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Incident Response in the Cloud Age: Shifting Foundations

By Mike Rothman

Since we published our React Faster and Better research and Incident Response Fundamentals, quite a bit has changed relative to responding to incidents. First and foremost, incident response is a thing now. Not that it wasn’t a discipline mature security organizations focused on before 2012, but since then a lot more resources and funding have shifted away from ineffective prevention towards detection and response. Which we think is awesome.

Of course, now that I/R is a thing and some organizations may actually have decent response processes, the foundation us is shifting. But that shouldn’t be a surprise – if you wanted a static existence, technology probably isn’t the best industry for you, and security is arguably the most dynamic part of technology. We see the cloud revolution taking root, promising to upend and disrupt almost every aspect of building, deploying and operating applications. We continue to see network speeds increase, putting scaling pressure on every aspect of your security program, including response.

The advent of threat intelligence, as a means to get smarter and leverage the experiences of other organizations, is also having a dramatic impact on the security business, particularly incident response. Finally, the security industry faces an immense skills gap, which is far more acute in specialized areas such as incident response. So whatever response process you roll out needs to leverage technological assistance – otherwise you have little chance of scaling it to keep pace with accelerating attacks.

This new series, which we are calling “Incident Response in the Cloud Age”, will discuss these changes and how your I/R process needs to evolve to keep up. As always, we will conduct this research using our Totally Transparent Research methodology, which means we’ll post everything to the blog first, and solicit feedback to ensure our positions are on point.

We’d also like to thank SS8 for being a potential licensee of the content. One of the unique aspects of how we do research is that we call them a potential licensee because they have no commitment to license, nor do they have any more influence over our research than you. This approach enables us to write the kind of impactful research you need to make better and faster decisions in your day to day security activities.

Entering the Cloud Age

Evidently there is this thing called the ‘cloud’, which you may have heard of. As we have described for our own business, we are seeing cloud computing change everything. That means existing I/R processes need to now factor in the cloud, which is changing both architecture and visibility.

There are two key impacts on your I/R process from the cloud. The first is governance, as your data now resides in a variety of locations and with different service providers. Various parties required to participate as you try to investigate an attack. The process integration of a multi-organization response is… um… challenging.

The other big difference in cloud investigation is visibility, or its lack. You don’t have access to the network packets in an Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) environment, nor can you see into a Platform as a Service (PaaS) offering to see what happened. That means you need to be a lot more creative about gathering telemetry on an ongoing basis, and figuring out how to access what you need during an investigation.

Speed Kills

We have also seen a substantial increase in the speed of networks over the past 5 years, especially in data centers. So if network forensics is part of your I/R toolkit (as it should be) how you architect your collection environment, and whether you actually capture and store full packets, are key decisions. Meanwhile data center virtualization is making it harder to know which servers are where, which makes investigation a bit more challenging.

Getting Smarter via Threat Intelligence

Sharing attack data between organizations still feels a bit strange for long-time security professionals like us. The security industry resisted admitting that successful attacks happen (yes, that ego thing got in the way), and held the entirely reasonable concern that sharing company-specific data could provide adversaries with information to facilitate future attacks.

The good news is that security folks got over their ego challenges, and also finally understand they cannot stand alone and expect to understand the extent of the attacks that come at them every day. So sharing external threat data is now common, and both open source and commercial offerings are available to provide insight, which is improving incident response. We documented how the I/R process needs to change to leverage threat intelligence, and you can refer to that paper for detail on how that works.

Facing down the Skills Gap

If incident response wasn’t already complicated enough because of the changes described above, there just aren’t enough skilled computer forensics specialists (who we call forensicators) to meet industry demand. You cannot just throw people at the problem, because they don’t exist. So your team needs to work smarter and more efficiently. That means using technology more for gathering and analyzing data, structuring investigations, and automating what you can. We will dig into emerging technologies in detail later in this series.

Evolving Incident Response

Like everything else in security, incident response is changing. The rest of this series will discuss exactly how. First we’ll dig into the impacts of the cloud, faster and virtualized networks, and threat intelligence on your incident response process. Then we’ll dig into how to streamline a response process to address the lack of people available to do the heavy lifting of incident response. Finally we’ll bring everything together with a scenario that illuminates the concepts in a far more tangible fashion. So buckle up – it’s time to evolve incident response for the next era in technology: the Cloud Age.

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