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Vulnerabilities / Threats

10:30 AM
Ben Haley
Ben Haley
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Are You Listening to Your Kill Chain?

With the right tools and trained staff, any organization should be able to deal with threats before information is compromised.

Why are we so good at identifying attacks but so bad at preventing them? Every day, we hear of new organizations getting hacked or old targets getting tagged again. Clearly, our defenses are not getting the job done. However, forensics experts have been able to quickly retrace each attack sequence, identify details about which systems were compromised, and determine how much information leaked. That is only possible if the necessary clues were collected during the attack.

Obviously, we are solving the challenge of identifying important details and retaining that information. We are becoming adept at mining that information once we know what to look for. The failure comes in connecting dots in real time as hackers (excluding those spreading ransomware) hide within our networks for hundreds of days before detection. As a result, they have time to conduct reconnaissance, escalate privilege, and exfiltrate information with increasing regularity and severity.

Why are hackers able to hide for so long? Imperva reports that 27% of security professionals receive over 1 million alerts per day and most receive over 10,000. Those are overwhelming numbers. No team can effectively respond to that many incidents. Most alerts are false positives that suck up resources to investigate and make it impossible to automate responses — the impact would be more damaging than the attacks.

On the other hand, we already see the impact of not responding. No defenses will survive well-trained, determined attackers free inside the organization for an extended period. If unable to achieve their goals initially, the attackers collect credentials, expand footprint, and catalog defenses. When a new exploit is available, the hackers have a list of potential targets. Each exploit creates a race to see if the hackers can exploit vulnerabilities in their catalog of devices before the ops team can patch systems. Given enough time and exploits, the hackers will win a race and penetrate defenses. Attacking becomes a numbers game that is clearly in favor of the hackers.

How can an IT team survive continuous assault? Social engineering attacks allow hackers to bypass firewalls with some regularity. Detecting intruders quickly and completely removing them is key. As described above, most organizations already have systems in place that are detecting attacks and logging evidence. This information needs to be processed in real time and without the false positives.

The cyber kill chain (CKC) is a great framework to start organizing network and application defenses. I like this version of the framework because it provides a little more detail on containing an attack than most others. (Most models seem to portray containment as dealing with lateral movement.) The framework makes it easy to catalog types of attacks and develop strategies to intercept them.

Source: https://nigesecurityguy.wordpress.com/tag/cyber-kill-chain/
Source: https://nigesecurityguy.wordpress.com/tag/cyber-kill-chain/

Using the CKC, make sure you have tools in place to at least "Detect," "Deny," and "Contain" attacks. Just detecting hackers is insufficient because that only helps identify what information has been stolen. You want to block or at least stall them long enough to give security team time after detection to remediate the issue.

Next, identify which alerts are actionable and map those alerts to boxes in the CKC. These are the alerts that quickly resolve issues. They must contain detailed information about the attack such as source, target and any confirming information. For example, an attempt to log in to a honeypot should result in an alert indicating which machine is being attacked, where is the attacker coming from, and whose credentials are they using. Actionable alarms represent the best bang for the buck for the support team. Other alerts might be helpful for an attack postmortem, but don’t provide real protection. Make sure your SIEM escalates actionable alerts for immediate resolution. Secondarily, escalate the most informative alerts for each block in the matrix. Hopefully, taking care of priority issues will eliminate enough symptoms to enable some investigation into secondary warnings.

Reassess the effectiveness of your defenses using the CKC framework but only include reliable, actionable indicators. This provides a true picture of information security posture. For remaining boxes, check with existing tool vendors to see if they have plans to make their systems more actionable and less noisy. Find solutions to cover remaining gaps.

Review the operational value of each tool. If a tool is not providing enough useful information, or is generating too much noise, replace or eliminate it. With all the low-commitment software-as-a-service solutions available, it is easier than ever to swap tools. The goal is to build a CKC filled with actionable, effective tools that can:

  1. Detect attacks at each stage in the chain from inside and outside the organization.
  2. Provide actionable information to remediate the attack,
  3. Block the attack long enough for the security operations center to respond (bonus points if the hacker is deceived or disrupted as well).
  4. Quickly restore systems to a clean state.

With the right set of tools and trained staff, any organization should be able to deal with threats before information is compromised.

Related Content:

Ben Haley, SVP of Engineering of HOPZERO Security, has extensive experience monitoring application performance and identifying security vulnerabilities. He was the initial software engineering director at NetQoS where he led the development of the first scalable NetFlow ... View Full Bio

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User Rank: Moderator
1/27/2019 | 10:40:04 PM
They evolve just as much
There is just so much that we can do in the prevention of attacks. Regardless of how tough we think our security measures might be, attackers might just be even more advanced than we really are. That is simply how evolvement truly works and we need to stay ahead of the attackers in order to come up with a solution.
b haley
b haley,
User Rank: Author
1/23/2019 | 11:24:16 AM
Re: Just Sniff them out
Thank you for reading and engaging in this discussion. You are right that it takes time for hackers to do their work and time to detect them. That part is a race condition. Can we spot, block and remove the hacker before they accomplish their goal. There are several sides to tilt the odds in our favor. the 3 I think are most important are actionable alerts, quick remediation, and proactive defenses.

If our detection tools can identify attacks quickly, clearly, with relevant information, and with certainty; we can take action. Looking at the forensics from major breaches, we captured great intelligence and usually identified the attack many times. However, the security team didn't get the details or have confidence that it was a real problem in all the noise. That feels like a problem with clarity and certainty, not identification. Most pitches I hear are all about speed to detect. My core premise is a tool giving alerts that cannot be acted on will be ignored. It gives only a false sense of security.

We have tools to quickly isolate and remediate machines. No excuse for not having those in place.

Proactive defenses provide some space between the attack and its completion. We see attacks where it is clear the hackers know what they are after in terms of servers, applications and sometimes passwords. By the time someone sees an IDS alert, that hacker has the info they were after. An IPS that shuts off access is speeding up the time to isolation, but is still in a race and false alarms impact operations. When users complain, security tends to loosen constraints, making detection slower.

Proactive defenses, those in place before the hacker attacks, at least slow the attack. Not talking about esoteric here. Firewalls, MFA, DLP, honeybots... all put speedbumps in the path and detection points. My gold standard for actionable alert is someone logging into a honeypot. Hackers are wasting time and giving away information on where they are, what they are after and whose credentials they are using. Honeypots weakness is a hacker must find the honeypot a more attractive target than real systems. With inside knowledge or good luck, the hacker avoids those defenses.

Another proactive example is my company builds tools to limit traffic from the server side (opposite the firewall approach). If you try to access a server from too far away (outside the data center, outside the cluster, outside the company...), an alert identifies the attack source, destination and target app. At the same time, the server cannot respond to the attacker so it is effectifly cloaked. While the attacker is trying to figure why this machine they found in LDAP won't respond, the security team is taking action. That gives a proactive defense with highly actionable alarms.

User Rank: Strategist
1/22/2019 | 2:02:37 AM
Just Sniff them out
Well I don't think you're going to be a very successful hacker if you aren't at least able to hide long enough to get part of your hack in place right? Of course it will take a while for the systems to detect unauthorized entry. The most important part is how long it takes before they are discovered right?
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