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Attack mitigation tools fall short, security vendors say

Jaikumar Vijayan | Feb. 16, 2011
When preparing a security plan, enterprises should assume they will be breached at some point

FRAMINGHAM 16 FEBRUARY 2011 - SAN FRANCISCO -- Acknowledging that security technologies to prevent cyberattacks aren't always up to the task, several vendors at the RSA Conference here advised companies that are making security plans to just assume that they will be breached at some point.

Rather than pouring resources into stopping all attacks, the better strategy is to acknowledge that some attacks will inevitably penetrate their defenses, they said. Therefore, the goal of any enterprise security strategy is not to focus solely on attack mitigation, but also on quick detection and response.

"The typical focus today is on trying to prevent malware from getting in through the front door," said Bret Hartman, chief technology officer at RSA, the security division of EMC. "The problem with that approach is that there's always a percentage [of malware] that does make it through. There's been an overemphasis on infiltration. The goal is to shift focus and assume that you have been infiltrated."

Such advice signals an epiphany of sorts in an industry where vendors have always insisted that their technologies, if properly deployed, would protect companies from attacks. Events over the past year, such as the attacks on Google and those tied to Stuxnet, have highlighted the fact that it may be impossible to fend off every determined adversary.

The vast and ever-increasing amounts of data that companies need to manage and the innumerable ways in which that data can be accessed have greatly heightened the need for companies to look beyond traditional defense strategies. While such defenses are useful in blocking about 75% of the threats out there, new approaches are required for dealing with the remaining threats, experts said.

Exacerbating the problem is the increasing sophistication of attack weapons and approaches, vendors said. Many of the malware tools that companies need to deal with these days have been explicitly designed to evade detection and to remain hidden for long periods. Once such tools infiltrate a network, they are almost impossible to detect and eliminate using traditional detection and removal tools, said Gary Golumb, principal security researcher at Netwitness, a Herndon, Va.-based vendor of security systems.

"The industry is, for many reasons, only now beginning to see the warning signs that we are not as effective as we thought we were" in dealing with security threats, Golumb said. In many cases, industry assumptions about the effectiveness of attack mitigation technologies and approaches have been "horribly off base," he added.


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