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Microsoft Builds Automation into Windows Defender ATP

Automation can help manage and respond to alert overflow, but will come with its own specific set of challenges.

Microsoft plans to integrate automation and remediation capabilities into Windows Defender Advanced Threat Protection (ATP), addressing an industry-wide need for improved threat response at a time when alert volumes outweigh resources needed to handle them.

Windows Defender ATP was first announced in March 2016 and has since undergone a series of updates addressing detection, investigation, hunting, prevention, and response. Now Microsoft is adding automation and remediation, following its acquisition of Hexadite. The artificial intelligence firm's automation technology will help businesses manage security alert overflow.

"One of the biggest challenges security teams have is there are so many issues, every new technology you have results in more alerts," says Jeff Pollard, principal analyst for security and risk professionals at Forrester. Better detection capabilities have solved the visibility challenge but tightened resource constraints as teams scramble to address all the alerts they generate.

The imbalance is driving companies like Microsoft and other security vendors into orchestration, which Pollard says will help businesses "prioritize the sharpest needles in the haystack" instead of digging into every single event.

When Windows Defender ATP picks up alerts from other detection systems, its automation tech will start to collect and analyze network and endpoint data to investigate the full extent of the breach, says Rob Lefferts, director of program management for Windows and Enterprise Security. From there, it will be able to determine the best course of action for each alert.

As part of the added capabilities, Windows Defender ATP will be able to both prioritize and fix breaches. Admins can opt to run actions automatically for simple cases, or review them prior to execution in more complex scenarios.

"Resources are short, alert volumes are high, and prioritization is key," says Lefferts. "We needed to bridge the gap between detection and remediation to deliver a seamless and continuous cyber-incident response."

With a 90 to 95 percent automation rate on actionable alerts, organizations can better investigate alerts that would normally take an IT pro an average of six or seven hours, he adds.

In general, the rise of automation has its benefits but will also come with its own set of security challenges, says Pollard.

"One of the big downsides is that automation requires mature, sound processes," he explains. "If you decide to automate certain actions, you need to make sure you're not automating the wrong thing."

Let's say, for example, you automate the process of containing a machine in your environment because it's associated with an outbreak. It could be the right thing to do unless you decide to contain business-critical systems and eliminate their ability to communicate with the network.

In a false-positive situation, you could potentially stop the business because you weren't mature enough or lacked documentation, he says. The danger of automation is if you don't understand your environment, you could automate yourself into disaster.

"If you don't investigate as a person you have to hope the tech got it right … it's not the thing you missed, it's the thing you made the wrong decision about and it comes back to haunt you."

Pollard says this update demonstrates Microsoft's commitment to becoming an enterprise security player. In the past, the company had integrated security functionality but didn't have a management interface. Its focus on user experience has been a catalyst for changing its position as a major competitor. Now admins have an improved interface and don't have to manage it via group policy, increasing the likelihood they will use Microsoft's security tools.

"Part of the challenge for security is not just finding breaches and threat actors … usability is equally important," Pollard explains. Microsoft's focus on cloud services like Azure and Office 365 has demanded the company prioritize user experience; as a result, he has noticed improvement across their entire ecosystem.

Microsoft says the new automated response capabilities will be available for preview later this year. You can check out a 90-day trial and read more details in Lefferts' blog post on the news.

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