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:
- How reliable are the detection and identification?
- What is the potential detrimental impact if the automation goes wrong?
- 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.
Over the past few months during the post-hoc analysis of WannaCry-Petya, we have spoken in great lengths about what should have been done during the incident. This is quite a tricky thing to do in a balanced way because we are all clever in hindsight. What hasn’t been spoken about enough is understanding more generally what we need to do when things go wrong.
This question isn’t as simple as it appears, as there are a lot of aspects to consider during an incident, and only a brief window to identify, contain and mitigate a threat. Let’s look at just a few of these:
– Response times
This is often the greatest challenge but of utmost importance. The response is not only understanding the “how” and “why” of a threat but is also about putting the chain of events into action to make sure that the “what” doesn’t spiral out of control.
– Creating an effective playbook
A playbook should be a guide on how your incident response plan must be executed. Orchestration platforms contain these playbooks/runbooks. Also, note that these are not generic plug and forget policies. They need to be optimized and mapped to your business and regulatory requirements and are often unique to your organization. Otherwise, the incident will be controlled by an incorrect playbook.
– Skills and tool availability
Do you have the correct skills and tools available and are you able to leverage these. Do you understand where your security gaps are and do you know how to mitigate them?
On paper, incident response always works. Right until the moment of truth during a data breach that shows that it doesn’t. To avoid relying on theory only, it is best to run breach simulations and simulate some of the attacks that may affect your organization to find out if your processes and playbooks also work under more realistic conditions.
We’re always playing catch‒up for many reasons—new technologies, new vulnerabilities, and new threats. Software and hardware may possibly always be at the mercy of hackers, criminal actors and other threat actors, so prevention alone is futile. We have to become more resilient and better at dealing with the aftermath of an attack.
The key summary for me is this: How do you respond? Can the response be improved? Utilize the lessons learned in breach simulations to understand how you make the response better than before.
We have recently experienced a devastating wave of ransomware attacks such as Wannacry or ‘WannCrypt’ which spread to more than 200 countries across the globe. While Russia was hit hard, Spain and the United Kingdom saw significant damage to their National Health Services. Hospitals were forced to unplug their computers to stop the malware from spreading even further. This is just one of the security threats posed by special malware that encrypts computer files, network file shares, and even databases thereby preventing user access (Green 18-19). It happens in spite of heavy investments in a wide array of security automation and orchestration solutions and staff required to triage, investigate and resolve threats.
The primary problem is that organizations seem to be losing the battle against cyber attackers (Radichel, 2). The security administrators are overburdened and compelled to manually perform time-consuming and repetitive tasks to identify, track, and resolve security concerns across various security platforms. Notwithstanding the time and effort, it is difficult to analyze and adequately prioritize the security events and alerts necessary to protect their networks. Still, the inadequate visibility into the present activities of the security teams, metrics and performance leave security managers struggling to justify additional resources. It has long been accepted that the organizational efficiency depends heavily on the ability of the security system to reduce false positives so that analysts can focus on the critical events along with indicators of compromise.
Security event automation and orchestration ensures that an organization detects a compromise in real time. A rapid incident response ensures a quick containment of the threat. Through the automation of common investigation enrichment and response actions, as well as the use of a centralized workflow for performing incident response, it is possible to minimize response times and thus make the organization more secure. Security events automation and orchestration expedites workflows across the threat life-cycle in various phases. However, for the security team to deploy security automation and orchestration of event-driven security, there must be access to data concerning events occurring in the environment that warrant a response. To effectively employ event-driven security, automation should be embedded into processes that could introduce new threats to the environment (Goutam, Kamal and Ingle, 431). The approach requires that there be a way to audit the environment securely and trigger event based on data patterns that indicate security threat or intrusion. Of particular importance, continuous fine tuning of processes is required to make certain the events automation and orchestration being deployed is not merely automating the process, but providing long-term value in the form of machine learning and automated application of incident response workflows that have previously resolved incidents successfully.
At a time of increased cybersecurity threats, a structured approach can expedite the entire response management process from event notification to remediation and closure through automated orchestration and workflow. An automatic gathering of key information, the building of decision cases and the execution of critical actions to prevent and/or remediate cyber threats based on logical incident response processes are enabled. With security orchestration and event automation, various benefits are realized such as cost effectiveness, mitigation of security incidents and improved speed and effectiveness of the response. Hence, security event automation and orchestration is the real deal in containing security threats before real damage takes place.
With all the damage done by the WannaCry and the Petya (also known as GoldenEye) ransomware attacks over the course of the last two months in mind, it is safe to assume that organizations that are a potential target of cyber criminals should move to enhance resilience to these types of attacks. There are various actions that businesses and government institutions can take to escape unscathed from this global ransomware epidemics.
Aside from using sophisticated tools that are designed to detect and remove ransomware, employees themselves are an important piece of the puzzle when it comes to defending against targeted cyber-attacks. Raising employee awareness on cybersecurity can go a long way towards improving the ability of organizations to avoid damages caused by cyber incidents because the staff is often cited as one of the weakest links in cyber defenses.
Employees, the First Line of Defense Against Ransomware
One of the reasons why organizations need to raise cybersecurity awareness within their staff is that ransomware usually finds a way into IT systems through phishing emails opened by an employee. The main risk is a result of the fact that most employees are not very well-versed in distinguishing between legitimate emails and fake ones that aim to install malicious software onto their computers, which is done in one of two ways. One way is to include a call-to-action prompting recipients to download an attachment that contains a malware. Once that file is installed onto the computer, the malware basically disables the computer, preventing the user from accessing it, or from opening certain essential files.
The other way involves emails providing a URL that recipients are supposed to click, with the URL being created in such a manner that resembles a popular and well-known website. That way, recipients do not suspect that there is something wrong with the website they are prompted to visit by the email message, but once they click the malicious URL and go to that website, malware is instantly installed onto their computer.
After a piece of malware is installed on a computer, it has the ability to spread across other computers that it is connected to, thus infecting and blocking access to the entire network.
Tackle Social Engineering Through Education
Organizations can reduce the risk of getting hit by a ransomware attack by educating employees about the methods utilized in these scams, which involve a great deal of social engineering, taking advantage of certain psychological weaknesses. By making employees more aware of the most common ransomware schemes, as well as the fact that they have one of the key roles in the cyber defense of their organization, chances of preventing attacks can be greatly increased.
Cyber security professionals need to train all employees on how to detect ransomware scams, by pointing out to them that they need to pay extra attention to details when receiving emails from an unknown sender or containing suspicious content. The most important details that employees should pay attention to include the display name of emails, the salutation, and whether an email contains an attachment that they are not expecting.
Employee education is paramount when it comes to defending against ransomware attacks, and organizations need to invest more time and resources into this increasingly important aspect of cybersecurity.
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.