Understanding the Role of Multi-Stage Detection in a Layered Defense

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

Liviu Arsene


The cybersecurity landscape has changed dramatically during the past decade, with threat actors constantly changing tactics to breach businesses’ perimeter defenses, cause data breaches, or spread malware. New threats, new tools, and new techniques are regularly chained together to pull off advanced and sophisticated attacks that span across multiple deployment stages, in an effort to be as stealthy, as pervasive, and as effective as possible without triggering any alarm bells from traditional security solutions.

Security solutions have also evolved, encompassing multi-stage and multi-layered defensive technologies aimed at covering all potential attack vectors and detecting threats at pre-execution, on-execution, or even throughout execution.

Multi-Stage Detection

All malware is basically code that’s stored (on disk or in memory) and executed, just like any other application. Delivered as a file or binary, security technologies refer to these states of malware detection as pre-execution and on-execution. Basically, it boils down to detecting malware before, or after, it gets executed on the victim’s endpoint.

Layered security solutions often cover these detection stages with multiple security technologies specifically designed to detect and prevent zero-day threats, APTs, fileless attacks and obfuscated malware from reaching or executing on the endpoint.

For example, pre-execution detection technologies often include signatures and file fingerprints matched against cloud lookups (local and cloud-based machine learning models aimed at ascertaining the likelihood that an unknown file is malicious based on similarity to known malicious files), as well as hyper detection technologies, which are basically machine learning algorithms on steroids.

It helps to think that hyper detection technologies are basically paranoid machine learning algorithms for detecting advanced and sophisticated threats at pre-execution, without taking any chances. This is particularly useful for organizations in detecting potentially advanced attacks, as it can inspect and detect malicious commands and scripts - including VB scripts, JAVA scripts, PowerShell scripts, and WMI scripts – that are usually associated with sophisticated fileless attacks.

On-execution security technologies sometimes involve detonating the binary inside a sandboxed environment, letting it execute for a specific amount of time, then analyzing all system changes the binary made, the internet connections it attempted, and pretty much inspect any changes and behavior the binary had on the system after it was executed. A sandbox analyzer is highly effective as there’s no risk of infecting a production endpoint and the security tools used to analyze the binary can be set to a highly paranoid mode. The trade-off is that this would typically cause performance penalties on a production endpoint, and even risk compromising the organization’s network should the threat actually breach containment.

Of course, there are on-execution technologies that are deployed on endpoints to specifically detect and prevent exploits from occurring or for monitoring the behavior of running applications and processes throughout their entire lifetime. These technologies are designed to constantly assess the security status of all running applications, and prevent any malicious behavior from compromising the endpoint.

Layered Security Defenses

Multi-stage detection using layered security technologies gives security teams the unique ability to stop the attack kill chain at almost any stage of attack, regardless of the threat’s complexity. For instance, while a tampered document that contains a malicious Visual Basic script might bypass an email filtering solution, it will definitely be picked up by a sandbox analyzer technology as soon as the script starts to execute malicious instructions or commands, or starts to connect to and download additional components on the endpoint.

It’s important to understand that the increased sophistication of threats requires security technologies capable of covering multiple stages of attack, creating a security mesh that acts as a safety net to protect your infrastructure and data. However, it’s equally important that all these security layers be managed from a centralized console that offers a single pane of glass visibility into the overall security posture of the organization. This makes managing security aspects less cumbersome, while also helping security and IT teams focus on implementing prevention measures rather than fighting alert fatigue.

About the author: Liviu Arsene is a Senior E-Threat analyst for Bitdefender, with a strong background in security and technology. Reporting on global trends and developments in computer security, he writes about malware outbreaks and security incidents while coordinating with technical and research departments.

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