Human Threat Hunters Are Essential to Thwarting Zero-Day Attacks

Machine-learning algorithms alone may miss signs of a successful attack on your organization.

A.N. Ananth, Chief Strategy Officer, Netsurion

August 9, 2022

4 Min Read
Person at laptop doing cybersecurity
Source: NicoElNino via Alamy Stock Photo

Zero-day attacks that exploit unpatched software vulnerabilities saw exponential growth last year. According to cybersecurity researchers like the Zero-Day Tracking Project, 2021 saw more than 80 zero-day exploits recorded, versus 36 in 2000. There are already 22 such exploits on record for the first half of 2022.

As soon as a vulnerability becomes known, cybercriminals rush to exploit it before the software developer can write, test, and release a patch. That window may be hours, but more likely days or weeks long. So, it's important that you have threat hunters — humans, not machine-learning algorithms — scouring your infrastructure proactively for signs of a successful attack.

The risk of falling victim to a zero-day attack is considerable, and the consequences real. One study from the Ponemon Institute found that 80% of successful data breaches originated with zero-day exploits. The vulnerabilities exploited are found in software common to the enterprise, including Microsoft Windows and Office, Google Chrome, Adobe Reader, Apple iOS, and Linux.

With 2021's Apache Log4j Java-based vulnerability, we can add hundreds of millions of devices and a wide range of websites, consumer and enterprise services, and applications to the list.

Step one in protecting every organization is to practice excellent IT hygiene — keep up to date on patching and updating all software. It's the back-to-basics measure that so many companies love to overlook or postpone. Granted, it can be time and resource consuming to test and deploy software patches, and the process can disrupt business operations. But it's a critical safeguard and far less costly than a data breach.

The Invisibility of Newness

A strong perimeter and signature-based edge controls like anti-virus software and intrusion prevention do not provide complete protection. That's because they can only detect known threats. They are blind to the footprints of zero-day attacks, when the cybercriminals are the first to uncover and exploit a software vulnerability. That's why zero-day exploit kits carry very high price tags on the black market, running from tens of thousands of dollars up to millions. They work that well.

Once a cybercriminal has used a zero-day exploit to penetrate a network unseen, they can take their time and deploy their weapon of choice, from viruses and worms to malware and ransomware to remote code execution. They can move laterally in the network, steal identities, and steal data. As long as you don't know they're there, it's like handing over the keys to the crown jewels.

The Role of Threat Hunting

It's that invisibility that makes proactive threat hunting an essential component of the layered approach to security. It's made possible in part because we have been smart about using machine learning to free up scarce cybersecurity people resources by reducing the number of alerts needing human intervention by 90%. Some in the industry have taken this success to mean that humans can be phased out of the security equation by algorithms, and that algorithms can do the work for us, including threat hunting.

Machine learning does bring significant advantages to cybersecurity management, but it will never completely replace humans in the security operations center. Machines handle high-volume tasks like eliminating false positives and repetitions extremely well. Machine learning may assist when you are hunting for known threats, including advanced and "low-and-slow" threats, where you know what indicators of compromise (IoCs) to look for.

However, human intelligence, intuition, strategic thinking, and creative problem solving are essential in proactive zero-day threat hunting where the IoCs are unknown and the hunter is looking for the subtle indications that another human is maliciously active in your environment.

This approach is research intensive. The analyst may create a hypothesis and then validate it based on observed patterns or anomalous activity in security data logs and user and entity behavioral analysis (UEBA) logs. According to CISA, these can include failed file modifications, increased CPU activity, inability to access files, unusual network communications, compromised administrator privileges, credentials theft, increases in database read volumes, and irregular geographical access.

Companies can develop threat hunting skills in-house or acquire them as a managed service. Either way, these human defenders and their proactive threat hunting expertise are the new elites in the security industry. Supported by comprehensive log data, threat intelligence, and tools like the MITRE ATT&CK knowledge base, human threat hunters are essential to combatting zero-day attacks, multistage attacks, and devious, low-and-slow hackers.

About the Author(s)

A.N. Ananth

Chief Strategy Officer, Netsurion

A.N. Ananth is chief strategy officer of Netsurion, a managed security service provider and co-creator of its threat protection platform, EventTracker. With an extensive background in product development and operations for telecom network management, he has consulted for many companies on their compliance strategy, audit policy and automated reporting processes. Ananth is a leading expert in IT security and compliance with over 25 years of experience in IT control and operations and speaks frequently on these topics.

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