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The CISO’s Guide to Advanced Attackers: Evolving the Security Program

By Mike Rothman

The tactics we have described so far are very useful for detecting and disrupting advanced attackers – even if used only in one-off situations. But you can and should establish a more structured and repeatable process – especially if you expect to be an ongoing target of advanced attackers. So you need to evolve your existing security program, including incident response capabilities. But what exactly does that mean?

It means you need to factor in the tactics you will see from advanced attackers and increase the sophistication of your intelligence gathering, active controls, and incident response. Change is hard – we get that. Unless you have just had a recent breach – then it’s easy. At that point instead of budget pressures you get a mandate to fix it no matter the cost, and you will face little resistance to changing process to ensure success with the next response. Even without a breach as catalyst you can make these kinds of changes, but you will need some budgetary kung fu with strategic use of recent high-profile attacks to make your point.

But even leveraging a breach doesn’t necessarily result in sustainable change, regardless of how much money you throw at the problem. Evolving these processes involves not only figuring out what to do now, or even in the future. Those are short term band-aids. Success requires empowering your folks to rise to the challenge of advanced attackers. Pile more work on to make sure they can accept their additional responsibilities, and recognize them for stepping up. This provides an opportunity for some managers to take on more important responsibilities and ensures everyone is on the hook to get something done. Just updating processes and printing out new workflows won’t change much unless there are adequate resources and clear accountability in place to ensure change takes place.

Identify Gaps

Start evolving your program by identifying gaps in the status quo. That’s easiest when you are cleaning up a breach because it is usually pretty obvious what worked, what doesn’t, and what needs to change. Without a breach you can use periodic risk assessment or penetration testing to pinpoint issues. But regardless of the details of your gaps or how you find them, it is essential that you (as senior security professional) drive process changes to address those gaps. Accountability starts and ends with the senior security professional, with or without the CISO title. Be candid about what went wrong and right with senior management and your team, and couch the discussion in terms of improving your overall capability to defend against advanced attackers.

Intelligence Gathering

The next aspect of detecting advanced attackers is building an intelligence gathering program to provide perspective on what is happening out there. Benefit from the misfortune of others, remember? Larger organizations tend to formalize an intelligence group, while smaller entities need to add intelligence gathering and analysis to the task lists of existing staff. Of all the things that could land on a security professional, needing to do intelligence research isn’t a bad extra responsibility. It provides exposure to cutting-edge attacks and makes a difference in your defenses. That’s how you should sell it.

Once you determine organizational structure and accountability for intelligence you ll need to focus on integration points with the rest of your active (defensive) and passive (monitoring) controls. Is the intelligence you receive formatted to integrate directly into your firewall, IPS, and WAF? What about integration with your SIEM or forensics tools? Don’t forget about analyzing malware – isolating and searching for malware indicators is key to detecting advanced attackers. Understand that more sophisticated and mature environments should push beyond just searching for technical indicators of compromise. Mature intelligence processes include proactive intelligence gathering about potential and active adversaries, as we described earlier. If you don’t have those capabilities internally which of your service providers can offer it, and how can you use it?

Finally you will need to determine your stance on information sharing. We are big fans of sharing what you see with folks like you (same industry, similar company size, geographical neighbors, etc.) to learn from each other. The key to information sharing networks (aside from trust) is reducing the signal-to-noise ratio – it is easy for active networks to generate lots of chatter that isn’t relevant to you. As with figuring out integration points, you need accountability and structure for collecting and using information from sharing networks.

Tracking Innovation

Another aspect of dealing with advanced attackers is tracking industry innovation on how to manage them. We have done considerable research into evolving endpoint controls, network-based advanced malware detection, and the application of intelligence (Early Warning, Network-based Threat Intelligence, Email-based Threat Intelligence) to understand how these technologies can help.

But all those technologies together cannot provide the sustainable change you need. So who in your organization will be responsible for evaluating new technologies? How often? You might not have budget to buy all the latest and greatest shiny objects to hit the market – but you still need to know what’s out there, and you might need to find the money to buy something that solves a sufficiently serious problem.

We have seen organizations assemble a new technology task force, comprised of promising individual contributors within each of the key security disciplines. These folks monitor their areas of expertise, meet with innovative start-ups and other companies, go to security conferences, and leverage research services to evaluate new technologies. At periodic meetings they present what they find. Not just what the shiny object does but also it could would change what the organization does, and why that would be better. This shows not just whether they can parrot back what a vendor tells them, but how well they can apply that capability to existing control sets.

Evolving DFIR

As we have discussed throughout this series, a key aspect of detecting advanced attackers is digital forensics and incident response (DFIR). First you need to ensure responders have an adequate tools to determine what happened and analyze attacks. So you need to revisit your data collection infrastructure, and most likely look at capturing more detailed information at both network and device levels. That means evaluating full packet capture technologies and possibly endpoint forensic solutions. We are evolving the security program – it is not only about selecting and deploying tools, but also how will they will be used in your program, and who will be responsible for deploying and managing them.

DFIR tools are just technical controls. More importantly, how is your incident response process changing to factor in these new capabilities? Do you need to procure a sandboxing capability and build a malware analysis testbed? What kind of organizational changes are required? Do you need multiple playbooks for different adversaries? For financial fraud you would deal with a predominately finance-driven oversight team. But an intellectual property risk would warrant CEO involvement. Those are just examples – your CEO might well want to be hands-on with any incident.

There are no right or wrong answers but you need to make sure to ask the right questions, which impact every aspect of evolving your security program to deal with advanced attackers. And with that, we wrap up the CISO’s Guide to Advanced Attackers. As with all our blog series we will assemble these posts into a white paper over the next couple weeks. Stay tuned for that.

In the meantime you can check out the other posts in this series:

  1. Sizing up the Adversary
  2. Intelligence, the Crystal Ball of Security
  3. Mining for Indicators
  4. Verify the Alert
  5. Breaking the Kill Chain
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