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The Future of SecOps: Behind the 8 Ball

By Mike Rothman

As the velocity of technology infrastructure change continues to increase, it is putting serious stress on Security Operations (SecOps). This has forced security folks to face the fact that operations has never really been our forte. That’s a bit harsh, but denial never helps address serious problems. The case is fairly strong that most organizations are pretty bad at security operations. How many high-profile breaches could have been avoided if one of many alerts was acted upon? How many attacks were made possible by not having properly patched servers or infrastructure? How many successful compromises resulted from human error?

If your answer to any of those questions was greater than zero, there is room for improvement. But there is no cavalry off in the distance to magically address operational issues. If anything, SecOps is going to get harder for five reasons:

  • Adversary innovation: Our adversaries are innovating and finding ways to compromise devices using both old and new tactics. They follow the path of least resistance to achieve their mission with focus and persistence.
  • Infrastructure complexity and velocity: With the advent of SaaS and the public cloud, technology infrastructure is getting more complicated and changes happen much faster than before. Data ends up in environments you don’t control and can’t really monitor, yet you still have to protect it.
  • More devices, more places: It seems every employee nowadays has multiple devices which need to connect to sensitive stuff, and they want to access corporate systems from wherever they are. What could possibly go wrong with that? Compounding the issue are IoT and other embedded devices connecting to networks, dramatically increasing where you can be attacked. Maintaining visibility into and understanding of your attack surface and security posture continue to get harder.
  • Hunters hunt: For a long time security folks could be blissfully unaware of the stuff they didn’t find. If the monitor missed it, what could they do besides clean up the mess afterwards? Now organizations proactively look for signs of active adversaries, and these hunters are good at what they do. So in additional to all those alerts, you need have to handle the stuff the hunters find.
  • Skills gap: We’ve been talking about a serious security skills gap for a long time. But it’s not getting any better. There just aren’t enough security people to meet demand, and the problem gets more acute each day.

Progress

But the news isn’t all bad. By understanding the attacks which may be coming at you through more effective use of threat intelligence, you can benefit from the misfortune of others. You don’t need to wait until you experience an attack and then configure your monitoring environment to look for it. Additionally, enhanced security analytics makes it easier to wade through all the noise to find patterns of attacks, and to pinpoint anomalous behavior which may indicat malicious activity.

Integration of threat intelligence and security analytics provides Security Decision Support. It is a key lever for scaling and improving the effectiveness of a security team. We will flesh out these ideas in detail in a blog series.

But even with more actionable and prioritized alerts, someone still has to do something. You know: security operations. In many case, this is where everything falls apart. To illustrate, the security teams involved in two of the highest-profile breaches of the last few years (Target and Equifax) were alerted to adversary activity more than once before the breaches became apparent. They just didn’t execute on a strategy to stop either attack before it became a catastrophe.

To be fair, it’s easy criticize organizations after they’ve suffered a massive breach. That’s not the point. We bring them up as reminders of a concept we have been talking about for more than a decade: Respond Faster and Better. That’s what it’s all about. As an industry we need to figure out how to more effectively operationalize world-class security practices, quickly and effectively. And yes, we do understand this is much easier to say than to do.

But why is this so hard? Let’s examine what security operations tends to do with their time. Those of you with backgrounds in manufacturing probably remember time and motion studies performed to improve productivity of factory workers. Security is far from a factory floor, but the concept applies. Can SecOps be streamlined by figuring out and optimizing whatever takes up a lot of time?

We believe the answer is a resounding yes. A lot of security operational tasks involve updates, policy changes, compliance reporting, and other tedious and rote tasks. Certainly there are periods of intense activity, such as triaging a new attack or trying to figure out an effective workaround to an attack. But there is plenty of time spent on distinctly unsexy things.

This also causes unmet expectations for people entering the security field. Most entrants have dreams of being a l33t haXor or a threat hunter. Very few wake up excited to tackle change control for a list of firewall changes, or to reimage endpoints after the CEO clicked one of those links. Again.

And even if you could find people who get excited about security operations, they would still be human. Which basically means they make errors. But when you need every update and every change to be done right, for fear of opening a hole in your environment large enough to drive a truck (or all your proprietary data – or all your customer data) through, perfection needs to be the goal – even though people are not perfect, no matter how hard they work.

Behind the 8 Ball

So SecOps is behind the 8 ball, by definition. The deck is stacked against us. The attack surface is growing, the adversaries are getting better, and all we have is ingenuity, a metric crap ton of alerts, and too few humans to get things done. Yep, it sounds like Mission: Impossible.

So what? Do we give up? Just pack it in and take a job at a coffee shop? To be honest, some days that sounds pretty good. Everybody loves coffee. But for folks who are passionate about security (like us), it’s the wrong answer. We don’t need to run. But we do need to think differently. We have to architect our technology stacks smarter and more securely. We need to embrace automation instead of fearing it.

We are entering a new world. One where security is largely built into the technology stacks which run our infrastructure. Where we plan our operational functions and document them in clear runbooks. Where those runbooks are implemented in infrastructure without manual intervention.

This approach enables your security team to do what they are good at. They can understand the applications and design proper controls, evolve policies and runbooks, and handle the inevitable exceptions in a dynamic environment. Adding value, as opposed to just doing stuff over and over. This is the Future of Security Operations, so in this series we’ll dig into what that will look like and how we believe you can get there.

To manage expectations, stepping into this future will require fundamental changes to how you do things, as well as embracing processes which will likely make you uncomfortable. As it should, because every major step forward involves discomfort.

Before we jump in we need to thank IBM Resilient for agreeing to license this content at the end of the project. Support from forward-thinking companies enables us to publish our wacky ideas for the community, and sometimes even seem them come to fruition.

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