Threat Assessment & Cyber Security

One rainy Richmond evening last week I attended the monthly dinner meeting of one of the professional organizations of which I’m a member.  Our guest speaker’s presentation was outstanding and, in my opinion, well worth sharing with fellow CFE’s especially as we find more and more of our client’s grappling with the reality of  ever-evolving cyber threats.

Our speaker started by indicating that, according to a wide spectrum of current thinking, technology issues in isolation should be but one facet of the overall cyber defense strategy of any enterprise. A holistic view on people, process and technology is required in any organization that wants to make its chosen defense strategy successful and, to be most successful, that strategy needs to be supplemented with a good dose of common sense creative thinking. That creative thinking proved to be the main subject of her talk.

Ironically, the sheer size, complexity and geopolitical diversity of the modern-day enterprise can constitute an inherent obstacle for its goal of achieving business objectives in a secured environment.  The source of the problem is not simply the cyber threats themselves, but threat agents. The term “threat agent,” from the Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP), is used to indicate an individual or group that can manifest a threat. Threat agents are represented by the phenomena of:

–Corporate Espionage;
–Government Actors;
–Common Criminals (individual and organized).

Irrespective of the type of threat, the threat agent takes advantage of an identified vulnerability and exploits it in the attempt to negatively impact the value the individual business has at risk. The attempt to execute the threat in combination with the vulnerability is called hacking. When this attempt is successful, and the threat agent can negatively impact the value at risk, it can be concluded that the vulnerability was successfully exploited. So, essentially, enterprises are trying to defend against hacking and, more importantly, against the threat agent that is the hacker in his or her many guises. The ACFE identifies hacking as the single activity that has resulted in the greatest number of cyber breaches in the past decade.

While there is no one-size-fits-all standard to build and run a sustainable security defense in a generic enterprise context, most companies currently deploy something resembling the individual components of the following general framework:

–Business Drivers and Objectives;
–A Risk Strategy;
–Policies and Standards;
–Risk Identification and Asset Profiling;
–People, Process, Technology;
–Security Operations and Capabilities;
–Compliance Monitoring and Reporting.

Most IT risk and security professionals would be able to identify this framework and agree with the assertion that it’s a sustainable approach to managing an enterprise’s security landscape. Our speaker pointed out, however, that in her opinion, if the current framework were indeed working as intended, the number of security incidents would be expected to show a downward trend as most threats would fail to manifest into full-blown incidents. They could then be routinely identified by enterprises as known security problems and dealt with by the procedures operative in day-to-day security operations. Unfortunately for the existing framework, however, recent security surveys conducted by numerous organizations and trade groups clearly show an upward trend of rising security incidents and breaches (as every reader of daily press reports well knows).

The rising tide of security incidents and breaches is not surprising since the trade press also reports an average of 35 new, major security failures on each and every day of the year.  Couple this fact with the ease of execution and ready availability of exploit kits on the Dark Web and the threat grows in both probability of exploitation and magnitude of impact. With speed and intensity, each threat strikes the security structure of an enterprise and whittles away at its management credibility to deal with the threat under the routine, daily operational regimen presently defined. Hence, most affected enterprises endure a growing trend of negative security incidents experienced and reported.

During the last several years, in response to all this, many firms have responded by experimenting with a new approach to the existing paradigm. These organizations have implemented emergency response teams to respond to cyber-threats and incidents. These teams are a novel addition to the existing control structure and have two main functions: real-time response to security incidents and the collection of concurrent internal and external security intelligence to feed predictive analysis. Being able to respond to security incidents via a dedicated response team boosts the capacity of the operational organization to contain and recover from attacks. Responding to incidents, however efficiently, is, in any case, a reactive approach to deal with cyber-threats but isn’t the whole story. This is where cyber-threat intelligence comes into play. Threat intelligence is a more proactive means of enabling an organization to predict incidents. However, this approach also has a downside. The influx of a great deal of intelligence information may limit the ability of the company to render it actionable on a timely basis.

Cyber threat assessments are an effective means to tame what can be this overwhelming influx of intelligence information. Cyber threat assessment is currently recognized in the industry as red teaming, which is the practice of viewing a problem from an adversary or competitor’s perspective. As part of an IT security strategy, enterprises can use red teams to test the effectiveness of the security structure as a whole and to provide a relevance factor to the intelligence feeds on cyber threats. This can help CEOs decide what threats are relevant and have higher exposure levels compared to others. The evolution of cyber threat response, cyber threat
intelligence and cyber threat assessment (red teams) in conjunction with the existing IT risk framework can be used as an effective strategy to counter the agility of evolving cyber threats. The cyber threat assessment process assesses and challenges the structure of existing enterprise security systems, including designs, operational-level controls and the overall cyber threat response and intelligence process to ensure they remain capable of defending against current relevant exploits.

Cyber threat assessment exercises can also be extremely helpful in highlighting the most relevant attacks and in quantifying their potential impacts. The word “adversary” in the definition of the term ‘red team’ is key in that it emphasizes the need to independently challenge the security structure from the view point of an attacker.  Red team exercises should be designed to be independent of the scope, asset profiling, security, IT operations and coverage of existing security policies. Only then can enterprises realistically apply the attacker’s perspective, measure the success of its risk strategy and see how it performs when challenged. It’s essential that red team exercises have the freedom to treat the complete security structure and to point to flaws in all components of the IT risk framework. It’s a common notion that a red team exercise is a penetration test. This is not the case. Use of penetration test techniques by red teams is a means to identify the information required to replicate cyber threats and to create a controlled security incident. The technical shortfalls that are identified during standard penetration testing are mere symptoms of gaps that may exist in the governance of people, processes and technology. Hence, to make the organization more resilient against cyber threats, red team focus should be kept on addressing the root cause and not merely on fixing the security flaws discovered during the exercise. Another key point is to include cyber threat response and threat monitoring in the scope of such assessments. This demands that red team exercises be executed, and partially announced, with CEO-level approval. This ensures that enterprises challenge the end-to-end capabilities of an enterprise to cope with a real-time security incident. Lessons learned from red teaming can be documented to improve the overall security posture of the organization and as an aid in dealing with future threats.

Our speaker concluded by saying that as cyber threats evolve, one-hundred percent security for an active business is impossible to achieve. Business is about making optimum use of existing resources to derive the desired value for stakeholders. Cyber-defense cannot be an exception to this rule. To achieve optimized use of their security investments, CEOs should ensure that security spending for their organization is mapped to the real emerging cyber threat landscape. Red teaming is an effective tool to challenge the status quo of an enterprise’s security framework and to make informed judgements about the actual condition of its actual security posture today. Not only can the judgements resulting from red team exercises be used to improve cyber threat defense, they can also prove an effective mechanism to guide a higher return on cyber-defense investment.

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