The Myth of One-Hour Forensics

September 8, 2015
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3 min read

Remember “The Myth of the Obvious Malware,” and how successful malware is sneaky and engineered to be well-hidden, like a subtle email with an obfuscated link to a malware download? Unsurprisingly, this sneakiness means it is hard to detect without sophisticated analytics and robust forensics capabilities. This is no one-hour story arc as we’ve all seen in television crime dramas; there are no transparent touch screens and witty one-liners before the first commercial break. I guess you could say our best hope is that the cybercriminals … *puts on sunglasses*… haven’t gone phishing.

The Forensics Evidence Doesn’t Lie

Last year, the Ponemon Institute, in conjunction with IBM Security, released a market study on network forensics investigations that broke down the forensics process into five major steps: detection, escalation, containment, recovery and post-mortem. Unsurprisingly, the detection and recovery phases take up the most time in the investigation — a combined 70 percent of the total — since these phases involve the bulk of the heavy lifting in the investigation. Detection, at 35 percent of the total time, is similar to finding the body and all the evidence. Although on television the body is laid out in the first three-minute opening scene, in real life, security forensics investigators are likely spending a good bit of time trying to figure out if a breach or attack actually happened.

In fact, Ponemon reported that only 31 percent of the time did breaches turn out to be real attacks. What a horrible show that would be: You expect to have a crime to solve each week, but only every third episode produced a body and the rest was just forensics investigators drinking coffee while tediously sifting through all possible evidence.

Once the figurative body is found in the network, investigators need to trace back what actually happened. There are a number of tools available to help with this, and many organizations use packet captures (PCAP) to aid in the investigations — 69 percent, in fact. The trouble is that this evidence is nearly as fleeting as the villain of the week since full packet capture is only stored on average for 10 days. But more on that later.

Results May Vary

If a toxicology test is ordered on TV, you can bet the results will be in by the next commercial break. The results are delivered wordlessly to the lead investigator with a meaningful stare and some eyebrow twitches as the analyst withholds the name from the audience for maximum suspense. Frankly, if any security professional attempted to name an attacker only through stares and eyebrow twitches, well… Maybe that’s how we get cybercriminal names like Ch0$3n0ne.

In real life, the Ponemon study shows that, from detection to containment for a breach like the one cited above, the average time to complete a forensics investigation is nearly a full week. It’s even longer for an insider attack. Having those 10 days of packet captures from before is plenty of time, then, to completely solve the crime.

A different Ponemon study, though, shows that malware can stay undetected on the network for up to 225 days. Then that initial attack vector is long gone from the 10 days of PCAP storage records. The trick is to detect the crime before that first commercial break — or, in the real world, within days of it happening.

The Twist Ending

The evidence was right in front of you the entire time: Security intelligence is the key. Detection capabilities that gather all the evidence in logs and network flows and focus in on anomalous behavior are necessary to figure out that an attack has occurred.

To then decipher the evidence, you can’t rely on the bad guys writing their malware in red while the good, regular code is in green. A good incident forensics solution can retrace the step-by-step actions of attackers and reconstruct raw network data while seamlessly integrating with a security intelligence platform and significantly shortening the time to investigate the incident to days instead of weeks.

Although a forensics solution doesn’t provide built-in car chases, dramatic underwater rescues or the opportunity to rough up a perp in interrogation, it does provide a solid — and fast — foundation to do forensics analysis, and it would look pretty cool on a transparent touch screen, too.

Read the complete Network Forensic Investigations Market Study from Ponemon Institute

Pamela Cobb
Market Segment Manager, IBM X-Force and Security Intelligence

Pamela Cobb directs product marketing activities for the IBM X-Force and Threat Protection offerings developing messaging, collateral, website content. She c...
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