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Harnessing Cyber Threat Insights: How Automated Security Validation Redefines Risk Assessment

By Josh Neame, CTO, BlueFort Security

As more organisations fine tune their cyber security approach to be in line with Gartner’s Continuous Threat Exposure Management (CTEM) framework, an increasing emphasis is being placed on identifying, validating, and mitigating risk within their digital environments.

This is all well and good. But – and this is a big BUT – there’s an unfair challenge in organisations in that if you’re responsible for cyber security – be that a CISO, security engineer, red teamer or threat hunter – you often have limited team budget and resources to tackle that ever-evolving environment.

Pretty much the majority of the time, cyber attackers have the edge because they only have to succeed once, where defenders need to succeed every time.

Continuous: The Must-Have Watchword of Cyber Security

According to Gartner, by 2026 organisations that prioritise their security investments based on a continuous exposure management program, will be three times less likely to suffer a breach.

The game-changing word in Gartner’s CTEM framework is “continuous”. Most things in life require a continuous effort to deliver long-term systemic change. If you want to improve the time you take to run a 10K, a sustained training program over a period of months is required. This continuous program should be tailored to your body’s starting fitness level, and then adapted as your strength and stamina change.

Winston Churchill once famously said: “To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.” When considered in the context of cyber security, this doesn’t quite ring true, given that cyber practitioners are usually one step behind the cyber criminals. We know that our cyber security tools and methodologies will never be perfect, but as Mr Churchill said, “to improve is to change” and that’s at the heart of Gartner’s CTEM framework. Continuous change.

One important additional point I want to make here applies equally to the 10K runner as it does to the cyber security professional. That is, if you don’t have a good understanding of your current state of play (for the runner this will be cardio fitness and strength, and for the CISO it will be visibility of the organisation’s entire threat surface), the effectiveness of any plans will be significantly reduced.

Eyes Wide Shut Cyber Security

Organisations are spending millions of pounds trying to keep themselves protected, but unfortunately more often than not, this fails. To illustrate the point, here are some eye-watering statistics from a new report by Pentera, a leader in automated security validation, that looked into the current state of security validation across large organisations.

  • Globally, organisations are spending an average of $164,400 (12.9% of their total IT security budget) on manual pen test assessments. Yet, 51% had reported a breach in the previous 24 months, and many are concerned that security testing is still outpaced by frequency of network change.
  • CISOs are being challenged to do more with less –  53% of enterprises report decreasing or stagnating IT security budgets for 2024. When organisations cannot count on new resources, operational efficiency and getting more out of their existing security suite becomes paramount.

There’s an old saying about achieving high quality in manufacturing,  “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.” From an information security standpoint, a better expression would be “You can’t protect what you can’t see.” What’s clear from Pentera’s survey is that companies don’t understand where the issues are in their networks until a breach occurs, and then it’s too late. In my experience, the culprit for this is visibility – or a lack of visibility.

With these thoughts in mind, I’ll revisit my opening paragraph of this post….  organisations to identify, validate and mitigate risk within their digital environments. Organisations must be proactive about improving their cyber resilience, rather than being target practice for any new malware that’s out there. Cyber security teams can use separate tools and service providers to do the job, or they can embrace new automated tools and do it themselves.

This is where automated security validation comes into its own. Automated testing in particular, levels the cyber security playing field by proactively finding problems before an attacker does, highlighting the impact of that problem if it’s not fixed, and giving a simple explanation of how to fix it.

Automated Testing in Practice

There are a number of key steps that provide the foundation for Gartner’s CTEM approach including:

  • Scanning and assessing security gaps
  • Testing the attack surface by safely emulating real-world insider and external attack techniques, including ransomware emulation
  • Validating security risks and vulnerabilities
  • Intelligently prioritising remediation

Truly Test, Don’t Simulate

Point-in-time testing is no longer sufficient because an organisation’s digital environment changes all the time. New configurations, new tools, new users – all these changes present risks. True security validation involves rigorously testing an organisation’s digital environment, using a hacker’s perspective and techniques, covering endpoints and the entire network. Automated pen testing tools require no agents, manual playbooks, simulations, or false alarms. The approach is to operate like a hacker, thoroughly challenging security controls, identifying vulnerabilities and scrutinising credentials and privileges. What these automated tools are looking for are vulnerabilities, and then looking to attempt to exploit these weaknesses, at scale, without malicious intent or harm.

Automated security penetration testing platforms model the way threat actors behave, by creating virtual attack scenarios that safely exploit points of weakness in the organisation’s attack surface. By constantly testing the organisation’s security infrastructure, automated penetration testing platforms can provide accurate threat validation information and informed recommendations for remediation.

Automating this process provides a detailed and real-time view of the organisation’s security readiness – validating the potential impact of threats by safely exploiting vulnerabilities, without impacting ongoing business operations. Vulnerabilities alone only tell half the story – exploiting these vulnerabilities with real-world attacks enables you to establish the severity and urgency of each threat, and then prioritise remediation based on the most immediate concerns.

Building automated security penetration testing into a CTEM program delivers the reliable, consistent and accurate information you need to make the right decisions to continuously improve your organisation’s security posture.

A Final Thought

The Pentera study I referenced earlier, found that Boards are becoming increasingly more involved in pen testing and security posture data. Over 50% of CISOs reported that they share the results of pen test assessments with their leadership teams, as well as their Boards of Directors.

Understandably, with high-profile breaches in the news, management teams and their Boards are increasingly interested in understanding their organisational resilience, and the potential impact of cyber attacks to their operations and business.

When it comes to cyber security, perfection isn’t attainable. The important element is to identify and be able to converse the security risk in business terms with upper management, receive the budgets necessary, and ride the continuous improvement curve towards cyber resilience.

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