“Continuous Diagnostics and Mitigation” in Cyber Security

Continuous Diagnostics and Mitigation, or CDM, is a term for a strategy around cyber security defence that tries to shift from a stance of: Prevent – Detect – Respond, to an approach that is more real-time, continuous, operational and automatic.

Dynamic cyber security

In the US, the Department of Homeland Security contains the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), which has particularly embraced the ethos of this more operationalised approach to security, and it mirrors the concept of “security by default” or security being “designed in” that is found in many other sets of requirements such as GDPR.

The Continuous Diagnostics and Mitigation (CDM) program is a dynamic approach to fortifying the cybersecurity of government networks and systems.  CDM provides federal departments and agencies with capabilities and tools that identify cybersecurity risks on an ongoing basis, prioritize these risks based upon potential impacts, and enable cybersecurity personnel to mitigate the most significant problems first.

CISA, https://www.us-cert.gov/cdm/resources

At its heart CDM is about situational awareness, understanding and rapid response.  It combines technology, automation, human processes and increasingly, some of the more advanced analytics techniques available in security.  This makes it possible to detect and respond as part of “business as usual”, rather than having to triage, filter and diagnose manually when things go wrong.  CDM aims to:

  • Enable network administrators to know the state of their networks at any time
  • Inform them of the relative risks of threats they are exposed to
  • Enable system personnel to identify and mitigate flaws at near-network speed

Overall, the scope of management and operational activities fits into a familiar circular process model of

  • Managing the security lifecycle (i.e. policy and risk management)
  • Managing assets (i.e. the IT systems and networks)
  • Managing accounts and access (i.e. for users)
  • Managing events (i.e. detect and respond)

A cyber security strategy that works

Whatever your cybersecurity strategy – following whatever model and building in whatever compliance standards and requirements – there is a need to adopt a risk based approach.  This applies to the data and systems that need to be protected, the controls that are put in place and – critically – in the prioritisation of human effort.

Security operations, improvement projects and the response to events often suffer from the lack of available bandwidth of the security team.  The well-publicised skills shortage that persists in cyber security means that there is often not quite enough people to achieve improvements as quickly as the business might desire, to spend as much effort maintaining levels of protection or responding to event and incidents.

In this last case, the massive growth in organisations’ dependence on IT systems and the rapidly expanding nature of cyber threats mean that human operators are often having to deal with machine generated data and machine-based attacks at machine operating speeds.

Getting the basics right: cyber security hygiene

Every business and organisation has its own specific security needs; perhaps a legacy system that is key to its operation, an initiative to develop a mobile app for customer interactions, or an especially diverse network managed by several third parties for historical or compliance reasons.

These are the risk areas that the security team needs to be investing time, effort and resources in thinking about – areas where there are challenges that require deep consideration and thought.

At the opposite end of the scale are the “basics” of cyber security.  Those things that pertain to every single business and are widely acknowledged as common problem areas, but where the solutions are not so much complex but never-ending and resource-intensive such as patching across large heterogeneous networks or keeping tabs on privileged user group memberships.

These essential “cyber hygiene” controls are critical as they are commonly exploited by attackers when they fail or are found lacking.  Getting them wrong, or not having sufficient visibility of when issues occur, means giving attackers easy access to networks and data.  But implementing and continuously monitoring these controls can be resource intensive.

The more time that can be freed up from managing the basics the better.  If you can take the most commonly exploited controls and the most widespread problems and automate the implementation and oversight of those, then there is more bandwidth available for the more esoteric and complex threats and risks that need the attention of experts.

Automated cyber security control measurement

Security teams can utilise technology, the automation of control measurement and reporting, for those security controls that have the largest impact on their vulnerability to attack.  Ensuring they are in place and continuously monitored or able to be easily checked on a periodic or ad hoc basis helps build an organisation’s cyber resilience.

Research has shown that failure of basic controls accounts for 85% of successful attacks.  Automating the oversight of these means that scarce and expensive security resources can focus on the remaining 15% of threats and just deal with exceptions and issues as and when they arise.  Potentially, this means that up to  6 times more effort can be directed to the company-specific problems that need solving.

Huntsman Security’s Essential 8 Auditor and Essential 8 Scorecard solutions follow this ethos.  They make it easy to conduct point in time checks or  continuous monitoring and reporting on security control effectiveness.  This kind of automation doesn’t detract from, or replace, the expertise of the security professionals.  It just saves them the legwork and effort needed to gather performance data and report on it.

Continuous diagnostics and mitigation

For events or alerts that arise in networks or as a consequence of user activity you can also look to apply the same principles.  Complex attacks will need complex responses, but the vast majority of attacks will start simple and then as the attacker finds out what they can do, they will become more sophisticated.

By detecting issues early and automatically verifying the nature of them, you can cover the majority of issues more easily i.e. you build in the kind of validation steps a human would follow into the monitoring solutions themselves.  You can achieve one or both of these outcomes:

  • The team have less alerts to deal with and they can deal with them quicker
    The false positives have been ruled out and the supporting information and context has been gathered for the real alerts to save time in diagnosis and handling
  • Confirmed threats have been corroborated with other data sources
    These can be responded to and remediated by the system itself based on the certainty it has been able to establish for them (for example if a workstation or user is known to have been infected with malware, you can quarantine it to stem the spread)

Find out more…

You can discover more about Huntsman Security’s automated security control measurement tools here.

To explore how getting cyber hygiene right can free up time we have written this blog post.

To learn about Automated Threat Resolution we have resources here.

There is a number of resources on the US CDM approach at: https://www.us-cert.gov/cdm/faq

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