When is Security Automation and Orchestration a Must-Have Technology? – Addressing Gartner’s SOAR Question

Last week, Anton Chuvakin from Gartner announced that Augusto Barros and himself are planning to conduct research in Q4 2017 on the topic of Security Orchestration, Automation and Response (SOAR), or Security Automation and Orchestration, depending on which analyst firms’ market designation you follow. At DFLabs we are very excited that Gartner is finally showing our market space some love and will be helping end users to better assess and differentiate SAO offerings.

Anton provided many questions that he wanted SAO vendors to prepare for. The questions immediately piqued our interest, with one question, in particular, standing out to us.

1.When is SOAR a MUST have technology? What has to be true about the organization to truly require SOAR? Why your best customer acquired the tools?

Anton also said that he had one main problem with Security Automation and Orchestration. In his own words, “For now, my main problem with SOAR (however you call those security orchestration and automation tools…if you say SOAPA or SAO we won’t hate you much) is that I have never (NEVER!) met anybody who thought “my SOAR is a MUST HAVE.”

The question is not entirely unwarranted. During my own time at Gartner covering the SOAR space, I spoke to many clients who were seeking an SAO solution without knowing that they were. Typical comments were, “I have too many alerts and false positives to be able to deal with them all”, or “We are struggling to hire enough skilled people to be able to respond to all of the incidents that we have to manage”. Another common comment was, “I am struggling to report operational performance to my executives?”. Often, these comments were followed by the question, “Do you know of any technology that can help?”.

Typically, these organizations had a mature security monitoring program, usually built around a SIEM. They often had critical drivers, such as regulatory requirements, or held sensitive customer data. We hear the same buying drivers from our own customer base.

To sum up the most common drivers for someone asking about Security Automation and Orchestration:

  1.  A high volume of alerts and incidents and the challenge in managing them
  2.  A large portfolio of diverse 3rd party security detection products resulting in a large volume of alerts
  3.  Regulatory mandates for incident response and breach notification
  4.  An overstretched security operations team
  5.  Reporting risk and the operational performance of the CSIRT and SOC to an executive audience

One interesting thing is that when there is no external driver like regulatory compliance, deploying a Security Automation and Orchestration solution is often determined by maturity. Most organizations don’t realize that they will be unable to cope with the volume of alerts and the resulting alert fatigue until they have deployed a SIEM and a full advanced threat detection architecture.

The common misconception is that the SIEM can help to reduce the number of incoming alerts by applying correlation rules. This not entirely untrue, but correlation rules will only reduce a small percentage. They are essentially signature based. You need to know in advance what you want to correlate, and adding a correlation rule to cover all and every incoming alert is not a trivial task. Even with correlation rules, additional work will be required to qualify an incident. Gathering additional IoC’s, incident observables and context is still a very manual process. Lastly, detection is only one part of the entire incident response process – notifying stakeholders, gathering forensic evidence and threat containment will also have to be done manually. These are the areas where SAO solutions provide the greatest ROI – as a force multiplier.

Automate or Die Without Breaking Your Internet

Threat actors are increasingly adopting security automation and machine learning – security teams will have to follow suit, or risk falling behind.

Many organizations still conduct incident response based on manual processes. Many playbooks that we have seen in our customer base, for example, hand off to other stakeholders within the organization to wait for additional forensic data, and to execute remediation and containment actions.

While this may seem like good practice to avoid inadvertent negative consequences such as accidentally shutting down critical systems or locking out innocent users, it also means that many attacks are not contained in a sufficiently short time to avoid the worst of their consequences.

Manual Processes Cannot Compete with Automation

Reports are mounting about threat actors and hackers leveraging security automation and machine learning to increase the scale and volume, as well as the velocity of attacks. The implications for organizations should be cause for concern, considering that we have been challenged to effectively respond to less sophisticated attacks in the past.

Ransomware is a case in point. In its most simple form, a ransomware attack does not require the full cyber kill chain to be successful. A user receives an email attachment, executes it, the data is encrypted and the damage is done. At that point, incident response turns into disaster recovery.

Automated attacks have been with us for a long time. Worms and Autorooters have been around since the beginning of hacking, with WannaCry and its worming capability only the most recent example. But these have only automated some aspects of the attack, still permitting timely and successful threat containment further along the kill chain.

Threat actors have also leveraged automated command and control infrastructure for many years. DDoS Zombie Botnets, for example, are almost fully automated. To sum it up, the bad guys have automated, the defenders have not. Manual processes cannot compete with automation.

With the increase in the adoption of automation and machine learning by cyber criminals, enterprises will find that they will have to automate as well. The future mantra will be “Automate or Die”.

Making the Cure More Palatable Than the Disease

But automating containment actions is still a challenging topic. Here at DFLabs we still encounter a lot of resistance to the idea by our customers. Security teams understand that the escalating sophistication and velocity of cyber-attacks means that they must become more agile to rapidly respond to cyber incidents. But the risk of detrimentally impacting operations means that they are reluctant to do so, and rarely have the political backing and clout even if they want to.

Security teams will find themselves having to rationalize the automation of incident response to other stakeholders in their organization more and more in the future. This will require being able to build a business case to justify the risk of automating containment. They will have to explain why the cure is not worse than the disease.

There are three questions that are decisive in evaluating whether to automate containment actions:

  1. How reliable are the detection and identification?
  2. What is the potential detrimental impact if the automation goes wrong?
  3. What is the potential risk if this is not automated?

Our approach at DFLabs to this is to carefully evaluate what to automate, and how to do this safely. We support organizations in selectively applying automation through our R3 Rapid Response Runbooks. Incident Responders can apply dual-mode actions that combine manual, semi-automated and fully automated steps to provide granular control over what is automated. R3 Runbooks can also include conditional statements that apply full automation when it is safe to do so but request that a human vet’s the decision in critical environments or where it may have a detrimental impact on operational integrity.

We just released a whitepaper, “Automate or Die, without Dying”, by our Vice President of Product Evangelism and former Gartner analyst, Oliver Rochford, that discusses best practices to safely approach automation. Download the whitepaper here for an in-depth discussion on this controversial and challenging, but important topic.

Remove the Menial Tasks Through Automation

Alert fatigue is the desensitization when overwhelmed with too much information. The constant repetition and sheer volume of redundant information are painful and arduous but sadly often constitutes the daily reality for many people working in cyber security. Mike Fowler (DFLabs’ VP of Professional Services) discusses several best practices to help with some of the challenges involved in this in his recent whitepaper “DFLabs as a Force Multiplier in Incident Response”. I am going to discuss another one, but looking at it from a slightly different angle.

Imagine the scenario where we have tens of thousands of alerts. Visualize these as Jigsaw pieces with a multitude of different shapes, sizes and colors and the additional dimension of different states. We have alerts from a firewall, anomalies from behavioral analytics, authentication attempts, data source retrieval attempts or policy violations. Now, there are a lot of ways to shift through this information, for example by using a SIEM’s to correlate the data and reduce the some of the alerts. The SIEM could identify and cross-reference the colors and shapes of the jigsaw pieces so to speak.

The next question once that I’ve got the all the pieces I need for the puzzle is how do I put this together? How do I complete the puzzle and unlock the picture?

The “what does the jigsaw picture?” question is something that will often puzzle the responders, pun intended. How do you prioritise and escalate incidents to the correct stakeholders? How do you apply the correct playbook for a specific scenario? How do you know which pieces of information to analyse to fit the jigsaw pieces together and make sure the puzzle looks correct?

Automation process can speed up putting that puzzle together, but making sure you automate the right things is just as critical. If skilled staff are running search queries that are menial, repetitive and require little cognitive skill to execute, you should ask yourself why they are performing these and not instead focused on analyzing the puzzle pieces to figure out how they fit together?

Remove the menial tasks. Allow automation to do the heavy lifting so your teams are not only empowered by the right information they need to successfully manage the response to an incident but also to give them more time to figure out the why, how and what of the threat.

We also welcome you to join us for a webinar hosted by Mike Fowler on this topic on the 6th of September.

The Power of New-Age Playbooks in Incident Response

I have often talked about the benefits of employing flexible playbooks to deal with evolving cyber incidents and unique threat scenarios, and in these series of blogs, I am going to explore some of the points of emphasis when creating a new playbook.

The advantage to Security Automation and Orchestration (SAO) platforms, and in particular our IncMan platform, is the ability it provides to tailor playbooks or runbooks to deal with all manner of cyber incidents. These Playbooks are defined by three key factors:

1.Phases: Determine the number of phases for the response process based on the incident scenario. The phases are really a placeholder for what you are trying to achieve in your response.

2.Automation: How much automation will benefit the given scenario without hindering or otherwise adversely impacting your business.

3.Actions: What actions apply to each phase and what is the benefit to each action.

Wash, Rinse, Re-playbook.

Play books, or runbooks, should never be static and hard-coded for a fixed set of events. Ultimately, incidents will differ and you should always remain in control, ready to adapt and adjust the response workflow. This flexibility is vital should a Plan B need to be executed. The approach of IncMan to security playbooks & runbooks support both mature and emerging SOC teams by providing multi-flow advanced runbooks to the former, and for the less mature, a simplified playbook containing a dual mode where automation and manual actions can co-exist.

In talking with CSIRT/SOC managers, I have learned that they have typically aligned themselves with a particular standard. Most organizations follow the likes of ISO for Incident Response, NIST
800-62 or alternatives along the lines of CREST or NISA. Structured incident handling processes based on these standards are a great baseline, but how about also having actions and reactions pre-prepared and ready to respond immediately according to the threat you face? Can you see the instant advantage in having smaller, simpler playbooks and runbooks specific to an adversary or threat scenario?

Dealing with incidents with tailored playbooks will ultimately provide better threat coverage as each has enrichment and containment actions that are concentrated on the tasks specific to a given scenario. Additionally, allowing your SAO product to tie the dots to bring enrichment to the observables and the indicators encountered in incidents will bring measurable value to the increased speed of the incident response process. Allowing analysts dynamic interaction at all phases of the workflow will help also help your reactions become more efficient. This mix of structured playbooks and dynamic response capability can also help push the CSIRT teams into a more pro-active mindset, allowing system and network-level security policy and infrastructure configuration changes to be handled on the fly while leveraging current and accurate information, and all from a single response console.

Latest Ransomware Attack Highlights the Need for Advanced Security Automation and Orchestration Solutions

The latest ransomware attack that broke out last Friday, affecting more than 200,000 computers across 150 countries by Sunday, once again highlighted the need for improved preparedness to respond to large-scale cyber incidents by implementing advanced security automation and orchestration solutions capable of containing the damage from such events. In this case, the attackers exploited a vulnerability in Windows Server Message Block (SMB) protocol, which had been discovered and kept quiet for exclusive use by the National Security Agency (NSA).

WannaCry, as the virus is called, is delivered via an email attachment and when executed, paralyzes computers running vulnerable Windows operating systems by encrypting their files. Once it encrypts a computer’s hard disk, WannaCry then spreads to vulnerable computers connected to the same network, and also beyond, via the Internet. This is in many ways a typical ransomware attack, infecting computers with a virus that has the ability to spread quickly to other vulnerable systems; however, the infection in this instance, and the speed at which it spread, was more intense than any other such attack in recent memory. The consensus among cyber security experts around the world is that the damage from this attack could have been reduced to a minimum, and more serious consequences could have been avoided, if organizations had been better prepared and had more effective cyber incident response plans and solutions in place.

Early Detection and Damage Containment via Automation and Orchestration

When affected by an attack such as WannaCry, after an organization’s computer system has been breached, the best thing that the organization can do is try to keep the incident under control by preventing the infection from spreading. There are various security solutions designed to achieve this end, but an automation and orchestration platform is arguably the best suited for the task. When an infected computer is detected, this platform can quickly isolate it in the early stages of an attack, blocking traffic to and from it to contain its spread, and thus reduce the business impact to a minimum.

Recovery and Remediation

Once containment is achieved, the platform provides organizations with the ability to quickly remediate the incident by guiding cybersecurity professionals through the entire process, using pre-defined playbook actions for a faster and more effective execution. The playbook actions can suggest the best remediation and recovery methods, and how to enforce them in the most effective manner. For instance, how to restore files and update the appropriate firewall rules.

All of the above is only a fraction of the capabilities of a typical automation and orchestration platform, a security tool that has become critical for any organization seeking to avoid the immense cost and long-lasting consequences of cyber-attacks such as WannaCry.

Cyber-attacks such as this one are only expected to become more common and more sophisticated in the future, and for this reason WannaCry should serve as an example of why now is the time for organizations serious about cyber security to focus on improving preparedness and containment capabilities through investment in advanced security automation and orchestration.

A Weekend in Incident Response #27: Small Businesses Need to Improve Their Ability to Respond and Eradicate Cyber Incidents

Small businesses may not be the first thing that comes to people’s minds when talking about prime targets for cyber attackers. This is because government agencies, corporations, along with organizations and companies that are part of a country’s critical infrastructure are much more coveted targets, due to the high reward potential associated with them – both in terms of financial gains and retrieving confidential information. However, data breaches and other types of cyber incidents have recently become a common occurrence for many small businesses. Hackers are increasingly trying to gain access to the emails and acquire personal and other confidential information of their employees that are in charge of handling the companies’ finances.

One of the reasons why small businesses are seeing a rise in cyber attacks and data breaches is that cyber criminals have become increasingly aware of the fact that hacking into a small business’ computer network is fairly easy, in part due to the low cyber-security awareness of their employees. Additionally, the cyber defense programs and solutions that small businesses utilize are weak or even non-existent, thus making them easy prey despite not having a particularly high financial reward potential for cyber criminals. Lastly, small businesses have adapted to cloud services to conduct a large portion of their operations, and most cloud providers offer data encryption, making them extremely vulnerable to cyber threats.

What Criminals Are After

In most cases, the typical cyber attack on a small business’ computer network aims to retrieve a company’s financial information, employee records, customer records, as well as customer credit or debit card information, which they could later use to steal company funds, commit financial fraud, identity theft, or extortion.

The most common types of cyber security events faced by small businesses include phishing, SQL injections, malware, ransomware, DDoS attacks, and web-based attacks. The first line of defense against these attacks are a company’s employees. They need to go through cyber-security training to be able to recognize and detect a cyber threat – with statistics showing that a large part of data breaches are related to employee inattention.

Security Automation Is the Next Line of Defense

While cyber-security training for employees is something that every company needs to provide in this age of constant threat of cyber attacks, that alone is not enough to protect businesses against all potential cyber security incidents. Raising employee cyber-security awareness should be followed up by implementing appropriate solutions aimed at detecting, tracking, and eradicating cyber security incidents. In that regard, small businesses could use a security automation and orchestration platform, which can greatly reduce their reaction time following a cyber incident, and prepare them for more timely detection and prevention of future attacks.

Such a platform can help you protect customer and employee information, as well as valuable financial information, since it is capable of assessing the scope of the incident, identifying the affected device or devices, and containing the damage, by providing complete reports on the damages occurred, in addition to providing specialized rules and strategies that allow cyber-security professionals to react much more quickly and effectively to eradicate the incident. These types of platforms are the most straightforward and effective solution for small businesses’ concerns regarding cyber threats, which they are only going to see more of in the near future.