Tech Insight: IT Security's Most Time-Consuming Tasks
Picking the right tools can help save time and streamline efforts
John Sawyer- Contributing Writer,
July 09, 2010
IT security professionals are faced with countless tasks. Some require just a couple of minutes of time, while others are virtual time sinks that take away from securing IT resources. And choosing which tasks to tackle first isn't always a decision left up to the security pro.
CSOs, attacks, and administrivia all impact on security pros. The CSO, if you even have one, will want to know how your company's security program handles the latest attacks he heard about or whether you really need the product he just got cold-called about. And then there are the phishing attacks that get forwarded for investigation and the Web server logs that were filled up overnight because someone was brute-forcing directories and attempting SQL injection.
Let's not forget the countless meetings, paperwork, and reports that require inordinate amounts of time -- time that would be better spent patching systems, securing Web applications, and tightening desktop protections to fight malware.
InformationWeek's 2010 Strategic Survey provides insight into what's currently eating away at IT security professionals' time. The top three: patch management at 33 percent, malware detection and analysis at 30 percent, and incident response at 24 percent. If you're on the front lines or a C-level exec getting daily reports on security incidents in your organization, then those numbers shouldn't be surprising.
It's important to note that most of the respondents are spending the greatest portion of their time on patch management because of the shift in the threat landscape. In the past when most attacks were targeting vulnerabilities in servers, patching was easier and took less time. Patches had to be tested to be sure they didn't bring down production services, but there were typically far fewer servers than user workstations.
Now attacks are targeting the end users and their workstations. They're sourced from compromised websites, malvertisements, social networking, and phishing, greatly emphasizing the importance of patching tens, hundreds, or thousands of systems.
Taking advantage of available patch management tools can help reduce the time many security pros are spending, sometimes running around installing patches machine by machine depending on the size of the business. Some solutions are freely available but limited in what they can patch, while commercial solutions offer greater product coverage and, often, cross-platform support.
Microsoft's Windows Server Update Services is free and can be used to push patches to Windows operating systems and Microsoft Office products, but it lacks support for third-party applications. Other companies, like Secunia, BigFix, and Lumension, offer more complete solutions for patching software, such as Firefox and Adobe Acrobat Reader, across an enterprise. They also feature reporting capabilities so you know what is and isn't patched.
Ask any security pro from small businesses to large enterprises, and they will agree: Malware is out of hand. Users' workstations are getting infected because their Adobe Flash isn't updated and a malvertisement exploited a Flash vulnerability just by visiting popular websites. The increasing ineffectiveness of antivirus isn't helping, either.
Security pros are stuck trying to detect malware before it gets deep into the internal network and has access to sensitive data. Knowing some piece of malware is on a system isn't enough, though. There's a need to analyze what's there to see what credentials or data it was attempting to steal. And the C-level execs want to know whether it was part of a targeted attack.
With those questions needing answers, it's not a surprise that the IW survey respondents are now spending about 30 percent of their time trying to detect and analyze malware. Some of the best tools for detection are surprisingly free.
The Emerging Threats project produces bleeding-edge Suricata/Snort rules for detecting malware and attacks. The project's community of users analyzes malware and creates rules to detect the malware and current attacks before many commercial solutions have detection capabilities available.
Malware analysis can be extremely time-consuming and requires a unique skill set, including detailed knowledge of networking, operating systems, application security, and, often, reverse engineering. HBGary has been advancing this area and making it easier for security professionals to understand what malware is doing by using its Responder, Digital DNA, and REcon tools.
Detecting and analyzing malware is just one aspect of incident response, and it doesn't account for the 24 percent that respondents are spending time on incident response -- the third highest security area security professionals have to focus their time.
One newly minted IT pro responded to the Strategic Security Survey saying, "The people at the top have no idea of what the current threat landscape is like. In fact, when my branch tried to report an intrusion to headquarters, we were told that such a thing could not have happened because the company has a firewall. The level of ignorance is actually stunning."
Having a well-defined and administratively supported incident response plan is critical if companies want to weather an attack. It starts at the preparation phase with training on techniques and tools so that proper identification, containment, eradication, and remediation can take place. At the end of an incident, the lessons-learned phase will help determine where failures may have occurred so they can be fixed and the security team can be more effective the next time an incident occurs.
Being effective at incident response requires more than just having a plan. Actually having the proper tools is important, as is knowing how to use them properly. Solutions like Mandiant Intelligent Response, F-Response Enterprise, and AccessData Enterprise can greatly speed up the process by putting important data at your fingertips. Depending on your company's size, one solution may be a better fit over the other.
The fact is that IT security professionals' jobs are not getting any easier and attacks are increasing. Nearly 75 percent of the IW survey respondents attribute their increased vulnerability to the increased sophistication of threats, while 61 percent see attackers having more ways to attack their corporate networks. Streamlining time-consuming tasks can help security pros focus their efforts in other areas that are lacking.
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