Why Do Incidents Become Breaches?

Every year is declared the year of the breach. Breaches are growing in magnitude and damage done to customers, businesses and even nation-states. But most of the reported breaches indicate that organizations are unaware of ongoing attacks and the exfiltration of sensitive data from their networks for weeks, if not for months.

Why does it take so long for organizations to detect attacks? And why does it take federal authorities to inform breached organizations of an ongoing attack?

There are many reasons why organizations get breached. It could be tied to cybercriminals’ motives, which can vary from financial gain to hacktivism to state-sponsored espionage. Attackers can worm their way in due to lack of appropriate access controls, inability to manage vulnerabilities within the environment, lax security controls for vendors and third parties accessing critical enterprise systems, low security awareness among employees and more.

In this article, we focus on areas where many organizations fail to stop attacks before they become full-blown breaches.

Rapid Detection, Rapid Response

Industry studies have shown that the ability to quickly detect and respond to attacks within minutes or hours versus days or weeks has a significant positive impact on the organization. Security defense-in-depth architecture should be the foundation of any information security strategy.

However, with the evolving threat actors and attack vectors, the ability to rapidly detect threats and effectively respond to them is essential to protecting information assets and managing risk. Being able to quickly detect and respond to issues requires a combination of skilled resources, streamlined processes and robust technology.

Having these capabilities installed in your enterprise can prevent security incidents from becoming major breaches. Start by identifying and monitoring assets to locate issues early in their life cycle. Then you can respond quickly, following a comprehensive, preset plan.

Know Your Assets

Most organizations do not have an authoritative asset repository maintaining the details of all assets, such as owner, device type, operating system, etc. Whether you’re dealing with servers, network devices, user endpoints, printers, telephones or other assets, having a repository with current information is key.

In addition to having an asset repository, the information security team should have the ability to identify each and every device connected to the enterprise network at any given time. This will enable them to reach the right owners when the system is under attack or infected. They can then address the incident or quarantine the system before other systems are impacted. It also enables them to proactively identify and manage vulnerabilities to maintain the risk posture.

Monitor Those Assets

Most organizations do not collect and harness security intelligence generated by all the systems within the enterprise. Without the ability to detect suspicious or anomalous activities, it is difficult, if not impossible, to address or stop them. Security information and event management (SIEM) capabilities are very useful to collect and correlate the intelligence gathered internally.

Additional intelligence from external entities can be subscribed, if required, to proactively monitor the systems. However, not many organizations take advantage of this investment due to the lack of clear implementation strategy and inability to deploy efficient supporting processes.

Before implementing this technology, or any technology for that matter, an enterprisewide deployment strategy should be created. It begins with identifying all key assets (using the asset inventory) and categorizing those assets based on risk classification.

Use-case analyses should be performed to clearly identify all required critical events and validate information necessary to proactively detect threats. Consistent logging standards should be implemented to execute those use cases. The highest-risk assets — including firewalls, IDS/IPS, network devices, database and systems logs etc. — should be added in a phased approach until all required systems are integrated with the enterprise SIEM system.

Many organizations fail to optimize their monitoring policies, resulting in tremendous amounts of false positives. Sometimes this leads them to suppressing all alerts and making SIEM more of a log aggregator. This completely defeats the purpose of investing in a robust capability and does not derive good value from the investment. The security operations team should work with application, network and system administrators to fine-tune the monitoring policies to eliminate false positives and focus on flagging high-risk events.

Respond to Your Incidents

Just collecting intelligence and identifying anomalous activities will not help address incidents or threats; that requires a clearly defined playbook to respond to the anomalous events.

The first step is to develop a playbook to manage alerts by completing initial triage of the events, which will confirm whether they are valid or outliers. If those alerts are caused by a malicious attack or suspicious behavior, then an incident should be declared and appropriate incident response plans activated.

Incident response plans should be comprehensive enough to address any incidents or breaches at any given time. It should be able to instruct team members responding to any number of potential scenarios, including social engineering, spear phishing, ransomware, denial-of-service attacks and more.

The plans should also identify the key stakeholders and players from different teams who need to be involved. Addressing an incident requires a concerted effort from many teams, so having a list of contacts prepared is crucial when time is of the essence.

The response plans must have guidelines to activate the impacted systems after thorough checks are performed, which will help ensure no threat remains. Finally, the plan should require that a full incident report be generated and analysis performed to improve future response or update processes.

Preventing Breaches

Having an asset inventory, detection capabilities and a response plan will help organizations to detect incidents rapidly and respond appropriately before they become damaging data breaches.

Download the Ponemon Institute 2016 Global Cost of a Data Breach Study ]

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Umesh Yerram

Cybersecurity Strategy, Risk and Compliance Leader for North America, IBM

Umesh Yerram is an information security senior executive with over 16 years of progressive experience. He has a proven track record of building efficient and sustainable information security programs to meet business and compliance requirements, all while maximizing value from technology investments. He has helped fortune 500 companies assess the current state of their information security posture and developed over-arching enterprise information security strategy that is organized to manage risk, foster innovation and meet growing business and regulatory compliance requirements. He has helped fortune 500 companies perform information security budget evaluations based on risk mitigation to drive positive return on investment while managing the risk to the business. Umesh is an exceptional leader with a deep technical security skill set. He has partnered with Internal Audit, Federal and State Authorities, Auditor General's Office, Legal counsel and outside consultants on required cyber security initiatives and incidents. He has acted as a trusted advisor to C-level officers and boards of directors, providing regular “state of security” updates to improve information security and manage risk to the enterprise from new emerging threat vectors.