So You Want to Be a Security Researcher?Security researchers need a broad set of skills to investigate a constantly-changing threat landscape. But specializing in areas such as reverse engineering or network forensics will boost opportunities.
According to Verizon's 2015 Data Breach Investigations Report, more than 317 million new pieces of malware -- computer viruses or other malicious software -- were created in 2014. That means nearly one million new threats were released each day.
Someone has to keep current with all the new malware that can be used to exploit application and system vulnerabilities; collect it, examine its functions and how it executes attacks, and then present those findings in a format that can be consumed by a larger audience.
Welcome to the world of security research.
Security research includes a wide spectrum of tasks, says James Treinen, vice president of security research at ProtectWise, developer of a cloud-based platform that uses a virtual camera to record everything on an organization’s network, letting security personnel see threats in real- time.
Security researchers take apart malware to see what vulnerabilities the malicious software is exploiting and glean intelligence out of the malware – how it communicates and how it is structured. They use that information to track adversaries and groups by the attack methods they have deployed. Among other things, they then build behavior profiles so security analysts and incident responders can find future instances of the malicious software.
Searching for bread crumbs
“I’m an analytics person. I focus on what are the bread crumbs [the bad guys] leave as they walk across the network and how we can build automated systems to help make the other security researchers’ jobs easier,” Treinen says. “It is super hard to find people with the skills to do this, so my goal is to build tools to make their lives easier.”
Automated tools let security analysts drill down to the malware’s bits and assemble code to determine how it executed an attack. This is a different end of the security research spectrum. Other security researchers’ tasks might include building and hardening operating systems and networks, Treinen says.
A quick search of security researcher jobs on LinkedIn brings up nearly 870 jobs posted by companies seeking people who can perform a range of tasks such as parsing and analyzing log data or positions that require advanced technical knowledge in all areas of network/application security, applications programming, reverse engineering, malware analysis, and device driver development. Depending on geographical location and experience, salaries for security researchers can range from $55,000 well into $100,000 or more, experts say.
So what type of people make good security researchers and how do you prepare for such a position?
“It’s hard to say. I only know a handful of people who started their careers off doing security researching,” says Patrick Snyder, senior manager of AlienVault Labs, which has a team of security professionals researching global threats and vulnerabilities daily. “You kind of fall into it whether you’ve focused your career on networking or programming,” Snyder says.
The discipline is suited for those people who have an innate curiosity of how software can be broken down or bypassed so you can do things with it that weren’t intended to be done, he says. Snyder’s own background includes more than 15 years of information technology experience at various companies, working on system development and implementation. Later, as the market for security professionals heated up, he moved into network security prior to joining AlienVault, a developer of security information event management and threat management solutions.
A person looking to move into security research has to be immersed in technology with a desire to understand the workings of malware, encryption, and network forensics and web applications because they are all intertwined. Plus, as a security researcher, you are not going do the same thing each day.
Day in the life
A typical day in the life of a researcher is hard to pin down, especially if there is a critical vulnerability release. However, Snyder’s team starts the day... (continue to page 2)
Rutrell Yasin has more than 30 years of experience writing about the application of information technology in business and government. View Full Bio
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