The Zero-Trust Approach for your Alert Haystack - Intezer

A Straw-by-Straw Analysis: The Zero-Trust Approach for Your Alert Haystack

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    One of the greatest challenges security operations center (SOC) teams face is the high volume of daily alerts about suspicious files and endpoints that they must investigate. A lot has already been written about this “needle in the haystack problem.” SOC analysts are faced with so many alerts that they will likely miss the real threat (needle) hidden among the false positives (the haystack).

    According to research published by the Ponemon Institute and reported in a Network World article, only four percent of alerts are truly investigated. It is nearly impossible to analyze every single alert coming through an organization due to time constraints and a lack of resources. As a result, many alerts remain uninvestigated. This is in contrast to the zero-trust approach that assumes every alert might indicate a breach and therefore must be investigated thoroughly.

    The Zero-Trust Trust Approach to Alert Investigation

    Sophisticated attackers understand that defenders have many alerts to investigate. Many successful cyber attacks are the result of security teams missing an alert because the alert “haystack” was too large. In addition, advanced attacks may be hidden behind vague alerts such as “suspicious behavior” which are often missed or go ignored. This further supports the notion that no alert should be left uninvestigated.

    For that reason, it is important for security teams to embrace a zero-trust approach when investigating alerts and to not compromise on investigating only a handful of alerts. A few solutions have been commonly adopted that are helping security teams address a greater number of alerts, which I will divide into two categories: alert reduction and response automation. When integrated properly, alert reduction and response automation should help defenders reduce the greater “haystack,” in other words lowering the number of alerts that need to be investigated by a security team.

    Leveraging Threat Clusters for Alert Reduction

    Alert reduction means diminishing the number of alerts that need to be investigated. This is done through clustering alerts and correlating events, reducing thousands of logs into hundreds of alerts. This makes the investigation process more convenient by reducing the number of total alerts and providing greater context into the alerts. The next step required is to investigate the clustered alerts which is a smaller amount, obtain more data (extracting files, URLs, etc.), analyze, and then respond.

    Let’s give an example – you take all the new alerts from just today, triage them, and find you have 17 threat clusters, 3 alerts that need investigation, and 2 “unknown” alerts. This clustering gives you a lot of information about how you can efficiently respond to the known threats and which ones require more digging before you can respond. Here’s what that would look like: 

    Intezer - Dashboard threat clusters example

    If you started with hundreds or thousands of alerts, by grouping the alerts into threat clusters it is much less overwhelming and easier to ensure each one gets the appropriate investigation and response.

    Response Automation for Clustered Alerts

    Response automation is used to analyze the clustered alerts. Response automation allows security teams to create workflows and automate the majority of the alert triage. For example, once a suspicious file is detected, response automation can be used to automatically check the alert against hash-lookup databases or IoC repositories. We can see that in our example image above, where we have the IoCs and detection opportunities for each cluster. By using automation, you can reduce the manual steps you need to take to go from getting the alert through triage, investigation, and response.

    The Challenges of Investigating Suspicious Alerts

    While alert reduction and response automation can be helpful for reducing the workload required for investigating such a large volume of alerts, the challenge remains that in most cases a technical analyst is needed to manually analyze the suspicious alerts. Some tasks, unfortunately, are very difficult to automate. Reverse engineering, for example, is typically not a task that can be performed automatically and at scale. The same applies for memory analysis. Often a team of malware analysts is required to perform a deeper analysis of alerts in order to better understand and classify them. For example, you may need to figure out: 

    • Is the alert a false positive? 
    • If the alert is a threat, what type of threat is it? 
    • What is the intent and sophistication level of the threat? 
    • Who is the threat actor behind the attack?

    Unfortunately, the majority of organizations do not have access to a large, dedicated team of reverse engineers who can provide a deeper analysis on every single suspicious alert. However, with a modern, advanced DFIR toolset for analysts, teams don’t necessarily have to rely on traditional malware analysis tools and sandboxes. Updating DFIR tools can also help teams close skill gaps, allowing analysts who don’t have extensive manual experience with reverse engineering or malware analysis to analyze suspicious alerts and respond.

    In an ideal world, we would deeply analyze every single alert.

    For example, if there is an alert on a specific endpoint within an organization, we would want to analyze every file in the file system and every single module in memory. In other words, we’d execute a deep investigation on the machine as a whole.

    Achieving the Goal of Investigating Every Alert

    Imagine that you have a team consisting of several dozen reverse engineers, who can analyze every file and every memory image of suspicious endpoints that have been alerted through your security systems. This team of experts will be able to answer the most relevant questions about each and every alert that you encounter:

    1. They would need to answer, are we facing a real attack?
    2. To better understand the risk of the attack, which type of attack are we dealing with? (Is it adware or an APT, for example.)
    3. They will tell you the intent of the attacker. For example, by identifying a threat as ransomware or a banking trojan.
    4. They will be able to tell you if the threat is related to an incident that you had previously, which is important for building greater context behind a malware campaign.
    5. Which machines are infected and what is the scale of the attack?
    6. How do we contain and remediate the threat?

    This scenario, where you have the budget for experts to analyze every alert, is ideal.

    However, transitioning back to reality, how is this scenario achievable? How can we as security professionals automate the skills of experienced reverse engineers into our day-to-day security operations, to automatically and deeply investigate every alert that comes through our SIEMs, SOARs, or EDRs? What about investigating the constant stream of phishing alerts?

    mapping code reuse into clusters from open-source projects

    The above graphic is a mapping of code reuse and code similarities across various open-source projects. Legitimate projects consistently reuse code from other projects.

    Now let’s take a look at the following graphic:

    code reuse from threat clusters

    Every node in the layout represents a malware campaign that is associated with North Korea. There are code similarities between the WannaCry ransomware in 2017, the Sony attack from 2011, and also the Swift Bangladesh attack from 2016.

    We see this common phenomenon of code reuse in both trusted and malicious software. It is a very logical progression for developers to reuse code. Reusing code is not inherently malicious. Leveraging code reuse makes the lives of developers more convenient and efficiently brings tools to the market faster.

    How Can Code Reuse Accelerate SOC and IR Workflows?

    From a practical viewpoint, as defenders how can we utilize the concept of code reuse for our own benefit?

    Applying this genetic or code reuse approach to triage, malware analysis, and incident response means identifying code similarities of known trusted and malicious software, in order to detect threats and reduce false positives. Even if an attacker decides to write most of his or her code from scratch, as long as some portions of the code are reused from previous malware, which we see in almost all cases, defenders will be able to detect any future variant, regardless of evasion techniques that may be deployed. The same principle applies for code that was seen in legitimate, trusted applications, which can be used to identify false positives and in turn reduce the overall “alert haystack.”

    While alert reduction and response automation solutions help to cluster and reduce the number of alerts that must be investigated, they still require a deep level of analysis. Organizations can not compromise on investigating only a handful of alerts because they run the risk of incidents slipping through the cracks. SOC and IR teams can improve their efficiencies by leveraging automation technologies in tandem with time-saving analysis technologies, in order to investigate every single alert quickly and garner relevant context that will help them to prioritize, tailor, and accelerate their response.

    The ultimate goal of code similarity analysis (or, “Genetic Code Analysis” aka the heart of Intezer’s technology) is to automate the alert triage, incident response, and threat hunting processes, in order to move closer to the ideal world that we described earlier, where organizations can accurately analyze every single alert quickly and automatically, and respond with greater confidence to a higher volume of alerts.

    Connect your alert pipelines (EDR, SOAR, SIEM, …) to Intezer, so you can get advice and automatically triage, respond, and hunt.

    Want to see how it works? Let’s book a demo.


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