INSIGHTS | October 11, 2012

SexyDefense Gets Real

As some of you know by now, the recent focus of my research has been defense. After years of dealing almost exclusively with offensive research, I realized that we have been doing an injustice to ourselves as professionals. After all, we eventually get to help organizations protect themselves (having the mindset that the best way to learn defense is to study the offensive techniques), but nevertheless, when examining how organizations practice defense one has a feeling of missing something.

For far too long the practice (and art?) of defense has been entrusted to bureaucrats and was lowered down to a technical element that is a burden on an organization. We can see it from the way that companies have positioned defensive roles: “firewall admin,” “IT security manager,” “incident handler,” and even the famous “CISO.” CISOs have been getting less and less responsibility over time, basically watered down to dealing with the network/software elements of the organization’s security. No process, no physical, no human/social. These are all handled by different roles in the company (audit, physical security, and HR, respectively).

This has led to the creation of the marketing term “APT”: Advanced Persistent Threat. The main reason why non-sophisticated attackers are able to deploy an APT is the fact that organizations are focusing on dealing with extremely narrow threat vectors; any threat that encompasses multiple attack vectors that affect different departments in an organization automatically escalates into an APT since it is “hard” to deal with such threats. I call bullshit on that.

As an industry, we have not really been supportive of the defensive front. We have been pushing out products that deal mainly with past threats and are focused on post-mortem detection of attacks. Anti-virus systems, firewalls, IDS, IPS, and DLP – these are all products that are really effective against attacks from yesteryears. We ignore a large chunk of the defense spectrum nowadays, and attackers are happily using this against us, the defenders.

When we started SexyDefense, the main goal was to open the eyes of defensive practitioners, from the hands-on people to executive management. The reason for this is that this syndrome needs to be fixed throughout the ranks. I already mentioned that the way we deal with security in terms of job titles is wrong. It’s also true for the way we approach it on Day 1. We make sure that we have all the products that industry best practices tell us to have (which are from the same vendors that have been pushing less-than-effective products for years), and then we wait for the alert telling us that we have been compromised for days or weeks.

What we should be doing is first understanding what are we protecting! How much is it worth to the organization? What kind of processes, people, and technologies “touch” those assets, and how do they affect it? What kind of controls are there to protect such assets? And ultimately, what are the vulnerabilities in processes, people, and technologies related to said assets?

These are tough questions – especially if you are dealing with an “old school” practice of security in a large organization. Now try asking the harder question: who is your threat? No, don’t say hackers! Ask the business line owners, the business development people, sales, marketing, and finance. These are the people who probably know best what are the threats to the business, and who is out there to get it. Now align that information with the asset related ones, and you get a more complete picture of what you are protecting, and from whom. In addition, you can already see which controls are more or less effective against such threats, as it’s relatively easy to figure out the capabilities, intent, and accessibility of each adversary to your assets.

Now, get to work! But don’t open that firewall console or that IPS dashboard. “Work” means gathering intelligence on your threat communities, keeping track of organizational information and changes, and owning up to your home-field advantage. You control the information and resources used by the organization. Use them to your advantage to thwart threats, to detect intelligence gathering against your organization, to set traps for attackers, and yes, even to go the whole 9 yards and deal with counterintelligence. Whatever works within the confines of the law and ethics.

If this sounds logical to you, I invite you to read my whitepaper covering this approach [] and participate in one of the SexyDefense talks in a conference close to you (or watch the one given at DerbyCon online: [].

If you have not yet run away, think about contributing to the community effort to build a framework for this, much like we did for penetration testing with PTES. Call it SDES for now: Strategic Defense Execution Standard. A lot of you have already been raising interest in it, and I’m really excited to see the community coming up with great ideas and initiatives after preaching this notion for a fairly short time.

Who knows what this will turn into?