Data Breaches & Threats | Operational resilience

June 11, 2019

Few organisations have the resilience to suffer a cyberattack as large as the one the Australian National University (ANU) notified last week.  Data breaches of this magnitude certainly take their toll, and in this case the ANU will be feeling the pain for some time to come. But what happened and how can organisations better prepare themselves for this kind of attack?

What happened to ANU is not unusual

Apparently up to 19 years’ worth of personally identifiable data about ANU’s students, staff and visitors was stolen in this breach. Records include names, addresses, phone numbers, dates of birth, email addresses, tax file numbers and even bank account details, not to mention passport details and student academic records. ANU’s Vice Chancellor, Brian Schmidt, said in an open letter on their website, that the breach occurred towards the end of 2018, yet was only detected in May of this year. That is a very long time for a hacker to remain undetected, yet it is not as unusual as you would like to think.

Dwell time is increasing

The dwell time of a cyber intruder is a metric used to describe how long an adversary goes undetected on your network once they have found a way in. In 2018, a study by the Ponemon Institute found the average dwell time is 196 days, which means the attacker has on average around half a year to look around for data, monitor how the organisation operates and cover their tracks. Moreover, even when threats are detected, it takes a further 69 days to respond (Ponemon Institute).

So how can organisations better defend against sophisticated attacks to reduce the time from infection to detection, and detection to response?

Auditing, Accounting, Monitoring, Alerting and Compliance

Most organisations have information that should be secured, be it customer data, IP or commercial data. Cyber criminals can monetise all that data, while nation states may be seeking a commercial or economic advantage, or a national security edge. To counteract this kind of continued barrage of cyber-attacks, there are considerations business leaders should be aware of that provide options to manage these risks.

Firstly, auditing is the practice of reviewing who has accessed what information, making sure that only those who should be interacting with certain kinds of data have been accessing it. Interestingly, in describing auditing, notice that it relates to a point in time. Auditing is typically a retrospective process and audits are usually scheduled activities that review how the organisation was operating at that point in time and suggests improvements should issues be found. Organisations should always have an audit function as part of their corporate governance. This isn’t about being proactive, but it puts the next controls we will discuss into a reviewable schedule and focuses the security team’s efforts over extended cycles where improvements and issues can be easily measured, highlighted then improved.

“Accounting” is a real-time function where your systems and processes ensure they record who has accessed what. This accounting information is used by your audit team to review who has been accessing what data and systems. But this accounting information can also be intercepted in real-time to help detect unauthorised access as it happens, so cutting that dwell time down to a less dangerous level. Systems should be set up to produce as much accounting information as is useful to your needs – luckily most modern systems can produce copious volumes of logging, so you’ll have no issue generating this data. The bigger question is, what can you do with all that data?

Next Gen SIEM reduces infection to detection time

Monitoring and compliance are the two most important parts of your defensive strategy that should be prioritised. Once you are sure you are producing all necessary accounting information, you’ll need a means of triaging that data and identifying issues. This is where a Security Information and Event Management (SIEM) system comes in; it ingests logs from any kind of data source, be it a network device, operating systems or application. Log data is then passed to a machine learning system and correlation engine to detect patterns of activity or behaviours that are suspicious, alerting on any potentially nefarious behaviour to your security team.

Next Generation SIEM products have built-in behavioural anomaly detection (BAD or UEBA) that can also look for unusual patterns of activity that might otherwise appear unthreatening. For example, an administrator who changes working hours to coming in at night, could be indicative of an account breach, or might mean the administrator’s personal circumstances have changed, which might also be a threat.

Security Orchestration and Automated Response (SOAR) reduces detection to response time

Next Generation SIEM plus security orchestration and automated response (SOAR) brings an even more powerful and unique response capability – it reduces the time from threat detection to response.  The technology automatically verifies threats to reduce the number of false positives left for  analysts to investigate.

Continuous monitoring of security control effectiveness

Compliance in its traditional form is closely associated with auditing – auditing against specific external standards. However, the principles of compliance can be applied to the day to day management of an organisation’s performance to improve cyber resilience and reduce risk.

There are monitoring technologies available today that have changed the meaning of compliance to align with real-time monitoring, insomuch that you can receive an immediate alert when the measure of a security control’s effectiveness changes or degrades. Scorecard capabilities do a high-level wrap-up of all the systems sitting behind a security control’s requirement, to represent them in a way that can be quickly interpreted. The detail relating to individual systems is sent to the relevant operational team, but the imperative to be compliant at the organisational level can drive the prioritisation of work, based on management’s understanding of what’s most important to their organisation.

Be proactive using continuous monitoring

Organisations should not wait until they are breached to begin a security improvement project – it can take just one breach to see your organisation go from thriving to crippled.

By taking an holistic, continuous approach to auditing, accounting, monitoring, alerting and compliance, your organisation can maintain its long term security goals, demonstrate adherence to external regulatory frameworks, while detecting even the most complex of threats.  Be proactive… reduce the dwell time of your organisation.


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