Introducing Threat Operations: Thinking Differently

Let’s start with a rhetorical question: Can you really “manage” threats? Is that even a worthy goal? And how do you even define a threat. We’ve seen a more accurate description of how adversaries operate by abstracting multiple attacks/threats into a campaign. That intimates a set of interrelated attacks all with a common mission. That seems like a better way to think about how you are being attacked, rather than the whack a mole approach of treating every attack as a separate thing and defaulting to the traditional threat management cycle: Prevent (good luck), Detect, Investigate, Remediate.

This general approach hasn’t really worked very well. The industry continues to be locked in this negative feedback loop, where you are attacked, then you respond, then you clean up the mess, then you start all over again. You don’t learn much from the last attack, which sentences you to continue running on the same hamster wheel day after day. By the way, this inability to learn isn’t from lack of effort. Pretty much every practitioner we talk to wants better leverage and the learn from the attacks in the wild. It’s that the existing security controls and monitors don’t really support that level of learning. Not easily anyway.

But the inability to learn isn’t the only challenge we face. Today’s concept of threat management largely ignores the actual risk of the attack. Without some understanding of what the attacker is trying to do, you can’t really prioritize your efforts. For example, if you look at threats independently, a seemingly advanced attack on your application may take priority since it uses advanced techniques and therefore a capable attacker is behind it, right? Thus you take the capable attacker more seriously than what seems to be a simplistic phishing attack.

Actually that could be a faulty assumption because advanced attackers tend to find the path of least resistance to compromise your environment. So if a phishing message will do the trick, they’ll phish your folks. They won’t waste a zero day attack when sending a simple email will suffice. On the other hand, you could be right that the phishing attempt is some kid in a basement trying to steal some milk money. There is no way to know without a higher level abstraction of the attack activity, so the current methods of prioritization are very hit and miss.

Speaking of prioritization, you can’t really afford hit and miss approaches anymore. The perpetual (and worsening) security skills gap means that you must make better use of your limited resources. The damage incurred from false positives increases when those folks need to be working on the seemingly endless list of real attacks happening, not going on wild good chases. Additionally, you don’t have enough people to validate and triage all of the alerts streaming out of your monitoring systems, so things will be missed and as a result you may end up a target of pissed off customers, class action lawyers, and regulators as a result of a breach.

We aren’t done yet. Ugh. Once you figure out which of the attacks you want to deal with, current security/threat operational models to remediate these issues tends to be very manual and serial in nature. It’s just another game of whack-a-mole, where you direct the operations group to patch or reimage a machine and then wait for the next device to click on similar malware and get similarly compromised. Wash, rinse, repeat. Yeah, that doesn’t work either.

Not that we have to state the obvious at this point. But security hasn’t been effective enough for a long time. And with the increasing complexity of technology infrastructure and high profile nature of security breaches, the status quo isn’t acceptable any more. That means something needs to change and quickly.

Thinking Differently

Everybody loves people who think differently. Until they challenge the status quo and start agitating for massive change, upending the way things have always been done. As discussed above, we are at the point in security where we have to start thinking differently because we can’t keep pace with the attackers nor stem the flow of sensitive data being exfiltrated from organizations.

The movement toward cloud computing, so succinctly described in our recent Tidal Forces blog posts(1, 2, 3), will go a long way towards destroying the status quo because security is fundamentally different in cloud-land. And if we could just do a flash cut of all of our systems onto well-architected cloud stacks, a lot of these issues would go away. Not all, but a lot.

Unfortunately we can’t. A massive amount of critical data still resides in corporate data centers and will for the foreseeable future. That means we have to maintain two realities in our minds for a while. First the reality of imperfect systems running in our existing data centers, where we have to leverage traditional security controls and monitors. There is also the reality of what cloud computing, mobility and DevOps allow from the standpoint of architecting for scale and security, but providing different challenges from a governance and monitoring standpoint.

It’s tough to be a security professional, and it’s getting harder. But your senior management and board of directors isn’t too interested in that. You need to come up with answers. So in this “Introducing Threat Operations” series, we are going to focus on addressing the following issues, which make dealing with attacks pretty challenging:

  • Security data overload: There is no lack of security data. Many organizations are dealing with a flood of it, and don’t have the tools or expertise to manage it. These same organizations are compounding the issue by starting to integrate external threat intelligence, magnifying the data overload problem.
  • Detecting advanced attackers and rapidly evolving attacks: Yet, today’s security monitoring infrastructure kind of relies on looking for attacks you’ve already seen. What happens when the attack is built specifically for you, or you want to actually hunt for active threat actors in your environment? It’s about a combination of better utilizing your internal security data and intelligently leveraging threat intelligence to look for the attacks you haven’t seen yet.
  • Lack of skilled resources: The fact is the industry can’t address the skills gap fast enough. We can (and are) focusing on education, but security requires a broad knowledge of technology and a lot of experience to become effective. So the answer lies in making less experienced practitioners more effective through smarter systems that guide them through their work. It’s not about replacing security analysts, it’s about scaling their impact.
  • Performing response and remediation at scale and working with the operational group: Finally, once you figure out what to fix, you face similar resource constraints in dealing with operations. So the key will be to figure out how to intelligently orchestrate and automate the response and remediation of these attacks.

What we are really talking about is evolving how the industry has dealt with threats. It’s not really about managing the threats anymore. It’s about building an operational process to more effectively handle the campaigns of your adversaries. That means leveraging security data through better analytics, magnifying the impact of the people you have by structuring and streamlining processes, and automating the remediation of threats wherever possible. In this series, we’ll map out what that looks like, and how you can get there sooner rather than later.

We’d like to thank Threat Quotient for agreeing to be the initial licensee of this content. As we repeat over and over again, without the support of so many forward thinking security companies, we couldn’t do the research that we do, and we certainly couldn’t provide it to you for free.

In the next post, we’ll describe how to accelerate your humans, making the analysts and responders you have more effective and efficient.

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