Cyber-attacks: Gaining Increased Insight at the moment of the breach

Anthony Di Bello
Triage – the prioritizing of patients’ treatments based on how urgently they need care – saves lives when order of care decisions must be made. Medical teams base their decisions on the symptoms they can see and the conditions they can diagnose. I’m sure the process isn’t perfect, especially in the midst of a crisis, but skilled medics can prioritize care based on their knowledge and experience.

For IT incident response teams, cyber attacks and incidents also happen quickly, but the symptoms could go unnoticed until it’s too late, particularly in regards to targeted attacks for specific data such as medical records or cardholder data. In a previous post, I've discussed the challenges security teams have regarding mean time to detection and response. Despite the team’s knowledge and experience when it comes to dealing with incidents, without the right information – right away – it’s nearly impossible for the team to make the “triage” decisions needed to mitigate as much risk as they otherwise could.

On the other hand, suppose a number of employees have just clicked on links tucked away in a cleverly crafted phishing e-mail, and their end points infiltrated. As the attackers launch exploits aimed at applications on their end points, security alerts are kicked out from the endpoint security software. When there’s a mass attack, such as one that involves automated malware, hundreds or even thousands of end points can be infected simultaneously. It’s not hard for any organization to see when an incident like this is underway.

In either scenario, what’s one of the most crucial aspects of response? Beyond the ability to quickly identify that an attack is underway, the other – just as in triage – is to be able to identify what systems pose the greatest risk to security or contain sensitive data and require immediate response. In many cases, systems affected by a malware attack, for instance, may just need to be restored to a known safe state, while other systems – those with critical access to important systems or containing sensitive information – would need immediate attention so that risk can be properly mitigated.

Once an attack or incident is discovered, the clock begins to tick as you scope, triage, and remedy the damage. Every delay and false positive costs you time and money, and increases the risk of significant loss or widespread damage. The problem is compounded by lack of visibility into the troves of sensitive data potentially being stored in violation of policy.

One of the most effective things to do – whether looking at 500 systems that have been infected all at once or getting reports of dozens if not hundreds of unrelated incidents – is to decide which system breaches place the organization at greatest risk. 

There are a number of ways you can try to accomplish this. For instance, a notebook that is breached, which happens to be operated by a research scientist, could very likely contain more sensitive information than that of a salesperson. But what if a developer’s system gets breached? What if someone in marketing gets breached? Who knows, offhand, what risk that could entail. Perhaps the developer was running a test on an application with thousands of real-world credit card numbers. Maybe the person in marketing was carrying confidential information on a yet-to-be-released product. 

In either case, it’d be helpful to know if sensitive data resided on the systems. And with alerts and potential breaches coming in so quickly, one would think it’s nearly impossible to make such decisions on the fly? Fortunately, it’s not. We’ve written in the past about the importance of automation when it comes to incident response, and how the marriage of security information and event management and incident response can help improve organizations respond to security events. Now, here’s another technology that you might want to consider using with your incident response systems, and that’s the ability to conduct content scans, such as those that look for critical data, financial account data, personality identifiable information, and other sensitive content either on a scheduled basis, or automatically in response to an alert. 

Consider for a moment the potential value such a capability brings most organizations. First, it provides powerful insight that helps prioritize which systems get evaluated first. If several systems are hit by a targeted attack, you’ll instantly know which systems to focus your attention on for containment and remediation. Second, you may know, from the types of systems that are being targeted what data or information the attackers seek. This will give you valuable time, potentially very early in the attack, to tighten your defenses accordingly. Third, because you’ll have actionable information, you'll have a fighting chance at clamping down on the attack before many records are accessed, or at least mitigating the attack as quickly as modern technology and your procedures allow.

Unlike triage in health care, lives may not be at stake – but critical data and information certainly are. And anything that can be done, such as coupling incident response with intelligent content scans and immediately capturing time-sensitive end point data the moment an alert is generated, will increase the overall effectiveness of your security and incident response efforts, and help you understand immediately if sensitive data is at risk.

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