Active defense requires a simplified security operations center
- By Chris Calvert
- Oct 22, 2020
When confronted with a constantly changing threat landscape, regulations, security vendors and technologies, simplicity is the best friend of any security operations center (SOC).
This is especially true for public-sector SOCs with resource constraints. Few organizations of any stripe are getting a good return on investment from their SOCs, including the money they on spend on salaries, training or technology platforms. Bigger budgets aren’t the answer because agencies can never hire enough people to keep up with the data and alert volume, and spending more on technology compounds the problem. It adds more complexity and reduces agility and flexibility
Complexity is cumulative, unfortunately. In government it is often the result of staff turnover, vendors acquiring other companies and departmental reorganizations. Even if an agency decides it wants to simplify security operations, just getting started can be overwhelming.
Focusing on control frameworks will help agencies evolve their security strategies to confidently reduce risk and complexity.
A framework for thinking like the enemy
Less complexity allows the SOC to embrace a mindset of active defense. In this way, the security analysts become investigators rather just specialized IT staff reacting to tickets and alerts.
Agencies can assess the effectiveness of an SOC’s visibility and detection measures to uncover areas for improvement with the MITRE ATT&CK framework. ATT&CK, which stands for Adversarial Tactics, Techniques, and Common Knowledge, enables cybersecurity teams to think like the threat actors they are combatting. It creates an environment where adversarial behaviors across the attack lifecycle are understood and provides a common taxonomy for threat analysis and research.
This framework helps analysts build a knowledge base so they can adopt their adversary’s perspective; they’re able to understand the techniques used by bad actors and more actively defend the organization though holistic threat detection and response. It’s predictive rather than reactive. It enables an SOC to build systemic immunity so the specific threat is permanently neutralized across the enterprise.
Controls support agility and flexibility
MITRE ATT&CK is one of many available frameworks, but regardless of what strategy agencies adopt, success requires aligning defensive controls to the chosen framework, so systems are less vulnerable to attack.
ATT&CK techniques often involve adjustments to credential access. If an adversary attempts to steal a web session cookie, IT teams can harden authentication mechanisms, so a session cookie is insufficient for authenticating with another system. Credential access changes can also prevent threat actor from modifying authentication mechanisms and processes to gain unauthorized access to accounts. Controls such as multi-factor authentication and privileged account management can be adjusted to thwart adversaries who try to manipulate accounts to maintain access to victim systems by modifying credentials or permission groups or performing iterative password updates.
Aligning security controls must be independent of the chosen technology platforms and the environment, whether it’s on premise, cloud or hybrid-cloud.
Attack complexity across environments
Few government entities have gone all in with the cloud. Public-sector organizations still have many on-premise systems that must be secured, as well as hybrid-cloud environments -- and that means there is complexity.
Streamlining and standardizing enterprise applications and platforms can go a long way to reduce complexity, but often the SOC team doesn’t have a say in what gets deployed even though they still must secure it. Beyond frameworks and applying controls, there are best practices that can reduce complexity.
Key among them is understanding shared responsibility. When there are multiple on-premises and cloud-based systems, responsibility for security configuration can differ wildly. The same application from different cloud services providers may allocate security responsibility differently -- there may be more onus on the agency than the provider.
Even if agencies can’t control the environments deployed by IT, security leaders can limit the number of technology platforms the SOC employs to monitor and secure them so the team can embrace a framework such MITRE ATT&CK, rather than staring at consoles all day.
Key criteria for platform rationalization should be the depth of each one and their collective ability to achieve integrated reasoning, without having to rip and replace or get locked in by vendors with siloed solutions. Select a single, optimum platform for each category, even if that takes a best of breed approach and includes open source options. The goal is a platform that can monitor applications in one place regardless of where it resides.
Active defense and getting the most from investments in people and technology means simplifying in areas that can be controlled. Selecting a framework, applying security controls and rationalizing platforms will give an agency’s team the agility and flexibility to anticipate their adversary’s next move and achieve active and effective defense.
Chris Calvert is co-founder and CTO of Respond Software.