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Endpoint Advanced Protection: The State of the Endpoint Security Union

By Mike Rothman

Innovation comes and goes in security. Back in 2007 network security had been stagnant for more than a few years. It was the same old, same old. Firewall does this. IPS does that. Web proxy does a third thing. None of them did their jobs particularly well, struggling to keep up with attacks encapsulated in common protocols. Then the next generation firewall emerged, and it turned out that regardless of what it was called, it was more than a firewall. It was the evolution of the network security gateway.

The same thing happened a few years ago in endpoint security. Organizations were paying boatloads of money to maintain their endpoint protection, because PCI-DSS required it. It certainly wasn’t because the software worked well. Inertia took root, and organizations continued to blindly renew their endpoint protection, mostly because they didn’t have any other options.

But in technology inertia tends not to last more than a decade or so (yes, that’s sarcasm). When there are billions of [name your favorite currency] in play, entrepreneurs, investors, shysters, and lots of other folks flock to try getting some of the cash. So endpoint security is the new hotness. Not only because some folks think they can make a buck displacing old and ineffective endpoint protection.

The fact is that adversaries continue to improve, both in the attacks they use and the way they monetize compromised devices. One example is ransomware, which some organizations discover several times each week. We know of some organizations which tune their SIEM to watch for file systems being encrypted. Adversaries continue to get better at obfuscating attacks and exfiltration tactics. As advanced malware detection technology matures, attackers have discovered many opportunities to evade detection. It’s still a cat and mouse game, even though both cats and mice are now much better at it. Finally, every organization is still dealing with employees, who are usually the path of least resistance. Regardless of how much you spend on security awareness training, knuckleheads with access to your sensitive data will continue to enjoy clicking pictures of cute kittens (and other stuff…).

So what about prevention? That has been the holy grail for decades. To stop attacks before they compromise devices. It turns out prevention is hard, so the technologies don’t work very well. Or they work, but in limited use cases. The challenge of prevention is also compounded by the shysters I mentioned above, who claim nonsense like “products that stop all zero days” – of course with zero, or bogus, evidence. Obviously they have heard you never let truth get in the way of marketing. Yes, there has been incremental progress, and that’s good news. But it’s not enough.

On the detection side, someone realized more data could help detect attacks. Both close to the point of compromise, and after the attack during forensic investigation. So endpoint forensics is a thing now. It even has its own category, ETDR (Endpoint Threat Detection and Response), as named by the analysts who label these technology categories. The key benefit is that as more organizations invest in incident response, they can make use of the granular telemetry offered by these solutions. But they don’t really provide visibility for everyone, because they require security skills which are not ubiquitous. For those who understand how malware really works, and can figure out how attacks manipulate kernels, these tools provide excellent visibility. Unfortunately these capabilities are useless to most organizations.

But we have still been heartened to see a focus on more granular visibility, which provides skilled incident responders (who we call ‘forensicators’) a great deal more data to figure out what happened during attacks. Meanwhile operating system vendors continue to improve their base technologies to be more secure and resilient. Not only are offerings like Windows 10 and OS X 10.11 far more secure, top applications (primarily office automation and browsers) have been locked down and/or re-architected for stronger security. We also have seen add-on tools to further lock down operating systems, such as Microsoft’s EMET).

State of the Union: Sadness

We have seen plenty of innovation. But the more things change, the more they stay the same. It’s a different day, but security professionals will still be spending a portion of it cleaning up compromised endpoints. That hasn’t changed. At all.

The security industry also faces the intractable security skills shortage. As mentioned above, granular endpoint telemetry doesn’t really help if you don’t have staff who understand what the data means, or how similar attacks can be prevented. And most organizations don’t have that skill set in-house.

Finally, users are still users, so they continue to click on things. Basically until you take away the computers. It is really the best of times and the worst of times. But if you ask most security folks, they’ll tell you it’s the worst.

Thinking Differently about Endpoint Protection

But it’s not over. Remember that “Nothing is over until we say it is.” (hat tip to Animal House – though be aware there is strong language in that clip). If something is not working, you had better think differently, unless you want to be having the same discussions in 10 years.

We need to isolate the fundamental reason it’s so hard to protect endpoints. Is it that our ideas of how are wrong? Or is the technology not good enough? Or have adversaries changed so dramatically that all the existing ways to do endpoint security (or security in general) need to be tossed out? Fortunately technology which can help has existed for a few years. It’s just that not enough organizations have embraced the new endpoint protection methods. And many of the same organizations continue to be operationally challenged in security, which doesn’t help – you’re pretty well stuck if you cannot keep devices patched, or take too long to figure out someone is running a remote access trojan on your endpoints (and networks).

So in this Endpoint Advanced Protection series, we will revisit and update the work we did a few years ago in Advanced Endpoint and Server Protection. We will discuss the endpoint advanced protection lifecycle, which includes gaining visibility, reducing attack surface, preventing threats, detecting malicious activity, investigating and responding to attacks, and remediation.

We woud like to thank Check Point, who has agreed to potentially license this content when we finish developing it. Through our licensees we can offer this research for a good [non-]price, and have the freedom to make Animal House references in our work.

So in the immortal words of Bluto, “Let’s do it!”

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