A W-2 Nor’easter: Digging SOC Analysts Out From Under Tax Fraud False Positives

If you’re on the East Coast, particularly in New England, you’ve likely gotten used to looking out your window at several feet of snow. As soon as we get ourselves shoveled out from one storm, another nor’easter is underway.

I can’t help but think this must be what it feels like to work in a security operations center (SOC) during tax (fraud) season. Even if analysts are able to shovel through a few virtual inches of ticketed events in their queue, tax season delivers an avalanche of W-2 fraud alerts. Analysts can’t possibly clear out all of the extra noise that comes their way this time of year.

Every time an employee uploads and sends tax documents containing sensitive information, an alert goes off, even if they are sending the documents to themselves or their accountants. And if we’re being honest, we know that employees are preparing tax documents at work.

Due to the proliferation of phishing and social engineering scams in which fraudsters attempt to lure users into sharing their tax returns, analysts are even more overwhelmed. And while New Englanders may be counting down the days until spring, analysts are waiting for the filing deadline so that they can put this season of heightened fraud behind them.

The Burden of Too Many Tools During Tax Fraud Season

The problem of having too many tools is a relatively new one for analysts, but it’s likely a contributing factor to the problem of false positives. When it comes to the sensitive information contained in W-2 forms, some data loss prevention (DLP) policies can be counterproductive in quieting alert noise.

Social Security numbers are being sent outside of the organization, but with user consent and for legitimate reasons. DLP rules flag these exchanges, which then creates a tricky situation for analysts. While the likelihood of risk is low, they shouldn’t ignore alerts of sensitive data being accessed and exchanged. This surge in security alerts demands a second look.

Advances in security tools have made it easier to centralize data and sort through the noise so that analysts can respond faster. However, a recent Enterprise Security Group (ESG) survey suggested that having too many tools is a growing issue for cybersecurity teams. Of the 412 respondents, 72 percent reported that cybersecurity analytics and operations are more difficult today than in recent years. In looking at the current state of cybersecurity, the survey found that 70 percent of organizations are using between 10 and 50 different tools, and 10 percent are using more than 50. “Each tool comes with its own installation, configuration, maintenance, compute, storage and networking requirements and generates data that must be managed and assimilated,” the report noted.

Too many tools and too much data, combined with this wave of W-2 fraud alerts, has created blizzardlike white-out conditions for analysts. In addition to all the other alerts, many of which could be more critical, they need to go back and review what looks like normal tax season activity. Verifying these false positives consumes a lot of time.

To increase productivity and efficiency, SOC analysts don’t need more tools — they need the right tools. ESG survey respondents said they want to add more intelligent security analytics tools to ease the burden on their existing staff. More than a quarter (27 percent) want to improve their ability to investigate critical alerts and decrease the amount of time for incident detection. A slightly smaller number of respondents (22 percent) aim to improve their ability to prioritize critical alerts.

Forget the Shovel — SOC Analysts Need a Plow

While there is an end in sight for tax season, it’s important to remember that different types of cyber storms create additional burdens for analysts all year long. It’s too easy to dismiss the surge in W-2 alerts as a seasonal issue that will resolve itself as time marches on.

Avoid leaving your analysts out in the cold by investing in the right tools that work in harmony with each other as part of the organization’s overall security ecosystem. Proactive data loss prevention requires a set of tools that allows security professionals to prioritize alerts and quickly identify false positives.

With so much snow on the ground, a shovel isn’t the most effective or efficient tool for analysts to dig themselves out of this digital blizzard. It’s a tool that an individual might use to clear out his or her driveway, but there’s a reason why teams of people aren’t out shoveling on the highways. When the job requires a plow, you must use a plow.

Zurkus is an influential writer covering a range of security topics with a focus on mitigating risks to businesses. Her...