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8/10/2015
02:00 PM
Joshua Goldfarb
Joshua Goldfarb
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Data Visibility: A Matter Of Perspective

You can't analyze what you can't see. True at the dentist and true in security.

Everyday life can teach us valuable information security lessons if we’re prepared to seek them out. A recent visit to the dentist taught me something new about data visibility. Sound a bit odd? Allow me to explain.

During my last routine dental check-up, I learned that it had been several years since my last full set of dental x-rays. As I’m sure you know, dentists periodically take a complete set of dental x-rays to ensure that everything is healthy inside the teeth and gums where the dentist cannot see.  While this experience is not the most pleasant in the world, it can teach us a lot about how to ensure proper visibility for security within an organization.

As the hygienist proceeded through the various different angles, positions, and locations, I noticed something quite profound. In analytical professions, the practitioners do not make decisions in a vacuum. In general, they look for the right data points over the necessary period of time before drawing a conclusion. As an analytical profession, the dental profession does not rely on a singular perspective from a static moment in time in order to evaluate a patient’s condition. Instead, dentists and hygienists seek to build a series of data points over time, both through periodic x-rays and through regular exams. From those data points, they continuously monitor the condition of the patient and analyze what, if any, action/response is necessary.

We all value our dentists and hygienists, but what does this have to do with security? Security, perhaps more so than any other profession, is an analytical profession – or at least it should be.  As I’ve written many times, security should be a risk-driven profession. If we step back and examine what is required to identify, assess, detect, and mitigate risk, the answer might surprise us. 

[Read more from Josh about what a haircut taught him about communicating the value of security to executives and non-security professionals in Security Metrics: It’s All Relative.]

It goes without saying that people, process, and technology form the foundation of a solid security program. However, this famous and oft-mentioned triad is necessary, but not sufficient for success. True success in the security realm comes only through the decision-making capacity that people, process, and technology facilitate. In other words, what is the current state of my organization, how does that relate to risks and threats I am concerned about, and what, if any, action/response is necessary?

Moreover, the goal of decision-making shouldn’t be to make just any decisions, but rather informed, educated, and accurate decisions. What’s needed in order to accomplish that? In a word: visibility.

Visibility across the organization provides an organization with the accurate data it needs to make informed decisions. This level of visibility requires both depth and breadth in both time and space. It’s not enough to have visibility into one segment of the network, one set of endpoints, or one piece of intelligence at one point in time. That’s decision-making in a vacuum. Rather, the organization needs visibility across the network, onto the endpoints (whether mobile, laptop, desktop, server, or otherwise), and into intelligence. Further, the organization needs to maintain this level of visibility continually. This facilitates the analysis of data points over time – the only reliable way to make informed decisions.

Why is this so important? Whether working through the alert queue, hunting for intrusions, performing incident response, or dealing with a serious breach, timely, accurate decisions are built upon a solid foundation involving the right data. That data comes from proper visibility across time and space, and it is the only proven way to facilitate informed decisions. To illustrate this point, consider just a few of the many questions one might encounter in a security setting:

  • Given that we have active command and control activity to an attacker site, when did this activity begin and what is being communicated?
  • How many payment cards were stolen? Was it on the order of 10, 100, 1,000, 1,000,000, or 100,000,000?
  • Have we seen spearphishing attacks like this particular one in the past and whom have they targeted?

These are just a few of the many questions security organizations grapple with on a daily basis.  More often than not, in my experience, lack of visibility is one of the largest inhibitors to informed decision-making. Even the best people following the most accurate process and working with the greatest technology cannot make informed decisions without the underlying data to support those decisions. That makes visibility across the organization one of the most important aspects of a mature security program. You can’t analyze what you can't see. True at the dentist and true in security.

Josh (Twitter: @ananalytical) is an experienced information security leader with broad experience building and running Security Operations Centers (SOCs). Josh is currently co-founder and chief product officer at IDRRA and also serves as security advisor to ExtraHop. Prior to ... View Full Bio
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