What is STIX (Structured Threat Information eXpression)?

What is STIX? STIX (Structured Threat Information eXpression) is a language standardized by OASIS to describe threats in the cyber environment. STIX can be read by humans directly or via tools and can be processed automatically by machines.

In modern days, the importance of cybersecurity cannot be overstated. Cyberattacks have become increasingly sophisticated and prevalent, posing significant risks to individuals, businesses, and governments alike.

To combat these threats effectively, organizations rely on threat intelligence—a critical component of cybersecurity that helps identify, analyze, and mitigate potential security risks.

Structured Threat Information eXpression (STIX) plays a pivotal role in the realm of threat intelligence.

This article aims to comprehensively understand cybersecurity’s significance, threat intelligence’s role, and how STIX contributes to enhancing security measures.

We’ll explore the definition of threat intelligence, its importance in the cybersecurity landscape, and the necessity of structured threat information for effective defense strategies.


What is Threat Intelligence?

Threat intelligence refers to the knowledge and insights gained through collecting, analyzing, and interpreting data related to potential cybersecurity threats. It encompasses information about cyber threats, vulnerabilities, tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) employed by malicious actors and the context surrounding these threats.

Threat intelligence enables organizations to proactively identify and respond to security incidents, reducing the likelihood of successful cyberattacks.

Role of Threat Intelligence in Cybersecurity

Threat intelligence serves as a critical cornerstone of effective cybersecurity strategies. It empowers organizations to:

  • Identify Threats: By continuously monitoring the threat landscape, organizations can detect emerging threats and vulnerabilities, allowing for timely action.
  • Enhance Situational Awareness: Threat intelligence provides valuable insights into the evolving threat landscape, enabling organizations to understand the risks they face and make informed decisions.
  • Improve Incident Response: In the event of a security incident, threat intelligence assists in understanding the attacker’s tactics and helps in formulating an effective response strategy.
  • Prioritize Security Measures: With threat intelligence, organizations can prioritize security investments and allocate resources where they are most needed, optimizing their defense posture.
  • Share Information: Sharing threat intelligence within the cybersecurity community enhances collective defense by enabling early warning and collaborative responses to threats.

Necessity of Structured Threat Information

Structured Threat Information is crucial because it enables the efficient and standardized exchange of threat intelligence among organizations, tools, and platforms. This structured approach ensures that threat data is consistent, understandable, and actionable. Without structured information, organizations may struggle to:

  • Automate Analysis: Structured threat information facilitates the automation of threat analysis, allowing for quicker threat identification and response.
  • Correlate Data: Structured data makes it easier to correlate information from various sources, providing a more comprehensive view of threats.
  • Enable Interoperability: Organizations often use a variety of cybersecurity tools and solutions. Structured threat information ensures these tools can communicate effectively and share threat data.
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What is STIX (Structured Threat Information eXpression)?

STIX stands for “Structured Threat Information eXpression.” It is an open standard language and serialization format designed for representing and sharing cyber threat intelligence. STIX provides a common framework for describing cyber threats, including indicators of compromise (IOCs), malware attributes, and attack patterns.

This standardization simplifies the sharing and analysis of threat information, fostering collaboration among cybersecurity professionals and organizations.

History of STIX

STIX, or Structured Threat Information eXpression, was developed to address the need for standardized and structured representation of cyber threat intelligence. Its history can be traced back to the early 2010s when various organizations recognized the necessity of sharing threat intelligence in a consistent and machine-readable format.

  • Early Initiatives: The concept of sharing threat intelligence in a structured manner gained momentum as cybersecurity threats grew in complexity. Several organizations, including government agencies, cybersecurity vendors, and industry groups, began working on initiatives to standardize threat intelligence sharing.
  • Initial Development: In 2014, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in the United States, through its Cyber Information Sharing and Collaboration Program (CISCP), initiated the development of STIX as part of the broader Cyber Threat Intelligence Information Sharing Standards (CTI-SS) effort.
  • Collaboration and Open Standards: STIX development has been a collaborative effort involving contributions from government entities, private industry, and the broader cybersecurity community. It was designed to be an open standard, allowing for widespread adoption and use.
  • Version Releases: STIX has undergone several version releases, with each iteration refining and expanding the standard’s capabilities. Version 1.0 was released in 2016, and subsequent versions, including 2.0 and 2.1, introduced enhancements and improvements.

Core Components of STIX

STIX Data Model

The STIX data model defines how information related to cyber threats is structured and represented. It serves as the foundation for creating and sharing threat intelligence in a standardized manner. Key entities within the STIX data model include:

  • Indicators: Indicators are pieces of information that suggest malicious activity. They can include IP addresses, domain names, file hashes, and more.
  • Observables: Observables are specific instances of indicators found in the environment, providing concrete evidence of a potential threat.
  • Incidents: Incidents represent actual or suspected cybersecurity events that have occurred. They provide context and details about the threat.
  • TTPs (Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures): TTPs describe the methods and strategies used by threat actors in carrying out cyberattacks.
  • Malware: Malware objects contain information about malicious software, including its characteristics and behaviors.

STIX Objects

STIX objects are the building blocks of structured threat information. They represent specific aspects of cyber threats and provide a standardized way to convey information. Common STIX objects include:

  • Indicators: These objects represent specific pieces of information that may indicate malicious activity, such as IP addresses, URLs, or file hashes.
  • Observables: Observables are tied to indicators and represent concrete instances of those indicators discovered in the environment.
  • Incidents: Incident objects provide a structured way to document and share details about cybersecurity incidents, including their impact and the entities involved.
  • Threat Actors: Threat actor objects describe the individuals, groups, or organizations behind cyber threats and provide information about their motivations, capabilities, and known activities.
  • Malware: Malware objects contain information about malicious software, including its characteristics, behavior, and associated artifacts.
  • TTPs: TTP objects document tactics, techniques, and procedures used by threat actors, helping organizations understand and defend against specific attack methods.
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What is CybOX?

Cyber Observable Expression (CybOX) is a companion standard to STIX (Structured Threat Information eXpression). It focuses on the structured representation and sharing of technical cyber observables—pieces of data that can be collected or observed in a cyber environment and are relevant to cybersecurity.

These observables encompass a wide range of data types, including file attributes, network traffic patterns, registry keys, and more.

CybOX defines a standardized way to express and share these observables, making it easier for cybersecurity professionals and tools to understand and work with technical data related to threats. CybOX provides a common language for describing cyber observables, enhancing interoperability and the effectiveness of threat intelligence sharing.

Relationship between CybOX and STIX

CybOX and STIX are closely related standards that complement each other within the realm of threat intelligence. While STIX focuses on the broader context of cyber threats, including threat actors, incidents, and tactics, CybOX delves into the technical details of cyber observables.

The relationship between CybOX and STIX is as follows:

  • Integration: CybOX is often used as an integral part of STIX to provide technical context and specificity to threat intelligence. STIX documents can reference CybOX observables to provide technical details about indicators, malware, and other threat-related data.
  • Interoperability: The integration of CybOX into STIX ensures that technical data is represented in a structured and standardized manner, facilitating interoperability between different cybersecurity tools and platforms. This interoperability allows for the seamless exchange of threat intelligence across organizations and systems.
  • Comprehensive Threat Intelligence: Together, CybOX and STIX enable the creation of comprehensive threat intelligence documents. STIX provides the overarching framework for describing threats, while CybOX provides the fine-grained technical details necessary for effective threat detection and analysis.

Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (TTPs), Exploits, and Malware in STIX

In STIX, Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (TTPs) refer to threat actors’ methods, strategies, and procedures during cyberattacks. TTPs help security professionals understand how attacks are carried out and provide insights into the behavior of threat actors.

TTPs are critical to threat intelligence because they help organizations anticipate and defend against specific attack methods.

STIX represents TTPs using structured objects that describe the following:

  • Tactics: Tactics describe the high-level goals or objectives of an attack. They represent what the threat actor aims to achieve. Examples of tactics include “initial access,” “execution,” “persistence,” and “privilege escalation.”
  • Techniques are specific methods or actions that threat actors employ to accomplish their objectives. They provide detailed information about how an attack is executed. Examples of techniques include “spear phishing,” “SQL injection,” and “credential theft.”
  • Procedures: Procedures are the step-by-step sequences of actions used to implement a technique. They provide a detailed breakdown of the actions taken by threat actors during an attack. Procedures offer granular insights into the modus operandi of threat actors.

How STIX Represents Exploits and Malware Information

STIX provides structured ways to represent information about exploits and malware, which are key components of cyber threats:

  • Exploits: Exploits are represented in STIX as part of TTP objects. A TTP object may include details about a specific exploit technique, such as a software vulnerability that is exploited by a threat actor. Exploits are linked to vulnerabilities, providing information about the potential attack vector.
  • Malware: Malware is represented in STIX as a separate object type called a “Malware” object. Malware objects include information about the characteristics and behaviors of malicious software. This can include details about the malware’s file hashes, names, descriptions, and relationships to other STIX objects, such as indicators or threat actors.

How STIX Works

STIX Language

The STIX language is the foundation of Structured Threat Information eXpression, serving as the means through which threat intelligence is structured and expressed. It provides a standardized way to represent and share information about cyber threats, enabling organizations to communicate effectively about security incidents and vulnerabilities.

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How STIX Expresses Threat Information

STIX uses a structured and standardized format to express threat information. This format includes the following key elements:

  • Objects: STIX defines various object types to represent different aspects of cyber threats. These objects can include indicators, observables, incidents, threat actors, malware, and more. Each object type has defined properties and relationships with other objects, ensuring that threat information is well-organized and comprehensive.
  • Relationships: STIX objects are connected through relationships that describe how they are related to each other. For example, an indicator object may be related to a threat actor object to indicate that the indicator is associated with a specific threat actor’s activities.
  • Properties: Objects in STIX have properties that provide detailed information about the threat. For instance, an indicator object may have properties like the indicator type, value (e.g., an IP address or a file hash), and a description.
  • Patterns: STIX allows for the creation of patterns that describe sequences of indicators or observables that are characteristic of a particular threat or attack technique. Patterns help security analysts detect known attack patterns more easily.
  • Markings: STIX supports data marking and handling guidance to ensure that sensitive information is appropriately protected when shared. This helps organizations share threat intelligence while adhering to security and privacy requirements.

Threat Actor Identities

In STIX, threat actors are represented as objects that provide information about individuals, groups, or organizations involved in cyber threats. These threat actor objects typically include the following details:

  • Identity: Information about the identity of the threat actor, such as names, aliases, and group affiliations.
  • Motivations: The motivations and objectives driving the threat actor’s actions, which can range from financial gain to espionage or hacktivism.
  • Capabilities: Information about the threat actor’s capabilities, including tools, techniques, and infrastructure they use in cyberattacks.
  • Attribution: Attribution information, when available, that links the threat actor to specific attacks or incidents.

Use Cases for Identifying Threat Actors

Identifying threat actors is crucial for various use cases in cybersecurity:

  • Attribution: Understanding threat actor identities helps attribute cyberattacks to specific individuals, groups, or nation-states, aiding in legal action and diplomatic responses.
  • Risk Assessment: Knowing the motivations and capabilities of threat actors enables organizations to assess the level of risk they pose and tailor their defense strategies accordingly.
  • Incident Response: Identifying threat actors involved in an incident provides insights into their tactics and helps responders formulate an effective mitigation strategy.
  • Threat Intelligence Sharing: When organizations share threat intelligence, including information about threat actors, it helps others prepare for and defend against similar attacks.

Information Sharing and Exchange

STIX plays a vital role in sharing threat intelligence across organizations and security tools. It enables structured and standardized representation of threat information, making it easier to share and consume. The key roles of STIX in information sharing include:

  • Consistency: STIX ensures that threat intelligence data is expressed in a consistent format, facilitating effective communication among different entities.
  • Interoperability: STIX enables interoperability between various cybersecurity tools and platforms, allowing for the seamless exchange of threat information.
  • Automation: The structured nature of STIX data supports automation, enabling organizations to process and act on threat intelligence more efficiently.
  • Data Enrichment: STIX data can be enriched with additional contextual information, enhancing the value of shared threat intelligence.

Interoperability with Other Cybersecurity Standards

STIX is designed to be compatible with other cybersecurity standards and protocols. It can be integrated with standards like Cyber Observable Expression (CybOX) for technical data representation and Trusted Automated Exchange of Indicator Information (TAXII) for data transport and sharing.

This interoperability ensures that organizations can leverage existing standards while benefiting from the structured threat intelligence provided by STIX, making it a versatile tool for enhancing cybersecurity practices and collaboration.

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STIX Versions and Updates

STIX (Structured Threat Information eXpression) has evolved over time to address the changing landscape of cyber threats and the needs of the cybersecurity community.

STIX 1.0

The first official version of STIX was released in 2016. It introduced a standardized way to represent and share threat intelligence, enabling organizations to describe cyber threats, indicators, incidents, and more.

STIX 2.0

STIX 2.0, released in 2017, was a significant advancement over its predecessor. It introduced a more flexible and extensible data model, making it easier to represent complex threat intelligence and relationships between objects. It also incorporated feedback from the cybersecurity community to improve usability.

STIX 2.1

STIX 2.1, released as an incremental update, built upon the foundation of STIX 2.0. It introduced new features and refinements to enhance its effectiveness in representing cyber threat intelligence.

Advancements and Improvements in Each Version

Each STIX version has brought advancements and improvements to the standard:

  • STIX 1.0: STIX 1.0 laid the groundwork for structured threat information sharing but had limitations in flexibility and extensibility.
  • STIX 2.0: STIX 2.0 addressed many of the limitations of the earlier version by introducing a more flexible data model, improved support for threat intelligence sharing, and better representation of relationships between objects. It provided a solid foundation for representing complex threat data.
  • STIX 2.1: STIX 2.1 built upon the success of STIX 2.0 by refining existing features and introducing new ones. Some of the improvements in STIX 2.1 include enhanced descriptions for threat actors, the introduction of advisory objects, and improved language for representing malware and attack patterns.

STIX 2.1 Features

STIX 2.1 introduced several notable features and improvements, including:

  • Advisory Objects: STIX 2.1 introduced advisory objects that allow organizations to provide guidance on how to respond to specific threats or vulnerabilities. This enhances the practical utility of threat intelligence.
  • Enhanced Threat Actor Descriptions: Threat actor descriptions in STIX 2.1 have been expanded to provide more comprehensive information about threat actor attributes, motivations, and behavior.
  • Language Enhancements: STIX 2.1 includes improved language for representing malware and attack patterns, making it easier to convey technical threat information.

Benefits of Upgrading to the Latest Version

Upgrading to the latest version of STIX, in this case, STIX 2.1, offers several benefits:

  • Improved Representation: STIX 2.1 provides enhanced ways to represent threat intelligence, making it easier to express complex threat data accurately.
  • Advisory Support: The addition of advisory objects enables organizations to provide actionable guidance based on threat intelligence, enhancing the practicality of shared information.
  • Compatibility: Staying up-to-date with the latest version ensures compatibility with evolving cybersecurity tools and standards, facilitating interoperability and data sharing.
  • Community Feedback: New versions often incorporate feedback from the cybersecurity community, addressing real-world needs and challenges.

Implementing STIX

Tools and Libraries

There are various tools and libraries available for working with STIX, making it easier for organizations to implement the standard. Some popular options include:

  • STIX Shifter: An open-source project that enables the translation of STIX-formatted threat intelligence data into different formats and query languages, facilitating integration with security tools.
  • MISP (Malware Information Sharing Platform & Threat Sharing): An open-source threat intelligence platform that supports STIX/TAXII for sharing and disseminating threat information.
  • STIX2 Python library: A Python library that provides functionality for creating, manipulating, and working with STIX 2.x objects and data.
  • STIX Validator: Tools like the “stix-validator” help ensure that STIX content adheres to the standard’s specifications and schemas.

Popular Open-Source Options

Many of the tools and libraries for working with STIX are open-source, making them accessible and customizable for organizations. Open-source solutions often have active communities that contribute to their development and improvement.

STIX : Best Practices

Recommended Best Practices for Using STIX Effectively

  • Standardization: Follow STIX standards and schemas to ensure consistency and interoperability when representing and sharing threat intelligence.
  • Contextualization: Provide context with threat intelligence data to make it more useful. Include information such as the source of the data, relevance, and any associated observables or indicators.
  • Enrichment: Enhance threat intelligence data with additional context, such as threat feeds, to improve its value for detection and response.
  • Automation: Leverage automation to ingest, analyze, and act on STIX-formatted threat intelligence data to enhance incident response and threat detection capabilities.
  • Data Marking: Implement data marking and handling guidance to protect sensitive information when sharing threat intelligence.
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Avoiding Common Pitfalls

  • Overcomplication: While STIX is flexible, avoid making data representations overly complex. Strive for a balance between richness of information and ease of use.
  • Data Silos: Ensure that your organization has processes in place for sharing and receiving threat intelligence to avoid creating isolated data silos.
  • Lack of Adoption: Encourage the adoption of STIX and related standards within your organization and among partners to maximize its benefits.
  • Incomplete Information: Ensure that threat intelligence data is sufficiently detailed and accurate, including context and attribution when available.

STIX in Action

Examples of Organizations Using STIX for Threat Intelligence Sharing

  • Financial Institutions: Many financial institutions, such as banks and payment processors, utilize STIX for sharing threat intelligence. They exchange information about financial fraud, cyberattacks, and vulnerabilities to enhance their collective defenses.
  • Information Sharing and Analysis Centers (ISACs): ISACs are industry-specific organizations that facilitate the sharing of cyber threat information among companies within a particular sector. They commonly use STIX to standardize threat data and share it across their members.
  • Managed Security Service Providers (MSSPs): MSSPs leverage STIX to enhance their services by providing clients with structured and actionable threat intelligence. They use STIX to streamline the delivery of threat information to their customers.
  • Government Agencies: Government entities, such as national computer emergency response teams (CERTs), use STIX to share threat intelligence at the national and international levels. This helps coordinate responses to cyber threats and incidents.

Impact of STIX on Incident Response and Threat Mitigation

STIX has had a significant impact on incident response and threat mitigation:

  • Faster Detection and Response: STIX enables the standardized representation and sharing of threat intelligence, allowing organizations to quickly detect threats and respond to incidents in a coordinated manner.
  • Improved Threat Analysis: STIX’s structured format provides context and consistency, enabling security teams to analyze threats more effectively. It enhances their ability to understand attack patterns and tactics used by threat actors.
  • Collaboration and Information Sharing: STIX promotes collaboration among organizations, leading to improved collective defense. By sharing threat intelligence, organizations can proactively prepare for and mitigate emerging threats.
  • Interoperability: STIX’s interoperability with various security tools and platforms streamlines incident response workflows. This ensures that threat intelligence can be seamlessly integrated into existing security infrastructures.

Case Study: STIX in Government Agencies

Examining How Government Agencies Utilize STIX:

  • Government agencies, including national CERTs and law enforcement agencies, play a crucial role in cybersecurity. They use STIX to:
  • Threat Intelligence Sharing: Government agencies often receive threat intelligence from a variety of sources, including international partners, private-sector organizations, and their own monitoring efforts. STIX helps them standardize and share this intelligence efficiently.
  • Coordination: STIX allows government agencies to coordinate responses to cyber threats and incidents nationally and internationally. It enables them to understand the tactics and techniques used by threat actors and collaborate with other agencies and organizations.
  • Cross-Border Collaboration: Government agencies use STIX to facilitate cross-border collaboration in an era of global cyber threats. They can share threat intelligence with international partners using a standardized format, aiding in identifying and mitigating transnational cyber threats.

STIX: Advantages and Challenges Faced

Advantages of Using STIX

  • Standardization: STIX provides a standardized format for representing and sharing threat intelligence, promoting consistency and interoperability.
  • Efficiency: Government agencies can streamline their threat intelligence workflows, making it easier to ingest, analyze, and act on threat data.
  • Collaboration: STIX enhances collaboration both domestically and internationally, enabling government agencies to work together effectively to combat cyber threats.
  • Actionable Intelligence: STIX’s structured format ensures that threat intelligence is actionable, helping agencies respond more effectively to threats and incidents.
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Challenges Faced

  • Complexity: Implementing STIX can be complex, especially for organizations with diverse sources of threat data. Ensuring that all data adheres to the standard can be challenging.
  • Data Sensitivity: Government agencies often deal with sensitive information. Proper data marking and handling are essential to protect classified and sensitive information when sharing threat intelligence.
  • Resource Constraints: Smaller government agencies may face resource constraints in terms of expertise and technology for implementing STIX effectively.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. What is the primary purpose of STIX?

The primary purpose of STIX (Structured Threat Information eXpression) is to provide a standardized language and framework for representing and sharing cyber threat intelligence. It enables organizations to describe, exchange, and analyze information about cybersecurity threats, indicators, incidents, and threat actors in a structured and consistent manner.

2. How does STIX contribute to cybersecurity efforts?

STIX contributes to cybersecurity efforts by:

  • Enabling the structured representation and sharing of threat intelligence, improving the efficiency of threat detection and incident response.
  • Enhancing collaboration among organizations, enabling the exchange of actionable threat information.
  • Standardizing threat data, which promotes interoperability between security tools and platforms.
  • Supporting automation in threat intelligence processes, allowing for faster threat detection and response.

3. Can you provide examples of STIX objects?

Examples of STIX objects include:

  • Indicator: An object representing a specific piece of information that may indicate malicious activity, such as an IP address, a file hash, or a domain name.
  • Observable: An object representing a specific instance of an indicator, providing concrete evidence of a potential threat.
  • Incident: An object that describes a cybersecurity event or occurrence, including details about its impact, context, and the entities involved.
  • Threat Actor: An object representing an individual, group, or organization involved in cyber threats, with information about their motivations, capabilities, and known activities.
  • Malware: An object containing information about malicious software, including its characteristics, behavior, and associated artifacts.

4. Is STIX compatible with other cybersecurity standards?

Yes, STIX is designed to be compatible with other cybersecurity standards. It can be integrated with standards like Cyber Observable Expression (CybOX) for technical data representation and Trusted Automated Exchange of Indicator Information (TAXII) for data transport and sharing. This interoperability ensures that organizations can leverage existing standards while benefiting from the structured threat intelligence provided by STIX.

5. What are some fcommon challenges in implementing STIX?

Common challenges in implementing STIX include:

  • Ensuring consistent data representation and adherence to STIX schemas.
  • Addressing data sensitivity and privacy concerns when sharing threat intelligence.
  • Integrating STIX with existing cybersecurity tools and workflows.
  • Training staff and building expertise in using STIX effectively.

6. How frequently does STIX receive updates?

STIX has seen several version releases since its inception, with updates occurring periodically. The frequency of updates depends on the evolving needs of the cybersecurity community and the development efforts of the STIX community. Major updates may happen every couple of years, with incremental updates in between.

7. What are the benefits of upgrading to STIX 2.1?

Benefits of upgrading to STIX 2.1 include:

  • Enhanced threat actor descriptions.
  • Introduction of advisory objects for actionable guidance.
  • Improved language for representing malware and attack patterns.
  • Compatibility with evolving cybersecurity tools and standards.
  • Incorporation of community feedback for usability and effectiveness.

8. Are there any recommended tools for working with STIX?

There are several tools and libraries for working with STIX, including STIX Shifter, MISP (Malware Information Sharing Platform & Threat Sharing), STIX2 Python library, and STIX Validator. The choice of tool depends on specific use cases and requirements.

9. How does STIX impact threat intelligence sharing?

STIX facilitates threat intelligence sharing by providing a standardized and structured format for representing threat information. It streamlines the exchange of threat data, making it easier for organizations to share, consume, and act upon threat intelligence, thereby enhancing collective defense efforts.

10. Can you share a real-world scenario where STIX played a crucial role in threat mitigation?

In a real-world scenario, multiple financial institutions faced a series of coordinated cyberattacks involving malware and phishing campaigns. These institutions shared threat intelligence using STIX, allowing them to:

  • Quickly identify common indicators of compromise (IOCs) and tactics used by the threat actors.
  • Coordinate responses by sharing STIX-encoded incident data and TTPs.
  • Develop and distribute STIX-formatted advisories to member organizations.
  • Implement automated rules based on STIX data to detect and block malicious activity.

STIX enabled these institutions to collaboratively mitigate the threat, update their defenses, and share information in real time, resulting in a more effective response and a reduced impact on the financial sector.