Recent breaches show traditional security defenses fail to deliver

Anthony Di Bello

We’ve highlighted in numerous posts that studies of security incidents and publicly disclosed breaches reveal that it’s all too common for attacks to go unnoticed for days, weeks, months, and even years. And, nearly as troubling, it’s rarely the breached organization that discovers that it’s been compromised – rather it’s usually a customer, partner, supplier, or even law enforcement that eventually notices something is awry and brings it to victims’ attention.

All of that was certainly true with the South Carolina Department of Revenue attack that we covered here. In this incident, the post-breach investigation found that the compromise occurred in mid-September and wasn't detected until mid-October. And when it was detected, it was done so by the United States Secret Service, which happened to be conducting a sting against the group that was responsible for the attack.

So what happened regarding this breach? As we learn more, it’s clear that time was working against the South Carolina Department of Revenue. To be fair, this is true for all targeted attacks. Take a look at the illustration below, from the 2012 Verizon data breach investigation report, which accurately demonstrates the scope of this challenge. The data in the figure below are the result of thousands of investigations that were conducted last year both by Verizon and a number of government agencies from multiple countries, including the United States Secret Service.

When looking at the various time spans between attack and response in all of those incident investigations, disturbing patterns emerge. Specifically, patterns appear when attack life cycles are segmented into four stages: the time between initial attack and compromise; the time between the initial compromise and data being stolen from the target; the time between that compromise and the point at which it was discovered; and finally the time between the discovery of that compromise and remediation.

The data find that attackers can exfiltrate data at best in a matter of hours, or days, and at worse in a span of only minutes. Once in, attackers have shown again and again that they have the ability to begin exfiltrating data as soon as they’ve compromised a system.

And this isn’t just a handful of organizations; it is thousands. This proves that the status quo provided by traditional security software simply isn’t good enough. And the reality is that after attackers have had weeks, or months, to rummage through a network, simply wiping servers and endpoints isn’t going to rid the infection. The attacker has had too much time to plant backdoors and create ways to burrow back in. 

Identify unknown, suspicious behaviors
What’s needed are ways to identify unknown, suspicious behaviors on endpoints. This is best achieved by performing periodic assessments designed to expose unknown running applications that exist in temporary memory; instances of known threats that morph (such as the Zeus banking Trojan); and the ability to conduct ongoing scans for variants of such threats in order to fully understand and address the scope of a successful attack against your infrastructure.

Additionally, and in order to reduce your attack surface, you also need to be able to audit endpoints for sensitive data, which in all likelihood, are the target of the attackers’ activity. By limiting pools of sensitive and confidential data, you can significantly reduce risk.

EnCase Cybersecurity helps in many of these efforts. First, EnCase Cybersecurity conducts network-wide system integrity assessments against a known good baseline that has been established. Essentially, what you are doing is performing regularly scheduled audits for anomalies across the range of endpoints. And it works because, while you don’t know what the unknown looks like, you do know what the baseline looks like. This allows you to look at everything that doesn’t match that baseline, so you then can decide whether it's something that's good (and should be added to a trusted profile), or if you've been exposed to a malicious attack that needs to be remedied and added to known bad profiles for future integrity audit scans.

How does EnCase Cybersecurity achieve this? It does so by leveraging the concept of entropy for similar file scans. Consider it a very fuzzy signature, but not an exact match, that the system is assessing. It doesn’t matter what kind of files are being evaluated – EnCase Cybersecurity will expose the files and processes used by advanced attacks that are easily missed by traditional security technologies, such as intrusion detection systems and anti-malware software.

We’ve recently completed a webinar on this topic, Hunt or be Hunted: Exposing Undetected Threats with EnCase Cybersecurity, that provides much more detail about how EnCase Cybersecurity helps to defend against advanced, clandestine attacks. I invite you to watch, and learn how your organization can proactively ferret out any possible breaches before it’s too late and attackers have had time to entrench themselves into your infrastructure.

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