Tackling the human element of cyber security

Author: Dean Nicholls, NetIQ

The number and complexity of cyber-attacks has been increasing steadily over the last decade. Many adversaries are targeting the communications and information systems of organisations to extract large amounts of sensitive data, often hijacking insider credentials as a preferred method of breach. Identity has become today’s biggest security gap.

In response, security systems are shifting towards identity and access management (IAM) controls rather than relying solely on the perimeter technologies of the past. With the knowledge that an attacker might already be inside the system, IAM controls can cover employees, even those with privileged user access, as well as business partners, contractors and customers. Organisations need visibility across their environment including in the cloud and via mobile devices to know if an unauthorised user is gaining access to sensitive information.

IAM controls can be categorised as preventive, detective or corrective, and all three areas need to be working efficiently to provide your organisation with the best level of defence against cyber criminals, whether they originate inside or outside your network.

Preventive Controls Initially IAM started with a focus on preventive controls, designed to keep irregularities from occurring in the first place. A user’s access levels and entitlements where managed in target systems can prevent them from performing activities that they should not perform. However, this rarely works perfectly in practice. A common example is access entitlements that are granted but not revoked when an employee leaves the company or changes their role.

Detective Controls IAM then expanded towards detective controls using Access Governance. This involves performing access certification on a recurring basis, monitoring privileged user activity to encourage adherence to policy and flagging any abnormal activity that may have occurred. A manual access recertification process is used in many organisations to detect improper entitlements, but because it carries the temptation of rubber-stamping by business managers and is time-bound (typically performed once annually), it can only be described as an incomplete detective control. Technology driven User Activity Monitoring can round out detective IAM controls by recognising unusual behaviour associated with identities in near real-time. If unusual activity is detected, alerts can be raised immediately.

Corrective Controls Corrective controls in IAM complete the circle and are designed to correct errors that have been detected such as revoking access when abuse of privileges or over-credentialing is uncovered. Also it is often necessary to maintain a record of the identity of the user for forensic work once the immediate risk has been addressed. This forensics work includes researching other activities of the identity through log reviews to determine if there is any additional damage.

The Role of Automation in IAM Automation is best defined by a process when there are repeatable steps, allowing faster response and efficiency. Process automation needs at least three components; a trigger, a diagnosis, and an action or actions, each of which can be automated if there is sufficient repeatability. For example, if a user is demonstrating abnormal behaviour by suddenly downloading large sensitive data files, most organisations would want that to be a trigger for an automated response that restricts that user’s access or, at least, alerts a security team.

Not every part of the IAM process can, or should, be automated. For this reason, it is often advantageous to have a “man in the loop” to make decisions and keep automation from running amuck. Automating a bad process just makes things bad faster. But the machine-repeatable parts of a process can take on the heavy lifting of gathering supporting data so that a better-informed diagnosis can be made of the situation. Currently, preventive and detective IAM controls are the most mature components in terms of automation with corrective controls being the next frontier for innovation and solutions.

Done correctly, process automation can be used for triggering and diagnosing, with corrective actions presented as a menu of options for overworked security teams. Once a manual selection is made, the actions can then be automatically implemented. Full automation that skips manual diagnosis and goes right to temporary corrective actions should also be considered for the highest risk scenarios involving the most sensitive data. A rollback option can be used in this case if the situation is determined to be a false alarm.

Organisations need to include preventive, detective and corrective IAM controls as part of their overall security program. IAM’s three-step closed-loop system has the potential to significantly reduce the risks presented by today’s human threat of cyberattack.

Dean Nicholls is the APAC product and business manager at NetIQ.

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