Wednesday, February 23, 2011


Just a recap on some thinking covering threats and the folks who study them...

One of the key principles to understanding the threat is having the ability to monitor it. Within an enterprise environment security teams instrument the network in the form of protection technologies and stream alerts back to management consoles or aggregate multiple alert streams into centralized SIEM’s (or equivalent). Without sounding too depreciating, as difficult as it is to monitor threats within an enterprise, it’s nothing like monitoring Internet bound threats.

I know that plenty of organizations profess to monitoring threats as they propagate the Internet – often providing threat feeds to caring organizations (typically for a fee), or incorporating the processed threat data into tools and technologies behind the scene. The problem is that much of this monitoring is based upon point sampling and is heavily biased to the organizations geographic presence – and that’s before we get into the technical aspects of the monitoring systems in play.

In very basic terms you could think of it a bit like radio. Geographical distance and topology affect our ability to listen to a particular radio channel. The type of radio set and the frequency range it is capable of intercepting (e.g. AM, FM and shortwave) dictate the overall “richness” and quality of what we’re listening too. The mix of just these few simple variables greatly affects our globe-spanning listening pleasure. Even then, given a top-of-the-range radio placed on the highest mountain with the clearest “line of sight” in the world, reception capability is still limited and it probably isn’t going to interpret digital terrestrial TV signals.

Understanding the threats that plague the Internet and infiltrate the enterprise network is more than just instrumentation and regular mechanical sampling. To grasp the threat you need to understand the limitations of your threat visibility, constantly upgrade and extend the monitoring systems, and finally augment that visibility with data analysis systems capable of managing, correlating and analyzing huge volumes of streaming data. Even then there’s still a high degree of “art” to interpreting the nature of an Internet-spanning threat.

To my mind the methods, skills and acumen to understanding and tracking Internet threats are eerily similar to meteorology. Perhaps I’m biased – I specialized in Atmospheric Physics at University after all – but those skills and experiences I gained in meteorology can increasingly be applied to studying Internet threats. In particular, those of forecasting and dealing with abrupt changes of chaotic systems.

Let me propose the concept of Threatology – the study and analysis of Internet threats – and the Threatologists who study and understand it. Much of threatology is still an art – but that’s OK. Sure, there are millions of sensors scattered around the Internet (in the form of IDS sensors, AV sensors, web crawlers, spam traps, etc.) feeding data back to the threatologists for analysis – just as there are rain gauges, barometers, thermometers, anemometers and Doppler radar, etc. feeding data to meteorologists – but the real work goes into feeding the big modeling systems designed to digest the streaming data and forecasting what’ll happen next.

Today’s threatologists are still battling the intricacies and limitations of the sensors they’ve deployed (or have access to) around the Internet. Take for example the data feeds gained from the tens-of-millions of deployed desktop anti-virus products out there that phone-home with the latest things their subscribers have been infected with. An analogy would be the millions of amateur meteorologists submitting their latest rain gauge data back to the national meteorology department. Intricacies such as make and manufacturer of the gauge (affecting what’s actually being measured), physical location (e.g. under a tree or patio, or in the middle of a one-acre yard), geographical location (95% located in suburbia, 3% in farms, etc.), cleaning regime (the sensor’s full of autumn leaves or mud) and technical skill of the amateur operator – greatly limit the usefulness of this “invaluable” data source.

Over the last five decades meteorologists have employed ever-more advanced weather modeling systems that take in all this sensor data, apply historical trends and prediction routines, and manage to provide fairly accurate forecasts a few days out into the future. Threatologists meanwhile only have a couple of years playing with their own threatology modeling systems – and there’s a long way to go. There’s a lot to be learned from meteorology and the tools that have been developed thus far. Sure, there are many differences in the specifics of the data and nature of the threat – but the dynamic and chaotic characteristics (using the mathematical definition) of the threat are things that have already been “solved” in meteorology.

Welcome to the era of threatology and the professional threatologists.

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