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4 Ways To Identify The Real Threats To Your Organization

Companies looking for better ways of prioritizing their defensive efforts need to look beyond vulnerabilities. How to find the real threats to your business before they find you

The basic equation for risk is simple: If an adversary or threat can exploit a vulnerability to harm an asset, then you have risk.

Yet far too many companies focus on the two components of risk that are typically internal to their networks: assets and most of all, vulnerabilities. With a slew of media articles coming out on vulnerabilities every week, it's easy to get sidetracked, says Eric W. Cowperthwaite, chief information security officer for Providence Health & Services.

"We tend to run around screaming how the sky is falling about stuff that is not a big deal," says Cowperthwaite. "I don't see how you can credibly inform your defense or your leadership about the threats if you don't know what your threats are."

Increasingly, security professionals advise companies to do their homework and gauge what threats may be targeting their networks and data. At last month's SOURCE Boston security conference, for example, one consultant pointed out that most defenders wait behind their firewalls for the attackers -- effectively giving up the initiative. Companies instead need to model the threats to their network and gather intelligence on possible adversaries.

[Companies need to be more aggressive in gathering information on their attackers, by gathering or buying intelligence on adversaries and considering more active counterintelligence operations. See Security Teams Need Better Intel, More Offense.]

To that end, a good start is for companies to make a short list of the threats they face to their business, says Cowperthwaite. Not just cybercriminals and online adversaries but other events that could cripple the company. Most companies will find that advanced persistent threats and hacktivists are likely not among their major worries.

"If you don't have that list, then I think that you have a problem," Cowperthwaite says. "Earthquakes, volcanoes, cybercriminals, accidental insiders -- there are six, seven things that are significant threats for me. And then I have to look at how they pair up with vulnerabilities to create risk, and I'm not going to tell you that [the risk is] the Chinese government."

Here are four steps that companies should be taking to better understand the threats to their business.

1. Watch for the attackers.
For most companies, sifting through log data to identify actual attack patterns can give them a good idea of the types of attacks that they need to worry about. The only problem: Wading through the actual data is time consuming and difficult.

"There are the actual pings you are getting every day, which can now, for an average target, be in the millions every day," says Tom Patterson, lead partner for the security consulting group at Computer Sciences Corp. "There is no way to look at that. You cannot capture it in a log and read it out and find some patterns there."

Good automation is key to separating the attacks from the noise. A number of security information and event management products can help. But many times, finding low frequency attacks is difficult.

2. Pump your vendors for threat data.
A threat community can help detect those low-frequency attacks, especially if the same attacker is targeting several members of the community. Perhaps the most common threat communities are customers of a single security service provider. Providence, for example, gets data from its managed security provider, it consultants, and its vulnerability-management provider.

By combining a view across its customer base, security providers can help detect attacks that may otherwise go unnoticed, says Hardik Modi, senior product manager at Fidelis Security Systems.

"The way we like to think of it is that people gain situational awareness," Modi says. "They can gain information about campaigns that are being waged against them."

3. Meet with your competitors.
Another way to learn about potential threats is to create a threat community, by making contacts with other security professionals in your specific industry. For companies responsible for critical infrastructure, an information sharing and analysis center (ISAC) is a good forum for exchanging threat data. The FBI's Infragard program is another potential candidate.

However, for industries that are not considered critical infrastructure -- or for companies that are not well served by an ISAC -- creating their own private information sharing group is a possibility, says Providence's Cowperthwaite.

"One of the things that people forget or don't think about is that verticals have private associations of security leaders that don't get advertised to the outside world," he says. "Often a lot of good threat information gets exchanged in these groups."

4. Find a threat analyst, even part-time.
Finally, giving someone the responsibility for gathering intelligence on threats can help a company keep its focus on defining who or what could put the business at risk. Strong technologists are not necessarily the best threat analysts, Cowperthwaite says.

"Either identify someone you already have or identify somebody you can add," he says. "You don't want a security engineer. You want somebody who has a different mindset."

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