Most information security leaders recognize the importance of solid operations security (OPSEC) to keep the bad guys from getting an edge when formulating attacks. First developed by military minds, the idea behind OPSEC principles is simple even if the practices aren't always so cut-and-dried: keep the adversary guessing by denying them any information that might help them formulate their attacks. It's a fairly well-understood concept in the infosec world, but rarely used to flip the equation on the bad guys.
That's the premise behind a new study out today from Digital Shadows, which examined that maturity curve of OPSEC across the criminal underground and presents some opportunities that the good guys have to gain the advantage by paying attention.
"I think there’s two components for the enterprises. One, how do you think about your own OPSEC? And then, two, how do you keep an eye on what adversaries are doing to see if you can keep up with the trends, that sort of thing; tools that they’re using," explains Rick Holland, vice president of Digital Shadows and author of the report.
None of the individual criminals or criminal groups are created equally with regard to OPSEC, he says. It all depends on their motivations and financial models. For example, hacktivists might have poor OPSEC because they're whole M.O. is wrapped up around notoriety. Carders tend to have poor OPSEC because they're working on such volume, and the barrier to entry is pretty low to get into that business.
Meanwhile, more advanced operations with stealthy targeted attack campaigns invest more in OPSEC and may not advertise to the Dark Web at large about their services, choosing to do business only with those they know.
Simply observing how mature or immature an adversary is will give defenders some information about their operations. But for the most part, even those criminals with advanced OPSEC will only invest as much as they need to in keeping their tails clean.
"An attacker who’s optimizing their OPSEC is just going to have a little bit better OPSEC than they need so that they don’t over-invest, especially on the more mature side. If you think of OPSEC as a cost of goods sold for them," he says. "They don’t want to put too much into it, and fortunately for the bad guys, the OPSEC bars can be relatively low given the lack of maturity that most of the companies they’re targeting have."
According to Holland, organizations tend to have their heads in the sand both internally and externally.
"I think organizations make a lot of decisions without understanding the risks that they face. Having some kind of OPSEC perspective in the organization is really, really important because it should drive the security program – not just the offset, but the data you’re trying to protect, the people associated with that data," he says.
Holland says many organizations don't conduct proper threat modeling and often don't understand things such as what types of adversaries are targeting them and their vertical markets, and how to use that type of intelligence to tune their security.