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Advanced Endpoint and Server Protection [New Series]

By Mike Rothman

Endpoint protection has become the punching bag of security. Every successful attack seems to be blamed on a failure of endpoint protection. Not that this is totally unjustified – most solutions for endpoint protection have failed to keep pace with attackers. In our 2014 Endpoint Security Buyers Guide, we discussed many of the issues around endpoint hygiene and mobility. We also explored the human element underlying many of attacks, and how to prepare your employees for social engineering attacks in Security Awareness Training Evolution.

But realistically, hygiene and awareness won’t deter an advanced attacker long. We frequently say advanced attackers are only advanced as they need to be – they take the path of least resistance. But the converse is also true. When this class of adversaries needs advanced techniques they use them. Traditional malware defenses such as antivirus don’t stand much chance against a zero-day attack.

So our new series, Advanced Endpoint and Server Protection, will dig into protecting devices against advanced attackers. We will highlight a number of new alternatives for preventing and detecting advanced malware, and examine new techniques and tools to investigate attacks and search for indicators of compromise within your environment.

But first let’s provide some context for what has been happening with traditional endpoint protection because you need to understand the current state of AV technology for perspective on how these advanced alternatives help.

AV Evolution

Signature-based AV no longer works. Everyone has known that for years. It is not just because blocking a file you know is bad isn’t enough any more. But there are simply too many bad files to, and new ones crop up too quickly, for it to be possible to compare every file against a list of bad files. The signature-based AV algorithm still works as well as it ever did, but it is no longer even remotely adequate. Nor is it comprehensive enough to catch the varying types of attacks in the wild today.

So the industry adapted, focusing on broadening the suite of endpoint protection technologies to include host intrusion prevention, which blocks known-bad actions at the kernel level. The industry also started sharing information across its broad customer base to identify IP addresses known to do bad things, and files which contain embedded malware. That shared information is known as threat intelligence, and can help you learn from attacks targeting other organizations.

Endpoint security providers also keep adding modules to their increasingly broad and heavy endpoint protection suites. Things like server host intrusion prevention, patch/configuration management, and even full application white listing – all attempting to ensure no unauthorized executables run on protected devices.

To be fair, the big AV vendors have not been standing still. They are adapting and working to broaden their protection to keep pace with attackers. But even with all their tools packaged together, it cannot be enough. It’s software and it will never be perfect or defect-free. Their tools will always be vulnerable and under attack.

We need to rethink how we do threat management as an industry, in light of these attacks and the cold hard reality that not all of them can be stopped. We have been thinking about what the threat management process will come to look like. We presented some ideas in the CISO’s Guide to Advanced Attackers, but that was focused on what needs to happen to respond to an advanced attack. Now we want to document a broader threat management process, which we will refine through 2014.

Threat Management Reimagined

Threat management is a hard concept to get your arms around. Where does it start? Where does it end? Isn’t threat management really just another way of describing security? Those are hard questions without absolute answers. For the purposes of this research, threat management is about dealing with an attack. It’s not about compliance, even though most mandates are responses to attacks that happened 5 years ago. It’s not really about hygiene – keeping your devices properly configured and patched is good operational practices, not tied to a specific attack. It’s not about finding resources to actually execute on these plans, nor is it an issue of communicating the value of the security team. Those are all responsibilities of the broader security program.

Threat management is a subset of the larger security program – typically the most highly visible capability. So let’s explain how we think about threat management (for the moment, anyway) and let you pick it apart.

  1. Assessment: You cannot protect what you don’t know about – that hasn’t changed. So the first step is gaining visibility into all devices, data sources, and applications that present risk to your environment. And you need to understand the current security posture of anything to protect.
  2. Prevention: Next you try to stop an attack from being successful. This is where most of the effort in security has been for the past decade, with mixed (okay, lousy) results. A number of new tactics and techniques are modestly increasing effectiveness, but the simple fact is that you cannot prevent every attack. It has become a question of reducing your attack surface as much as practical. If you can stop the simplistic attacks, you can focus on the more advanced ones.
  3. Detection: You cannot prevent every attack, so you need a way to detect attacks after they get through your defenses. There are a number of different options for detection – most based on watching for patterns that indicate a compromised device. The key is to shorten the time between when the device is compromised and when you discover it has been compromised.
  4. Investigation: Once you detect an attack you need to verify the compromise and understand what it actually did. This typically involves a formal investigation, including a structured process to gather forensic data from devices, triage to determine the root cause of the attack, and searching to determine how broadly the attack has spread within your environment.
  5. Remediation: Once you understand what happened you can put a plan in place to recover. This may involve cleaning the machine, or more likely reimaging it and starting over again. This step can leverage ongoing hygiene activities (such as patch and configuration management) because you can (and should) use the tools you already have to reimage compromised devices.

This reimagined threat management process will be the centerpiece of our infrastructure research agenda for 2014. It involves people, processes, and technology – integrated across endpoints, servers, networks, and mobile devices. Obviously as mobility and cloud computing continue to disrupt how we provision infrastructure and where data resides, we will have a number of different use cases, which may require alternative architectures and control sets.

In this Advanced Endpoint and Server Protection series we will apply the threat management process to protecting endpoints and servers against malware attacks. We understand you will be doing many different things on the network and within applications to protect devices. Where appropriate we will point out integration points for network and application controls.

As with all our blog series, we will build the content using our Totally Transparent Research methodology. And we are pleased that (in alphabetical order) Bit9, IBM/Trusteer, and Sourcefire/Cisco are interested in licensing the final content. As always, keep in mind that our licensees do not have any more influence over the research than you do, and they can back out of licensing the paper if they don’t like the final product.

Our next post will start by diving into assessment, so you can gain some visibility into what’s out there and assess the risk to endpoints and servers.

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