Making Sense of the Top Cybersecurity Trends

Credit: Getty Images

With each passing year, the CISO’s job is not becoming any easier. As companies continue embracing the Digital Transformation, the growing complexity and openness of their IT infrastructures mean that the attack surface for hackers and malicious insiders is increasing as well. Combined with the recent political developments such as the rise of state-sponsored attacks, new surveillance laws, and harsh privacy regulations, security professionals now have way too many things on their hands that sometimes keep them awake at night. What’s more important – protecting your systems from ransomware or securing your cloud infrastructure? Should you invest in CEO fraud protection or work harder to prepare for a media fallout after a data breach? Decisions, decisions…

The skills gap problem is often discussed by the press, but the journalists usually focus more on the lack of IT experts which are needed to operate complex and sprawling cybersecurity infrastructures. Alas, the related problem of making wrong strategic decisions about the technologies and tools to purchase and deploy is not mentioned that often, but it is precisely the reason for the “cargo cult of cybersecurity”. Educating the public about the modern IT security trends and technologies will be a big part of our upcoming Cybersecurity Leadership Summit, which will be held in Berlin this November, and last week, my fellow analyst John Tolbert and I have presented a sneak peek into this topic by dispelling several popular misconceptions.

After a lengthy discussion about choosing just five out of the multitude of topics we’ll be covering at the summit, we came up with a list of things that, on one hand, are generating enough buzz in the media and vendors’ marketing materials and, on the other hand, are actually relevant and complex enough to warrant a need to dig into them. That’s why we didn’t mention ransomware, for example, which is actually declining along with the devaluation of popular cryptocurrencies…

Artificial Intelligence in Cybersecurity

Perhaps the biggest myth about Artificial Intelligence / Machine Learning (which, incidentally, are not the same even though both terms are often used interchangeably) is that it’s a cutting-edge technology that has arrived to solve all our cybersecurity woes. This cannot be further from the truth, though: the origins of machine learning predate digital computers. Neural networks were invented back in the 1950s and some of their applications are just as old. It’s only the recent surge in available computing power thanks to commodity hardware and cloud computing that has caused this triumphant entering of machine learning into so many areas of our daily lives.

In his recent blog post, our fellow analyst Mike Small has provided a concise overview of various terms and methods related to AI and ML. To his post, I can only add that applications of these methods to cybersecurity are still very much a field of academic research that is yet to mature into advanced off-the-shelf security solutions. Most products that are currently sold with “AI/ML inside” stickers on their boxes are in reality limited to the most basic ML methods that enable faster pattern or anomaly detection in log files. Only some of the more advanced ones offer higher-level functionality like actionable recommendations and improved forensic analysis. Finally, true cognitive technologies like natural language processing and AI-powered reasoning are just beginning to be adapted towards cybersecurity applications by a few visionary vendors.

It’s worth stressing, however, that such solutions will probably never completely replace human analysts if only for numerous legal and ethical problems associated with decisions made by an “autonomous AI”. If anyone, it would be the cybercriminals without moral inhibitions that we will see among the earliest adopters…

Zero Trust Security

The Zero Trust paradigm is rapidly gaining popularity as a modern alternative to the traditional perimeter-based security, which can no longer provide sufficient protection against external and internal advanced cyberthreats. An IT infrastructure designed around this model treats every user, application or data source as untrusted and enforces strict security, access control, and comprehensive auditing to ensure visibility and accountability of all user activities.

However, just like with any other hyped trend, there is a lot of confusion about what Zero Trust actually is. Fueled by massive marketing campaigns by vendors trying to get into this lucrative new market, a popular misconception is that Zero Trust is some kind of a “next-generation perimeter” that’s supposed to replace outdated firewalls and VPNs of old days.

Again, this cannot be further from the truth. Zero Trust is above all a new architectural model, a combination of multiple processes and technologies. And although adopting Zero Trust approach promises a massive reduction of attack surface, reduction of IT complexity, and productivity improvements, there is definitely no off-the-shelf solution that magically transforms your existing IT infrastructure.

Going Zero Trust always starts with a strategy, which must heterogeneous and hybrid by design. It involves discovering, classifying and protecting sensitive data; redefining identities for each user and device; establishing and enforcing strict access controls to each resource; and finally, continuous monitoring and audit of every activity. And remember: you should trust no one. Especially not vendor marketing!

Insider Threat Management

Ten years ago, the riskiest users in every company were undoubtedly the system administrators. Protecting the infrastructure and sensitive data from them potentially misusing their privileged access was the top priority. Nowadays, the situation has changed dramatically: every business user that has access to sensitive corporate data can, either inadvertently or with a malicious intent, cause substantial damage to your business by leaking confidential information, disrupting access to a critical system or simply draining your bank account. The most privileged users in that regard are the CEO or CFO, and the number of new cyber attacks targeting them specifically is on the rise.

The studies show that cyberattacks focusing on infrastructure are becoming too complex and costly for hackers, so they are focusing on social engineering methods instead. One carefully crafted phishing mail can thus cause more damage than an APT attack that takes months of planning… And the best part is that victims do all the work themselves!

Unfortunately, traditional security tools and even specialized Privileged Access Management solutions aren’t suitable for solving this new challenge. Again, the only viable strategy is to combine changes in existing business processes (especially those related to financial transactions) and a multi-layered deployment of different security technologies ranging from endpoint detection and response to email security to data loss prevention and even brand reputation management.

Continuous Authentication

Passwords are dead, biometric methods are easily circumvented, account hijacking is rampant… How can we still be sure that users are who they are claiming they are when they access a system or an application, from anywhere in the world and from a large variety of platforms?

One of the approaches that’s been growing in popularity in the recent year is adaptive authentication – the process of gathering additional context information about the users, their devices and other environmental factors and evaluating them according to risk-based policies. Such solutions usually combine multiple strong authentication methods and present the most appropriate challenge to the user based on their current risk level. However, even this quite complex approach is often not sufficient to combat advanced cyberattacks.

Continuous authentication paradigm takes this to the next level. By combining dynamic context-based authentication with real-time behavior biometrics, it turns authentication from a single event into a seamless ongoing process and thus promises to reduce the impact of a credential compromise. This way, the user’s risk score is not calculated just once during initial authentication but is constantly reevaluated across time, changing as the user moves into a different environment or reacting to anomalies in their behavior.

Unfortunately, this approach requires major changes in the way applications are designed and modernizing legacy systems can be a major challenge. Another problem is AA’s perceived invasiveness – many users do not feel comfortable being constantly monitored, and in many cases, these actions may even be illegal. Thus, although promising solutions are starting to appear on the market, AA is still far from mainstream adoption.

Embedding a Cybersecurity Culture

Perhaps the biggest myth about cybersecurity is that it takes care of itself. Unfortunately, the history of the recent large-scale cybersecurity incidents clearly demonstrates that even the largest companies with massive budgets for security tools are not immune to attacks. Also, many employees and whole business units often see security as a nuisance that hurts their productivity and would sometimes go as far as to actively sabotage it, maintaining their own “shadow IT” tools and services.

However, the most common cause of security breaches is simple negligence stemming primarily from insufficient awareness, lack of established processes and general reluctance to be a part of corporate cybersecurity culture. Unfortunately, there is no technology that can fix these problems, and companies must invest more resources into employee training, teaching them the cybersecurity hygiene basics, explaining the risks of handling personal information and preparing them for the inevitable response to a security incident.

Even more important is for the CISOs and other high-level executives to continuously improve their own awareness of the latest trends and developments in cybersecurity.

By Alexei Balaganski, lead analyst at KuppingerCole. Read more KuppingerCole blogs here.