Detection: Humans in the Loop a Must

Detecting incidents is probably the most difficult network security task to perform well and consistently. Did you know that less than one out of five security incidents are detected by the organization being affected? Most organizations only find out they’ve experienced an information security incident when law enforcement comes knocking on their door, if they find out about it at all that is. And that can be very bad for business in the present environment. Customers are increasingly demanding stronger information security measures from their service providers and partners.

In order to have the best chance of detecting network security incidents, you need to record and monitor system activities. However, there is no easier way to shut down the interest of a network security or IT administrator than to say the word “monitoring”. You can just mention the word and their faces fall as if a rancid odor had suddenly entered the room! And I can’t say that I blame them. Most organizations still do not recognize the true necessity of monitoring, and so do not provide proper budgeting and staffing for the function. As a result, already fully tasked (and often times inadequately prepared) IT or security personnel are tasked with the job. This not only leads to resentment, but also virtually guarantees that the job will not be performed effectively.

But all is not gloom and doom. Many companies are reacting to the current business environment and are devoting more resources to protecting their private information. In addition, the security industry is constantly developing new tools that help streamline and remove much of the drudge work from the monitoring and detection tasks. And I surely recommend that businesses employ these tools to their full effect. Use log aggregation tools, parsers, artificial intelligence and whatever else is made available for these jobs.

However, it behooves us not to rely on these new magic bullets too much. As can be easily demonstrated from the history of security in general, there has never been a defense strategy that cannot be overcome by human cleverness and persistence. This continues to be demonstrably true in the world of information security.

My advice is to use the new tools to their maximum effectiveness, but to use them wisely. Only spend enough on the technology to accomplish the jobs at hand; don’t waste your money on redundant tools and capabilities. Instead, spend those savings on information security personnel and training. It will pay you well in the long run.

Revisiting Nuance Detection

The core of nuance detection is to extend alerting capabilities into finding situations that specifically should not exist, and if they happen, would indicate a significant security failure. A simple, elegant example would be a motion sensor on a safe in your home, combined with something like your home alarm system.
 
A significant failure state would be for the motion sensor inside the safe to trigger while the home alarm system is set in away mode. When the alarm is in away mode, there should be no condition that triggers motion inside the safe. If motion is detected, anytime, you might choose to alert in a minor way. But, if the alarm is set to away mode, you might signal all kinds of calamity and flashing lights, bells and whistles, for example.
 
This same approach can apply to your network environment, applications or data systems. Define what a significant failure state looks like, and then create detection and alerting mechanisms, even if conditional, for the indicators of that state. It can be easy. 
 
I remember thinking more deeply about this for the first time when I saw Marcus Ranum give his network burglar alarm speech at Defcon, what seems like a 1000 years ago now. That moment changed my life forever. Since then, I have always wanted to work on small detections. The most nuanced of fail states. The deepest signs of compromise. HoneyPoint™ came from that line of thinking, albeit, many years later. (Thanks, Marcus, you are amazing! BTW.) 🙂
 
I’ve written about approaches to it in the past, too. Things like detecting web shells, detection in depth techniques and such. I even made some nice maturity and deployment models.
 
This month, I will be revisiting nuance detection more deeply. Creating some more content around it, and speaking about it more openly. I’ll also cover how we have extended HoneyPoint with the Handler portion of HoneyPoint Agent. in order to fully support event management and data handling into your security alerting systems from basic scripts and simple tools you can create yourself. 
 
Stay tuned, and in the meantime, drop me a line on Twitter (@lbhuston) and let me know more about nuance detections you can think of or have implemented. I’d love to hear more about it.