Managing and Mitigating Risk From Unknown Unknowns

Five practical steps to up-level attack surface management programs and gain greater visibility and risk mitigation around the extended ecosystem.

November 10, 2022

5 Min Read
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Modern IT environments are purposefully designed to be dynamic, evolving organically through things such as cloud computing, Internet of Things (IoT) devices, and, for many organizations, through mergers and acquisitions and supply chain business relationships. While enabling greater business efficiency and effectiveness, often infrastructure and data are added ad hoc without looping in the IT team or adhering to organizational security policies. The result is unmanaged or unknown infrastructure within the technology ecosystem, which introduces hidden risk.

Most security teams will acknowledge a lack of visibility in this dynamic environment. Whether it's credentialed access or missing agents, it's common to have a gap in visibility. However, unknown unknowns present an even more significant visibility challenge in most organizations.

What Is an Unknown-Unknown Asset?

Let's start by defining what we mean by unknown unknowns, or assets of which the security and IT teams have no awareness. Unknown unknowns can be introduced in a multitude of ways. For example, well-meaning developers with the ability to provision cloud resources on a personal credit card can spin up new database instances.

Consider capable contractors who can spin up their own infrastructure but forget to limit access to the code on GitHub. Or the business partners (third- and Nth-party suppliers) that are not accounted for in the extended enterprise ecosystem. Mergers are another common way that "unknown unknowns" are introduced — when the often outdated list of IT infrastructure doesn't meet the current reality of the infrastructure state.

With supply chain compromise on the rise and increasing organizational sprawl, how can organizations manage and mitigate risk from unknown unknowns?

Closing Attack Surface Visibility Gaps

To solve for unknown unknowns, security teams need to establish mechanisms and processes to maintain an up-to-date inventory of all known assets associated with their organization and the vulnerabilities that can be used by threat actors as entry points into the network. The more known about the organization, the more information to perform active and continuous search for unknowns, and even fewer unknown unknowns.

Below are five practical steps to closing visibility gaps:

  1. Enumerate and continuously monitor the asset inventory: Create a process and workflow for continuous asset discovery that delivers a comprehensive inventory. Assets include internal and external resources, cloud resources, employees, and the supply chain. Externally accessible assets are often targeted by threat actors for initial access (MITRE T1190) by exploiting known vulnerabilities. In situations where a zero-day is disclosed, the security team can leverage the inventory to answer these questions: "Do we have that technology in our ecosystem and, if so, where?" and "Are we running the vulnerable version of the technology?"

  2. Determine ownership of assets: Attribution plays a big role in providing relevant information to the security team. Receiving a list of assets that may or may not be owned by your organization will slow down the team as they triage false positives (out-of-scope assets). At the onset of asset discovery efforts, the inventory should be audited to determine what is directly managed vs. shared security model (where the management of the asset is outsourced to a provider – such as a cloud service or SaaS provider). Management becomes easier over time as a security team establishes the baseline understanding of asset ownership.

  3. Enrich assets with intelligence to identify and prioritize critical and high-severity issues: The faster vulnerabilities are identified, the faster the security team can respond. Indicators of compromise (IoCs) and Dark Web monitoring can inform a security team of malicious activity involving the brand or an asset. Analysis based on incident response and adversary research can help defenders respond and prioritize appropriately based on how a vulnerability is being leveraged and the impact of exploitation. Recommended sources include NIST National Vulnerability Database (NVD), CISA's Known Exploited Vulnerability catalog, and intelligence feeds from the private sector.

  4. Remediate and harden at scale: Prioritizing remediation and hardening efforts on the entry points that present the most risk to the organization is crucial to mitigation strategies. Critical and high-severity security findings should be investigated and remediated immediately. Over the medium and long term, the security team needs to be aware of and monitor for lower severity vulnerabilities that are often overlooked but can be used in tandem with easier-to-exploit vulnerabilities. Assign responsibility to the lower-priority items and set expectations for quarterly reporting on progress.

  5. Regularly review assets for unknown unknowns — and integrate your findings into steps 1–4: Information is only valuable if it's used. As more data is collected about an organization's attack surface, the information needs to be distributed to the appropriate teams within the organization and incorporated into the operational workflows across the security operations center (SOC) or intelligence organization. For example, the SOC team can leverage the latest information about potentially compromised devices to take specific threat-hunting actions and then implement mitigation strategies.

Managing and mitigating risk from known threats is challenging enough for already over-stretched security teams. By following the steps above, organizations can uplevel their attack surface management programs and gain greater visibility into potential risk within their extended ecosystem as well.

About the Author

Jonathan Cran

Jonathan Cran is head of engineering, Mandiant Advantage Attack Surface Management, at Mandiant and was the founder and CEO of Intrigue prior to its acquisition by Mandiant in 2021. An experienced entrepreneur and builder, he's passionate about delivering high-quality outcomes and data-driven solutions, particularly when they require significant technical leadership. He is constantly striving to understand customers' challenges and deliver elegant solutions. His background includes hands-on experience as a security practitioner and leadership roles at companies such as Kenna Security, Bugcrowd, and Rapid7.

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