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Cyber AI Analyst: Cutting Through the Noise to Gain the Security Edge

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29
Nov 2022
29
Nov 2022
This blog addresses the issue of alert fatigue and explains how Cyber AI Analyst breaks down billions of individual events, first into anomalous events and then into prioritized security incidents ready for the security team's review.

For cyber security experts, it’s hard enough staying on top of the latest threats and emerging attacks without having to deal with a virtual tsunami of alert noise from systems monitoring email, SaaS environments, and endpoints – in addition to IaaS cloud and on-premises networks. Unfortunately, fatigue from these demands can lead to overworking, burnout, and crucially, high employee turnover. 

The worldwide industry shortage of 3.5 million cyber security professionals only exacerbates the problem. Not only does it add pressure to the current stock of skilled and available security professionals, but it also raises the stakes for CISOs and other security leaders to find a way to cut through the alert noise while staying on ahead of threat actors who never stop innovating and applying novel malware strains and attack techniques.

Working Smarter Not Harder

One way to help with retention is to empower security teams to break away from monotony and to think creatively and leverage their expertise where it can really add value. Working smarter, rather than harder, is often easier said than done, but by employing automation and AI-driven tools to take on the heavy lifting of threat detection, investigation, and response, human teams can be given the breathing room needed to focus on long-term objectives and think more deeply about their security approaches.

It is important for security programs to continuously level up alongside evolving threat landscapes by questioning existing security operations, and this cannot be achieved during times of hand-to-hand alert combat.

When alerts are fewer, higher quality, and context-heavy, the background to each can be easily explored, whether that’s reevaluating a policy or configuration, or simply asking useful questions around the company’s broader security approach. Work done at this level empowers security teams and fosters growth.

Less is More

Business risk– or the potential impact of cyber disruption– should be the number one concern driving a security team, but lack of resources is a near-constant constraint. Reducing the volume of alerts doesn’t just mean bringing the noise floor up. You can think of the noise floor as an alert threshold: if it is too high then there are fewer alerts, but more threats may be missed, whereas if it is too low, there are high volumes of unhelpful false positives. Freeing up time for the team must not equate to ignoring alerts; it should instead mean focusing on the alerts that matter.

Darktrace’s technologies make this possible, with Darktrace DETECT™ and Cyber AI Analyst working together to address alert fatigue and burnout for security teams while strengthening an organizations’ overall security posture. Cyber AI Analyst essentially takes over the busy work from the human analysts and elevates a team’s overall decision making. Teams now operate at higher levels, as they’re not stuck in mundane alert management and humans are brought in only after the machine and AI have done the heavy lifting.

“Before AI Analyst, we were barely treading water with all of the alerts, most of which were false positives, our old systems produced daily. With AI Analyst, we’ve been able to exponentially reduce those alerts, harden our environment, and get strategic.”

Dr. Robert Spangler, the CISO and Assistant Executive Director of the New Jersey State Bar Association.

Figure 1: Billions of individual events are reduced into a critical incident for review


Imagine a scenario in which Darktrace observed around 9.6 billion events over a 28-day period. DETECT and Cyber AI Analyst might distill that huge amount of data down into just, say, 54 critical incidents, or just two per day. Here’s how:

9.6 billion events

When trying to understand the full picture, every single puzzle piece counts. That’s why Darktrace’s Self-Learning AI goes wherever your organization has data, integrating with data sources across the digital estate, including network, email, endpoints, OT, cloud, and SaaS environments. And with an open architecture, Darktrace facilitates quick and easy integrations with everything from SIEMs and SOARs to public clouds and the latest Zero Trust technologies. So, any data can become learnable, whether directly ingested or via integration.

By examining this full and contextualized data set, Self-Learning AI builds a constantly evolving understanding of what ‘normal’ looks like for the entire organization. Every connection, every email, app login, resource accessed, VM spun up, PLC reprogrammed, and more become signals from which Darktrace can learn, evaluate, and improve its understanding.

40,404 model breaches

The billions of events are analyzed by Darktrace DETECT, which uses its extensive knowledge of ‘normal’ to draw out hosts of subtle anomalies or ‘AI model breaches.’ Many of these AI model breaches will be weak indicators of threatening activity, and most will not be sufficient to individually signal a threat. For that reason, no human attention is required at this stage. Darktrace DETECT will continue to draw anomalous behaviors from the ongoing stream of events without the need for intervention. 

200 incidents

The Cyber AI Analyst takes the total list of model breaches collated by DETECT and performs the truly sophisticated work of determining distinct threat incidents. By piecing together anomalies which may, in themselves, appear harmless, the AI Analyst draws out subtle and often wide-ranging attacks, tracking their route from the initial compromise to the present moment. This creates a much shorter list of genuine threat incidents, but there is still no need for human attention at this stage.

54 critical incidents

Once it has discovered the threat incidents facing an organization, the Cyber AI Analyst begins the crucial processes of triage to determine which incidents need to be surfaced to the security team, and in what order of priority. This supplies the human team with a highly focused briefing of the most pressing threats, massively reducing their overall workload and minimizing or potentially eradicating alert fatigue. In the above example of a month with over 9.6 billion distinct events, the team are left with just two incidents to address per day. These two incidents are clearly presented with natural language-processing and all the most relevant info, including details, devices, and dates. 

“When we had other, noisier systems, we didn’t have the time to have truly in-depth discussions or conduct deep investigations, so there were fewer teachable moments for junior team members and fewer opportunities to inform our cybersecurity strategy as a whole,” Spangler said. “Now, we’re not just a better team, we’re more efficient, responsive, and informed than we’ve ever been. We’re all better cyber security professionals as a result.”

In the event of a breach, CISOs and security leaders want the full incident report, and they want it yesterday. The promise of AI is to handle specific tasks at a speed and scale that humans can’t. Going from 9.6 billion events to 54 incidents demonstrates the scale, but it’s important to consider the impact of speed here as well, as the Cyber AI Analyst works in real time, meaning all relevant events are presented in an easy to consume downloadable report available immediately upon investigation.

This isn’t a black box either; every step of the AI Analyst’s investigation process is visible to the human team. Not only can they see the relevant events and breaches that led to the incident, but if required, they can pivot into them easily with a click. If the investigation requires going all the way down to the metadata level to easily peruse the filtered events of the 9.6 billion overall signals or even to PCAP data, those are available and easy to find too.

Since DETECT and Cyber AI Analyst not only reduce alert fatigue but also simplify incident investigations, security teams feel empowered and experience less burnout. 

“We’ve been stable and have had minimal turnover since we started using AI Analyst,” Spangler said. “We’re not scrambling to keep up with noisy and time-consuming false positives, making the investigations that we undertake stimulating and– I say this cautiously– fun! Put simply, the thing we all love about this career, the virtual chess game we play with attackers, is a lot more fun when you know you’re going to win.”

Autonomous Response

Organizations that deploy Darktrace RESPOND™ can address the incidents raised by DETECT and the Cyber AI Analyst autonomously, and in mere seconds. Using the full context of the organization built up by Self-Learning AI, RESPOND takes the least disruptive measures necessary to disarm threats at machine speed. By the time the security team learns about the attack, it is already contained, continuing to save them from the hand-to-hand combat of threat fighting.

With day-to-day threat detection, response, and analysis taken care of, security teams are free to give full and sustained attention to their overall security posture. Neutralized threats may yet reveal broader security gaps and potential improvements which the team now has the time and headspace to pursue.

For example, discovering a trend that users are uploading potentially sensitive data via third-party file-sharing services might lead to a discussion about whether it should be company policy to block access to this service, reducing to zero the number of future alerts that would have been triggered by this behavior. Importantly, this wouldn’t be altering the aforementioned noise floor, but instead fundamentally altering security policies to align with the needs of the business, which could indirectly affect future alerting, as activities may subside.

As a result, practitioners find more value in their work, security teams efforts are optimized, and organizations are strengthened overall.

“We’re now focused on the items that AI Analyst alerts us to, which are always worth looking into because they either identify an activity that we need to get eyes on and/or provide us with insight into ways we can harden our network,” Spangler said. “The hardening that we’ve done has been incalculably beneficial– it’s one of the reasons we get fewer alerts, and it’s also protected us against a wide variety of threats.”

INSIDE THE SOC
Darktrace cyber analysts are world-class experts in threat intelligence, threat hunting and incident response, and provide 24/7 SOC support to thousands of Darktrace customers around the globe. Inside the SOC is exclusively authored by these experts, providing analysis of cyber incidents and threat trends, based on real-world experience in the field.
AUTHOR
ABOUT ThE AUTHOR
댄 페인
부사장, 제품

Based in New York, Dan joined Darktrace’s technical team in 2015, helping customers quickly achieve a complete and granular understanding of Darktrace’s product suite. Dan has a particular focus on Darktrace/Email, ensuring that it is effectively deployed in complex digital environments, and works closely with the development, marketing, sales, and technical teams. Dan holds a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from New York University.

Elliot Stocker
Product SME

After 2 years in a commercial role helping to deploy Darktrace across a broad range of digital environments, Elliot currently occupies the role of Product Subject Matter Expert, where he helps to articulate the value of Darktrace’s technology to customers around the world. Elliot holds a Masters degree in Data Science and Machine Learning, using this knowledge to communicate concepts around machine learning and AI in an accessible way to different audiences.

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Customer Blog: Community Housing Limited Enhancing Incident Response

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04
Mar 2024

About Community Housing Limited

Community Housing Limited is a non-profit organization based in Australia that focuses on providing affordable, long-term housing and creating employment opportunities where possible. We give people the security of having a home so that they can focus on other essential pathways. As such, we are responsible for sensitive information on our clients.

As part of our commitment to strengthening our cyber security, we sought to simplify and unify our incident response plans and equip our engineers and desktop support teams with all the information we need at our fingertips.

Why Community Housing Limited chose Darktrace

Our team hoped to achieve a response procedure that allowed us to have oversight over any potential security risks, even cases that don’t overtly seem like a security risk. For example, an incident could start as a payroll issue and end up in the hands of HR, instead of surfacing as a security problem. In this case, our security team has no way of knowing the real number of events or how the threat had actually started and played out, making incident response and mitigation even more challenging.

We were already a customer of Darktrace’s autonomous threat detection, attack intervention, and attack surface management capabilities, and decided to add Darktrace for AI-assisted incident response and AI cyber-attack simulation.

AI-generated playbooks save time during incident response

I wanted to reduce the time and resources it took our security team to appropriately respond to a threat. Darktrace automates several steps of the recovery process to accelerate the rate of incident response by using AI that learns the granular details of the specific organization, building a dynamic understanding of the devices, connections, and user behaviors that make up the normal “pattern of life.”  

The AI then uses this understanding to create bespoke, AI-generated incident response playbooks that leverage an evolving understanding of our organization to determine recovery steps that are tailored not only to the specific incident but also to our unique environment.

For my security team, this means having access to all the information we need to respond to a threat. When running through an incident, rather than going to different places to synthesize relevant information, which takes up valuable resources and time, we can speed up its remediation with Darktrace.  

The playbooks created by Darktrace help lower the technical skills required to respond to incidents by elevating the workload of the staff, tripling our capacity for incident response.

Realistic attack simulations upskill teams while saving resources

We have differing levels of experience on the team which means some members know exactly what to do during incident response while others are slower and need more guidance. Thus, we have to either outsource skilled security professionals or add a security solution that could lower the technical skills bar.

You don’t want to be second guessing and searching for the right move – it’s urgent – there should be certainty. Our goal with running attack simulations is to test and train our team's response capabilities in a “realistic” scenario. But this takes considerable time to plan and execute or can be expensive if outsourced, which can be a challenge for organizations short on resources. 

Darktrace provides AI-assisted incident response and cyber-attack simulation using AI that understands the organization to run simulations that effectively map onto the real digital environment and the assets within it, providing training for actual incidents.

It is one thing to sit together in a meeting and discuss various outcomes of a cyber-attack, talking through the best response strategies. It is a huge benefit being able to run attack simulations that emulate real-world scenarios.

Our team can now see how an incident would play out over several days to resemble a real-world scenario or it can play through the simulation quickly to ascertain outcomes immediately. It then uses these insights to strengthen its technology, processes, and training.

AI-Powered Incident Response

Darktrace helps my security team save resources and upskill staff using AI to generate bespoke playbooks and run realistic simulations. Its real-time understanding of our business ensures incident preparedness and incident response are tailored to not only the specific threat in question, but also to the contextual infrastructure of the organization.  

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Jamie Woodland
Head of Technology at Community Housing Limited

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Beyond DMARC: Navigating the Gaps in Email Security

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29
Feb 2024

Email threat landscape  

Email has consistently ranked among the most targeted attack vectors, given its ubiquity and criticality to business operations. From September to December 2023, 10.4 million phishing emails were detected across Darktrace’s customer fleet demonstrating the frequency of attempted email-based attacks.

Businesses are searching for ways to harden their email security posture alongside email providers who are aiming to reduce malicious emails traversing their infrastructure, affecting their clients. Domain-based Message Authentication (DMARC) is a useful industry-wide protocol organizations can leverage to move towards these goals.  

What is DMARC?

DMARC is an email authentication protocol designed to enhance the security of email communication.

Major email service providers Google and Yahoo recently made the protocol mandatory for bulk senders in an effort to make inboxes safer worldwide. The new requirements demonstrate an increasing need for a standardized solution as misconfigured or nonexistent authentication systems continue to allow threat actors to evade detection and leverage the legitimate reputation of third parties.  

DMARC is a powerful tool that allows email administrators to confidently identify and stop certain spoofed emails; however, more organizations must implement the standard for it to reach its full potential. The success and effectiveness of DMARC is dependent on broad adoption of the standard – by organizations of all sizes.  

How does DMARC work?

DMARC builds on two key authentication technologies, Sender Policy Framework (SPF) and DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM) and helps to significantly improve their ability to prevent domain spoofing. SPF verifies that a sender’s IP address is authorized to send emails on behalf of a particular domain and DKIM ensures integrity of email content by providing a verifiable digital signature.  

DMARC adds to this by allowing domain owners to publish policies that set expectations for how SPF and DKIM verification checks relate to email addresses presented to users and whose authenticity the receiving mail server is looking to establish.  

These policies work in tandem to help authenticate email senders by verifying the emails are from the domain they say they are, working to prevent domain spoofing attacks. Key benefits of DMARC include:

  1. Phishing protection DMARC protects against direct domain spoofing in which a threat actor impersonates a legitimate domain, a common phishing technique threat actors use to trick employees to obtain sensitive information such as privileged credentials, bank information, etc.  
  2. Improving brand reputation: As DMARC helps to prevent impersonation of domains, it stands to maintain and increase an organization’s brand reputation. Additionally, as organizational reputation improves, so will the deliverability of emails.
  3. Increased visibility: DMARC provides enhanced visibility into email communication channels, including reports of all emails sent on behalf of your domain. This allows security teams to identify shadow-IT and any unauthorized parties using their domain.

Understanding DMARC’s Limitations

DMARC is often positioned as a way for organizations to ‘solve’ their email security problems, however, 65% of the phishing emails observed by Darktrace successfully passed DMARC verification, indicating that a significant number of threat actors are capable of manipulating email security and authentication systems in their exploits. While DMARC is a valuable tool in the fight against email-based attacks, the evolving threat landscape demands a closer look at its limitations.  

As threat actors continue to innovate, improving their stealth and evasion tactics, the number of attacks with valid DMARC authentication will only continue to increase in volume and sophistication. These can include:

  1. Phishing attacks that leverage non-spoofed domains: DMARC allows an organization to protect the domains that they own, preventing threat actors from being able to send phishing emails from their domains. However, threat actors will often create and use ‘look-a-like’ domains that closely resemble an organization’s domain to dupe users. 3% of the phishing emails identified by Darktrace utilized newly created domains, demonstrating shifting tactics.  
  2. Email Account Takeovers: If a threat actor gains access to a user’s email account through other social engineering means such as credential stuffing, they can then send phishing emails from the legitimate domain to pursue further attacks. Even though these emails are malicious, DMARC would not identify them as such because they are coming from an authorized domain or sender.  

Organizations must also ensure their inbound analysis of emails is not skewed by successful DMARC authentication. Security teams cannot inherently trust emails that pass DMARC, because the source cannot always be legitimized, like in the event of an account takeover. If a threat actor gains access to an authenticated email account, emails sent by the threat actor from that account will pass DMARC – however the contents of that email may be malicious. Sender behavior must be continuously evaluated and vetted in real time as past communication history and validated DMARC cannot be solely relied upon amid an ever-changing threat landscape.  

Security teams should lean on other security measures, such as anomaly detection tools that can identify suspicious emails without relying on historical attack rules and static data. While DMARC is not a silver bullet for email security, it is nevertheless foundational in helping organizations protect their brand identity and must be viewed as an essential layer in an organization's overall cyber security strategy.  

Implementing DMARC

Despite the criticality of DMARC for preserving brand reputation and trust, adoption of the standard has been inconsistent. DMARC can be complex to implement with many organizations lacking the time required to understand and successfully implement the standard. Because of this, DMARC set-up is often outsourced, giving security and infrastructure teams little to no visibility into or control of the process.  

Implementation of DMARC is only the start of this process, as DMARC reports must be consistently monitored to ensure organizations have visibility into who is sending mail from their domain, the volume of mail being sent and whether the mail is passing authentication protocols. This process can be time consuming for security teams who are already faced with mounting responsibilities, tight budgets, and personnel shortages. These complexities unfortunately delay organizations from using DMARC – especially as many today still view it as a ‘nice to have’ rather than an essential.  

With the potential complexities of the DMARC implementation process, there are many ways security and infrastructure teams can still successfully roll out the standard. Initial implementation should start with monitoring, policy adjustment and then enforcement. As business changes over time, DMARC should be reviewed regularly to ensure ongoing protection and maintain domain reputation.

The Future of Email Security

As email-based attacks continue to rise, the industry must recognize the importance of driving adoption of foundational email authentication protocols. To do this, a new and innovative approach to DMARC is needed. DMARC products must evolve to better support organizations throughout the ongoing DMARC monitoring process, rather than just initial implementation. These products must also be able to share intelligence across an organization’s security stack, extending beyond email security tools. Integration across these products and tools will help organizations optimize their posture, ensuring deep understanding of their domain and increased visibility across the entire enterprise.

DMARC is critical in protecting brand identity and mitigating exact-domain based attacks. However, organizations must understand DMARC’s unique benefits and limitations to ensure their inboxes are fully protected. In today’s evolving threat landscape, organizations require a robust, multi-layered approach to stop email threats – in inbound mail and beyond. Email threats have evolved – its time security does too.

Join Darktrace on 9 April for a virtual event to explore the latest innovations needed to get ahead of the rapidly evolving threat landscape. Register today to hear more about our latest innovations coming to Darktrace’s offerings. For additional insights check out Darktrace’s 2023 End of Year Threat Report.

Credit to Carlos Gray and Stephen Pickman for their contribution to this blog

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Carlos Gray
Product Manager

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