Security teams flooded with security alerts that are ignored, study finds

Only 4 percent of alerts are ever investigated, says Ponemon

Businesses are being overwhelmed by large numbers of malware alerts the overwhelming majority of which are never even investigated, a study of US IT security staff experiences by the Ponemon Institute has found.

The Damballa-commissioned report The Cost of Malware Containment (based on a 630-person sample of people directly involved in this area of security) paints a deeply chaotic picture of how organisations cope with - or don't cope with - the average of 17,000 malware alerts they have to sift each week for threats.

Many of the alerts are false positives, which raises the question of how security teams work out how to categorise and react to each alert. The answer appears to be that while around a quarter use automated tools to help them with another group preferring manual assessment, around a third fall back on an ad hoc approach in which no single person is responsible for the task.

Alerts are often deemed false alarms, with an average of only 3,218 (19 percent) out of 17,000 being rated as "reliable", from which only 705 are actually investigated. That's barely a fifth of the alerts taken seriously and four percent of all detected.

The main source of intelligence about malware was security vendors in 69 percent of cases, with the rest of the gap filled by peer-to-peer research or industry sharing from associations, government or police, Ponemon found.

The net result of all this, Ponemon, suggests, is that organisations waste huge amounts of money responding to false alerts, up to $1.27 million (£832,000) per annum using its own calculations.

"These findings confirm not only the sheer scale of the challenge for IT security teams in sifting out the real threats from tens of thousands of false alarms, but also the huge financial impact in terms of time," said Damballa's CTO, Brian Foster.

"The severity and frequency of attacks is growing, which means that teams need a way to focus on responding to true positive infections if they are to get a firmer grip on their security posture."

The answer was for organisations to invest on better intelligence to detect the genuine malware.

Arguably, the cost of response, however large, is still dwarfed by the cost of not responding at all. The fact that only a fifth of responses taken seriously are ever investigated suggests that the volume of alerts has reached levels where teams now urgently need automation.

As long as humans are needed to investigate each alert, the chances are it won't be investigated at all.

A similar report carried out for Damballa last March worked out that the average business was responding to as many as 10,000 security alerts each day, a much higher figure, although this data came exclusively from large enterprises.

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