Enterprise Threat Visibility Versus Real-World Operational Constraints

The phrase “assume breach” has been transformational to enterprise security investment and defensive strategy for a few years but may now be close to retirement. 

When the vast majority of information security expenditure was focused on impermeable perimeter defenses and reactive response to evidence-based compromise, it served as a valuable rallying cry for organizations to tool their enterprise for insider-threat detection, adopt zero-trust network segmentation, and pursue widespread deployment of multifactor authentication systems and conditional access controls.

Sizable investments in enterprisewide visibility should have reversed the much older adage “a defender needs to be right all the time, while the attacker needs to be right only once” into something like “an attacker needs to be invisible all the time, while the defender needs them to slip up only once.” Unfortunately, security operations and threat-hunting teams have found that instead of automatically spotting needles in a haystack, they must now manage haystacks of needles—if they’re properly equipped. For under-resourced security teams (which appears the majority), advances in enterprisewide visibility have in the best case added hundreds of daily alerts to their never-completed to-do lists.

As security budgets have morphed, a higher percentage of spend has been allocated to increasing visibility on the premise that more threats will be preemptively detected, blocked, and mitigated.

An appropriate analogy for the situation would be installing dozens of video cameras in and around your home with overlapping fields of view and relying on that as the primary alerting mechanism for preventing break-ins. The primary assumption is that someone will be continually monitoring all those video feeds, will recognize the build up and execution of the break-in, and can initiate a response to stop the thief. 

The consequences of such a strategy (by way of continuing the analogy) are pretty obvious:

1. Because 24/7 monitoring is expensive, automated detection is required. Automatic detection comes at the cost of high false-positive rates and baseline tuning; in home CCTV terms, ignoring the rabbits, golf balls, and delivery men that cross a field of vision, while desensitizing movement thresholds and setting up hot zones for alerting. Even rarish false positive events such as lighting strikes during a storm or the shadow of a passing airplane are unfortunately enough to fill an inbox or message tray and result in wariness delays and wasted investigative cycles. To counter the problem, use at least two disparate and independent detection technologies to detect and confirm the threat (for example, CCTV movement zones and a break-glass sensor).

2. Automatic detection without an automatic response limits value to post-break-in cleanup and triage—not prevention. Because of potential false positives, automatic responses also need to be reversible throughout the period of alert response. If CCTV movement and break-glass sensors are triggered, perhaps an automatic request for a patrol car visit is initiated. Meanwhile the original alert recipient can review footage and cancel the callout if it was clearly a false positive (e.g., the neighbor’s kids kicked a ball over the fence and broke a window).

3. Balance between detection and prevention is critical and will change over time. 24/7 CCTV monitoring may serve as a key detection capability, but locking all external doors with deadbolts shouldn’t be neglected. Deadbolted doors won’t stop the future threat of a $50 miniature drone flying down the chimney and retrieving the spare front-door key laying on the kitchen table. Prevention investments tend to be threat reactive, while modern detection technologies tend to be increasingly successful in identifying behavioral anomalies.

“Assume breach” served its purpose in changing the ways organizations thought about and invested in their security technologies (and operational programs). As with many well-intentioned initiatives, the security pendulum may have swung a little too far and now needs a balanced redressing.

Although I think cloud-SIEM and the advanced machine intelligence platforms being wedded to it will eventually meet most organizations’ 24/7 visibility and detection needs, SecOps teams will continue to battle against both alert fatigue and posture fatigue. The phrase I’d like to see the industry focus on for the next five years is “automatically mitigated.”

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Gunter Ollmann is currently the CSO of Microsoft’s Cloud and AI Security division. He is a seasoned information security leader who has defined and trailblazed new security markets through his work with globally recognized companies, including Microsoft and IBM X-Force, and startups, including IOActive and Damballa. As a seasoned C-level executive and technologist, Mr. Ollmann has been instrumental in several dozen M&A deals (as acqui-hire, acquirer, consultant, or adviser) ranging from tens-of-millions to billion dollar transactions.

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