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Necessary But Insufficient Security Reviews

From a security perspective, tech product companies far too often focus solely on various ISO and/or NIST audits to help inform their view of how they manage risk within their company and their products.

The problem with the standards that exist today is that none of them tread deeply enough into the waters of detection and prevention of malicious activities within products. Instead, they focus more on the processes of response, identification, notification, employee access, etc.

While these activities (and audits) are necessary, they are insufficient to ensure that we properly manage risk (and prevent malicious activities) in our products. As we’ve written previously, erecting barriers and hiding behind big walls may make you feel better and help you sleep at night – but it’s not going to keep the bad guys from scaling your walls and taking your stuff.

This article introduces the AKF Security Insights Cube with the recommendation to keep as much of your data as possible for testing, analysis, and preventing bad actors by proactively searching for vulnerabilities before they get to exploiting you first.

The Online World is Getting Scarier

Consider the following secular trends for online products:

  • A continuing mix-shift of commerce from retail to online. Within the US in 2020, excluding certain goods, this number stands at 31%. It was a meager 9% of total commerce in 2017 up from 1% in 2002. If one excludes extremely high dollar items (vehicles, etc) the percentage of sales is significantly higher. Growing at a slightly higher than linear rate since 2002, this number should continue to increase exponentially. From the perspective of a malicious hacker, this is a growth in opportunity.
  • Developing and established nations outside of N. America and Western Europe continue to invest heavily in STEM-based education.
  • Overall employment in many of these countries is comparatively low outside of what Western Nations provide through off-shore contracting opportunities. Combined with recent nationalistic trends and a desire to “keep jobs at home” or not “offshore jobs” there is a strong possibility that demand for offshore agencies will decrease over time.
  • Some nations within the set of nations spending heavily on STEM education, have created cyber-institutes promoting cyber and security related warfare capabilities.
  • A smaller set of the nations described above have heavily promoted state sponsored cyber warfare initiatives, setting these teams (e.g. the PRNK’s Unit 180) against corporate infrastructure within the United States.
  • The barrier to entry for malicious actors to be effective in attacking corporate assets has declined. Hacker communities commonly share exploits and malware, and certain nation-states (e.g. Russia and N. Korea) have contributed to hacking toolsets, thereby decreasing the barrier to entry for a malicious actor and resultingly increasing the supply of said malicious actors.
  • Extradition from other countries for crimes committed, especially those with which the US is not allied, is difficult to impossible. View this as a low perceived cost of committing a crime. If you cannot be prosecuted, there is no to low perceived cost of committing the crime.
  • Crypto-currency (e.g. Bitcoin) provide a near untraceable means of selling stolen data, or holding systems for ransom.
  • According to Gartner research, by 2025, at least 75% of IT organizations will face one or more attacks and 2020 saw a dramatic increase in ransomware attacks, pointing to sevenfold or higher rates of growth.

Erecting barriers and hiding behind big walls may make you feel better and help you sleep at night – but it’s not going to keep the bad guys from scaling your walls and taking your stuff

The resulting forces of these meta or secular trends are clear:

  1. The value of being a malicious actor has increased as the supply (in terms of sales/value) continues to increase. View this economically as an increasing opportunity for crime.
  2. The barrier to entry to become a malicious actor is decreasing.
  3. The cost in terms of prosecution, if performed outside the US is low to zero.
  4. These points combine to make one clear outcome: Cybercrime and cyberterrorism (fraud, malicious use, etc) will rise as a percentage of revenue transacted online.

To help combat this rising malicious activity, we need new models and approaches to help us think about how to "identify and prevent" bad actors from doing horrible things.

Enter the AKF Security Insights Cube

Security Insights Cube for evaluation of security program and security monitoring of services

If Data Isn't Real Time, It Is Worthless

The AKF Partners Security Insights Cube is predicated on the notion that all the data it addresses is accessible in near-real-time. This alone is a considerable barrier for many companies. Identifying fraudulent activity after credit cards are processed, for instance, is simply too late. We want to know that bad people are entering our neighborhood and at our door – not that they stole something from our house yesterday.

The lower left corner of the cube is the starting point for any solution – the point at which you are flying blind and have no real time data. Again – getting data from 15 minutes ago or 24 hours ago is as useless in driving a product as it is in driving a car or flying a plane; you simply have no idea what is going on.

X Axis – Breadth of Data (What to Keep)

The X Axis of the cube evaluates the breadth of data available to an organization in real time. The far left is “zero real time data”. Progressing to the right of the axes are increasingly valuable risk related data points from real time key performance indicators like logins, add-to-carts, check-outs, auth activity (and failures), searches, etc. Moving further right, we may keep all session data such that we can interrogate and perform behavioral analysis and pattern matching. The far right of the axis is the point at which we keep absolutely everything, increasing the optionality of how we may interrogate the data for risk management and malicious activity prevention purposes.

Y Axis – Usage (How We Use Our Data)

The Y Axis of the cube evaluates the activities performed upon the X axis data by an organization. Clearly here the X axis sets an upper bound on what’s possible on the Y axis. For instance, it would be hard to understand “Who, What or How” something happened if we didn’t first store session data to be analyzed. From a GDPR perspective, PII can be anonymized if necessary in session information. As with most analytics oriented system, maturity progresses from doing nothing, to “reporting” capabilities that illuminate “what is happening” (typically employing performance indicators), to answering “Who, Why and How” to finally predicting what will happen and preventing malicious activities in real time.

Z Axis – Duration (How Long do we Keep Our Data?)

The Z Axis of the cube deals simply with the depth, or duration, that data is kept. We rarely suggest that data be kept forever, but there is great value in ensuring that past patterns can be analyzed to create behavior models for scoring risk and blocking activities. A handful of years is typically appropriate for most commerce solutions, slightly more data for fintech solutions.

AKF Partners performs security reviews of technology products. Our approach evaluates security among several dimensions and includes components of NIST and ISO standards, but is tailored to the needs of online product companies.