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At AppSec California 2015, Alex Stamos, formerly with Yahoo and now CSO at Facebook, gave a really interesting talk titled “AppSec is Eating Security.” Among the many insightful comments he made during the talk, one was particularly intriguing and extremely relevant to the threat landscape we see today. The video of the talk is available on YouTube and around the ninth minute, Alex comments about how he had removed FireEye network security equipment out of Yahoo. He did this because he assumed that well-resourced nation-state adversaries, such as China had easily managed to acquire its technology, reverse-engineer and figured out how to defeat it.
The argument he makes is a very important one and actually applies to any on-premise security technology. And, the most prolific attacks today are often bankrolled by nation-states seeking to gain intelligence for commercial or political interests, or by well-funded criminal groups. With the resources that an intelligence agency can devote to setting up cutout entities to conduct covert purchases or even interdict equipment during shipping, you simply have to assume that any openly available software or hardware-based security technology can be acquired by a sophisticated adversary. Then, once the product is procured by an adversary or intelligence organization, one must assume that they have deployed the equipment in their labs and that significant resources have been expended on breaking it. With simple reverse-engineering processes, adversaries are able to find every way possible to bypass the technologies–without getting caught or, often times, without leaving a trace. Because of this, every single on-premise technology is set to fail in the face of advanced and well-resourced attackers. If an adversary has unlimited time and resources to find a vulnerability, they will. And, they’ll probably find the best way in.
When it comes down to it, there are only two real options for responding to cyber threats in today’s landscape.
The first option is to try to build your own security tools (and not share them with anyone, of course) and hope that an adversary has not been able to acquire your custom-built solution from your network. This is the option that Alex advocates but unfortunately, few organizations have the resources and capabilities of large organizations such as Yahoo or Facebook to have their own security technology engineering teams. It’s simply not a realistic option for the vast majority of companies out there due to the heavy time investment, expense, and talent scarcity.
The alternative option is to leverage a cloud-based security technology which can record every execution event in real-time and transmit it to the cloud where an adversary can’t easily destroy it without getting caught. This way, as we now have to assume, if a hacker manages to procure a copy of the software utilized in the cloud implementation, they cannot realistically test it offline in their lab. In fact, if they run tests on cloud-based security technology, they will immediately reveal all of their tradecraft–enabling the organization to trigger immediate investigation, protect any vulnerability they may have discovered and prepare accordingly. At the same time if the hacker chooses to disconnect the software completely from the cloud, they won’t know how their attack will truly perform in the real world where you have to deal with the reality of a cloud connection.
Ultimately, what organizations need in the face of the diminishing effectiveness of anti-virus technologies is the ability to learn and adapt from every attack an adversary attempts against the technology–no matter the infiltration method. Having a cloud-based architecture will allow organizations to instantly crowd source adversary tradecraft intelligence in real-time and co-relate it with historical data