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Security Think Tank: Approaches to strengthening security operations

How can organisations evolve their security operations teams to do more automation of basic tasks and cope with dynamic IT environments?

Security operations is a weak area in a lot of organisations because they do not have incident response plans in place. They do not proactively monitor for security incidents, they do not practice their incident response and they are not prepared for “cloud scale” incidents.

There are a couple of sides to this issue that are well understood by larger organisations and regulated industries, like financial services, as they are critical to remaining in business. I will touch on the two most significant, and explore the lessons we may draw from that understanding.

1. Automation

Automation is key as any organisation scales up in size or activity or observes increasing attacks. It lets them handle more of the “noise” and to allow information security professionals to concentrate on difficult and unusual incidents.

It’s worth remembering, however, that staff in security operations may not be accustomed to writing code – a skill that may be essential to handle some types of incoming threats and even develop automated systems to deal with them at scale.

So, how can we address this? One upside of the proliferation of security tools that work across diverse environments is there are almost certainly tools that will work out of the box to a reasonable degree for small- to medium-sized organisations (and professionals who may lack that coding expertise).

For instance, monitoring and logging agents, collection tools, data miners, heuristic analysis tools and even elements of machine learning can help to build a model of what “good” traffic and behaviours look like.

The connectivity between a lot of these tools already exist, and so there is a distinct improvement organisations can implement without the need to train or hire coders to develop and maintain automated solutions. That being said, these tools are definitely not a silver bullet.

They will improve your situation to a certain degree, not fix it. And they will not necessarily teach you very much about your environment or the threats facing it, as a lot of the information automated tools pick up about your environment may not be presented to you in the most useful way.

Larger, regulated organisations extensively use automation as a core part of security and continue to invest further in this area, as the sheer scale of threats combined with complex global environments means it would be impossible to manage security threats and incidents any other way.

For them, thousands of attacks are identified, defended and logged automatically, with only those requiring human action raising alerts. To do this, at a scale equal to the increased workload, there are teams of developers both in-house and at security providers to customise the tooling appropriately.

A global organisation with a few hundred points of presence, hundreds of key applications on thousands of servers, across multiple operating systems, is not going to find an off-the-shelf solution which encompasses every aspect of its security solution.

For larger organisations, the decision to invest in diverse security operations teams is essential and usually forms part of the overall operational security strategy. As threats continue to evolve, this strategy is formulated to support the business in years to come and pre-empt future threats. Smaller organisations should ensure there is at least some in-house expertise – and retain or develop this as the company grows.

2. Incident Response

In parallel, developing effective incident response processes can make life much easier for the teams involved, and again, this is an area that many smaller organisations could benefit from improving.

For example, a small company that suffers a security incident may learn about it from the media – particularly if it is a data breach, or from systems failures. At this late stage, it usually requires an “all hands on deck” approach, which instantly impacts that company, having a domino effect on other functions.

Building effective playbooks of all the steps required during a security incident in the same way large enterprises do means there is very little wasted effort. Understanding every individual’s role in the incident helps identify efficiencies in underlying processes, while minimising mistakes.

One useful outcome of developing playbooks is understanding where automation can replace humans at critical times. An important candidate for automation is initial triage, which can reduce the number of incidents requiring a full team to assemble by narrowing it down to team, location, type of incident etc., or in some cases, completing incident resolution without human intervention.

Playbook and incident response examples are available online, but many small-to-medium organisations should think about using external consultancy to provide this. Professional organisations like ISF, ISACA and ISC2 are also good value, as they provide useful guidance and information to their members.

Whether or not you develop your incident response processes in house, or have help, it is essential to test them regularly, as your organisation will change over time. If your incident responses cover your data centre but you have moved to a cloud platform and not updated your playbooks, how will you know what checks need to be carried out, or what instances need to be updated?

In summary, across both tooling and incident processes, most organisations should consider external assistance as a key development boost to build, or reassess regularly. But whether you buy in tools and consultancy or use third party managed services, ensure you retain in-house expertise to manage and retain knowledge of the organisation to ensure those tools, processes and services are current and appropriate.

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