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Commentary

The Three Dimensions of the Threat Intelligence Scale Problem

To succeed, organizations must be empowered to reduce their attack surface and staff overload so they can get more out of their existing firewall and threat intelligence investments.

There is no doubt that threat intelligence (TI) and information sharing have become critical requirements for successful security operations and cyber defense. Guidelines, like the NIST Cybersecurity Framework, promote the use of threat intelligence and information sharing beyond the domain of larger, more resource-rich organizations to include companies of all sizes. As the use of TI becomes more pervasive, it's also become clear that there is a multidimensional TI scale problem that needs to be addressed.

Dimension 1: Existing Network Security Controls Have a TI Scale Problem
With every cybersecurity technology vendor marketing "threat intelligence," it's not surprising that when you ask an organization if it is using TI, the common response is "yes, my firewall has TI." The problem here is that firewalls provide only limited TI because of performance limitations. The best firewalls can only handle a few hundred thousand threat indicators. This is dwarfed by the tens of millions of malicious IPs and domains that exist at any given moment. This leads many organizations to operate with a limited subset of TI with the hope that this subset provides the coverage needed. However, more security organizations are realizing this approach is inadequate and are turning to external TI to address the firewall TI scale problem.

Dimension 2: Operationalizing TI at Scale Is Challenging
There is a massive amount of external TI that organizations can access to improve cyber defense. While cost can be a constraint for expensive commercial threat feeds, there is plenty of lower-cost and even free threat feeds available, from open source, government, and industry sources. While access to external TI is not an issue, the scale problem lies in managing, maintaining, and making effective use of TI. Some of these challenges include:

  • Managing multiple threat feeds that come in different formats. 
  • Ensuring your threat feeds are constantly up to date.
  • Integrating TI into your security operations so that you can use it to improve security.

The process of integrating TI into security operations is particularly interesting because it directly leads into another dimension of the network security TI scale problem. While organizations can turn to external TI to make up for the lack of access that a next-generation firewall provides, this same limitation hits you on the other side by hindering your ability to take action based on external TI. It's like a double firewall TI whammy!

Dimension 3: The Cybersecurity Human Scale Problem
I don't need to belabor this point. You get it. The human factor is a problem. However, when it comes to tying this to TI, there are two dimensions to dissect. The first is that many small and midsize organizations don't even contemplate using external TI at scale because they believe one needs a cybersecurity army to manage, maintain, and operationalize TI. The second is that the workforce shortage problem is not only relegated to smaller companies — it is a major pressure point for larger organizations as well. In fact, this is the key factor that's driving cybersecurity innovation in areas like artificial intelligence, machine learning, and automation.

Conclusion
Earlier this year, IBM Security and Ponemon Institute published "The Third Annual Study on the Cyber Resilient Organization." The theme? Cyber resilience has gained momentum over the last few years as organizations realize that cyber-risk is not an IT risk but a broader business risk. The report defines cyber resilience as "the alignment of prevention, detection, and response capabilities to manage, mitigate, and move on from cyber-attacks."

The overarching message is that organizations continue to struggle with responding to cyber incidents due to a lack of formal incident response plans and lack of budget — essentially, the three dimensions I have outlined here are only a small factor of a much larger problem. To succeed, organizations must be empowered to reduce their attack surface and staff overload, so they can get more out of their existing firewall and TI investments.

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