Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Business of Security Operations

When an organization decides to build, mature, or improve its security operations function, that decision will give rise to a building or maturing process.  That process will involve many important questions and a long list of tasks to complete.  The questions and tasks are a means to an end – the outcome of the process is what we’re ultimately interested in.  In my experience, some organizations end the process with a mature capability, while other organizations struggle to achieve maturity.  Why is this?  I’d like to take a look at some potential reasons in this post.  At a high level, security operations should be approached more like a business function and less like a laboratory exercise.

Self-Awareness:  Acknowledging that capabilities need to improve is often half the battle.  Self-awareness comes with a dose of humility that allows us to learn from others that have come before us.  There are a lot of lessons learned that can be leveraged, but the listener needs to be receptive to the input.  There is no shame in acknowledging the need to improve.  Quite the contrary -- it is to be applauded.

Vision:  In my experience, when it comes time to build or mature the security operations program, it is a natural tendency for an organization to immediately begin deploying technologies.  It’s important to remember that a clear and concise leadership vision is an essential pre-requisite to any action.  Before we can begin building capabilities, we need to understand towards what goal we are building.  Ultimately, a successful security operations program involves carefully leveraging people, process, and technology toward a focused vision.

People:  Once a vision has been articulated, it needs talented people to carry it out.  People form the foundation of a security operations program, and the right people are critical to its success.  It’s important to take adequate time to recruit and retain the appropriate staff.  It may be the case that an organization needs to bring in a trusted partner for the staffing process, and that is okay.  I have seen instances where poor staffing choices have been made, and they work against the vision, no matter how grand it is.

Process:  Like any business function, a good process is critical to a successful security operations program.  The process should be written at multiple levels, and it should serve to guide the organization’s human resources as they go about their daily tasks.  At the strategic level, the process should address goals, priorities, and high-level workflow.  At the operational and tactical levels, more depth and context should be included to provide specific instruction around categories of incidents and/or families of analysis, investigation, and response actions.  Aside from guiding the team, a detailed process also demonstrates to executives, partners, customers, and other stakeholders that the organization takes a formal approach to security.

Technology:  Obviously, technology is the third component of the people, process, and technology triad.  Technology should enable and empower people to execute the process and make the vision a reality, rather than work against that endeavor.  When purchasing technology, it’s important to identify technology that addresses operational needs – namely, gaps in the execution of the process that technology can help address.  Before technology is acquired, it should be matched to an operational need and integrated into the operational workflow.  I’ve seen many instances where numerous different technologies were procured without thinking strategically about where the different pieces fit operationally, and the results made creating a streamlined and efficient workflow difficult.

Workflow:  In most cases, resources are scarce in a security operations environment, and in particular, human resources are usually the scarcest.  Because of this, it’s important to develop alerting content designed to identify strategic risks to the organization.  This content should generate fewer alerts of higher quality and fidelity that are more actionable.  Quality is far more important than quantity here, and the signal-to-noise ratio should be high enough to facilitate timely detection.  All alerts should be sent to a unified work queue that analysts can be focused on, and each alert should be reviewed, vetted, analyzed, investigated, and responded to appropriately.  In my experience, there is no point in generating 100,000 alerts each day if you can realistically only handle several hundred of them properly on a given day.  The risk of missing an intrusion or breach because it was lost in the noise is simply too high.

Communication:  During execution of the incident response process, and during the course of daily security operations as well, communication is key.  Aside from metrics and other important information that need to be regularly communicated to leadership, communication serves another important purpose as well.  Relationships with upstream providers, peer organizations, professional associations, partners, customers, legal, privacy, and other stakeholders are incredibly important.  Having those relationships in place ahead of time can help ensure that when crunch time comes, the appropriate channels exist to disseminate, receive, and act upon information in a timely manner.

Information Sharing:  The knowledge of 100 organizations will always be greater than just one.  Sharing information allows us to broaden our perspective and view the challenges of security operations through a much larger lens.  Techniques, methodologies, and Indicators of Compromise (IOCs) are all great information that can be shared between organizations.  Those who give the most generally receive the most, and building street cred for your organization is important.  Sometimes, being remembered can mean the difference between getting timely intelligence and not getting that intelligence.

Building or maturing a security operations program is a serious endeavor and a time-consuming undertaking.  Because of this, it warrants a strategic business approach.  Taking this approach may require additional resources initially, but in the end, the forethought will be reflected in the quality of the program it produces.  With the sophistication of the modern attacker and the constantly evolving threat landscape, don’t we owe it to ourselves to approach security operations like we would any other important business function?

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