“FIVE”) tool is available for customers here. It is available for MacOS and Windows, requires a valid subscription for Mandiant Vulnerability Intelligence, and is driven from an API integration.

FIVE Tool for Windows and MacOS
Figure 4: FIVE Tool for Windows and MacOS

In this scenario, an organization’s intelligence team was asked to quickly identify any vulnerability that required patching from a server vulnerability scan after that server was rebuilt from a backup image. The intelligence team was presented with a text file containing a list of CVE numbers. Users can drag-and-drop a text readable file (CSV, TEXT, JSON, etc.) into the FIVE tool and the CVE numbers will be discovered from the file using regex. As shown in Figure 6 (below), in this example, the following vulnerabilities were found in the file and presented to the user. 

FIVE tool startup screen waiting for file input
Figure 5: FIVE tool startup screen waiting for file input
FIVE tool after successfully regexing the CVE-IDs from the file
Figure 6: FIVE tool after successfully regexing the CVE-IDs from the file

After selecting all CVE-IDs, the user clicked the “Fetch Vulnerabilities” button, causing the application to make the necessary two-stage API call to the Intelligence API.

The output depicted in Figure 7 shows the user which vulnerabilities should be prioritized based on FireEye’s risk and exploitation ratings. The red and maroon boxes indicate vulnerabilities that require attention, while the yellow indicate vulnerabilities that should be reviewed for possible action. Details of the vulnerabilities are displayed below, with associated intelligence report links providing further context.

FIVE tool with meta-data, CVE-IDs, and links to related Intelligence Reports
Figure 7: FIVE tool with meta-data, CVE-IDs, and links to related Intelligence Reports

FIVE can also facilitate other use cases for vulnerability intelligence. For example, this chart can be attached in messaging to other internal stakeholders or executives for review, as part of a status update to provide visibility on the organization’s vulnerability management program.

Example 2: Vulnerability Prioritization, Internal Communications, Threat Modeling

CVE-2019-19781 is a vulnerability affecting Citrix that Mandiant Threat Intelligence rated critical. Mandiant discussed early exploitation of this vulnerability in a January 2020 blog post. We continued to monitor for additional exploitation, and informed our clients when we observed exploitation by ransomware operators and Chinese espionage group, APT41.

In cases like these, threat intelligence can help impacted organizations find the “signal” in the “noise” and prioritize patching using knowledge of exploitation and the motives and targeting patterns of threat actors behind the exploitation. Enterprises can use intelligence to inform internal stakeholders of the potential risk and provide context as to the potential business and financial impact of a ransomware infection or an intrusion by a highly resourced state sponsored group. This support the immediate patch prioritization decision while simultaneously emphasizing the value of a holistically informed security organization.

Example 3: Intelligence Reduces Unnecessary Resource Expenditure — Automating Vulnerability Prioritization and Communications

Another common application for vulnerability intelligence is informing security teams and stakeholders when to stand down. When a vulnerability is reported in the media, organizations often spin up resources to patch as quickly as possible. Leveraging threat intelligence in security processes help an organization discern when it is necessary to respond in an all-hands-on-deck manner.

Take the case of the CVE-2019-12650, originally disclosed on Sept. 25, 2019 with an NVD rating of “High.” Without further information, an organization relying on this score to determine prioritization may include this vulnerability in the same patch cycle along with numerous other vulnerabilities rated High or Critical. As previously discussed, we have experts review the vulnerability and determine that it required the highest level of privileges available to successfully exploit, and there was no evidence of exploitation in the wild.

This is a case where threat intelligence reporting as well as automation can effectively minimize the need to unnecessarily spin up resources. Although the public NVD score rated this vulnerability high, Mandiant Intelligence rated it as “low” risk due to the high level of privileges needed to use it and lack of exploitation in the wild. Based on this assessment, organizations may decide that this vulnerability could be patched in the regular cycle and does not necessitate use of additional resources to patch out-of-band. When Mandiant ratings are automatically integrated into the patching ticket generation process, this can support efficient prioritization. Furthermore, an organization could use the analysis to issue an internal communication informing stakeholders of the reasoning behind lowering the prioritization.

Vulnerabilities: Managed

Because we have been closely monitoring vulnerability exploitation trends for years, we were able to distinguish when attacker use of zero-days evolved from use by a select class of highly skilled attackers, to becoming accessible to less skilled groups with enough money to burn. Our observations consistently underscore the speed with which attackers exploit useful vulnerabilities, and the lack of exploitation for vulnerabilities that are hard to use or do not help attackers fulfill their objectives. Our understanding of the threat landscape helps us to discern between hundreds of newly disclosed vulnerabilities to provide ratings and assessments that empower network defenders to focus on the most significant threats and effectively mitigate risk to their organizations.

Mandiant Threat Intelligence enables organizations to implement a defense-in-depth approach to holistically mitigate risk by taking all feasible steps—not just patching—to prevent, detect, and stymie attackers at every stage of the attack lifecycle with both technology and human solutions.

Register today to hear FireEye Mandiant Threat Intelligence experts discuss the latest in vulnerability threats, trends and recommendations in our upcoming April 30 webinar.

Additional Resources

Zero-Day Exploitation Increasingly Demonstrates Access to Money, Rather than Skill — Intelligence for Vulnerability Management, Part One

Think Fast: Time Between Disclosure, Patch Release and Vulnerability Exploitation — Intelligence for Vulnerability Management, Part Two

Separating the Signal from the Noise: How Mandiant Intelligence Rates Vulnerabilities — Intelligence for Vulnerability Management, Part Three

Mandiant offers Intelligence Capability Development (ICD) services to help organizations optimize their ability to consume, analyze and apply threat intelligence.

The FIVE tool is available on the FireEye Market. It requires a valid subscription for Mandiant Vulnerability Intelligence, and is driven from an API integration. Please contact your Intelligence Enablement Manager or FireEye Support to obtain API keys. 

Mandiant's OT Asset Vulnerability Assessment Service informs customers of relevant vulnerabilities by matching a customer's asset list against vulnerabilities and advisories. Relevant vulnerabilities and advisories are delivered in a report from as little as once a year, to as often as once a week. Additional add-on services such as asset inventory development and deep dive analysis of critical assets are available. Please contact your Intelligence Enablement Manager for more information.