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Acting on MSSP Alerts

By Anton Chuvakin | October 16, 2014 | 0 Comments


Have you seen the funnel lately?



In any case, while you are contemplating the funnel, also ponder this:

what do you get from your MSSP, ALERTS or INCIDENTS [if you are getting LOGS from them, please reconsider paying any money for their services]

What’s the difference? Security incidents call for an immediate incident response (by definition), while alerts need to be reviewed via an alert triage process in order to decide whether they indicate an incident, a minor “trouble” to be resolved immediately, a false alarm or a cause to change the alerting rules in order to not see it ever again. Here is an example triage process:



Now, personally, I have an issue with a situation when an MSSP is tasked with declaring an incident for you. As you can learn from our incident response research, declaring a security incident is a big decision made by several stakeholders (see examples of incident definitions here). If your MSSP partner has a consistent history of sending you the alerts that always lead to incident declaration (!) and IR process activation – this is marvelous. However, I am willing to bet that such a “perfect” track record is achieved at a heavy cost of false negatives i.e. not being informed about many potential problems.

So, it is most likely that you get ALERTS. Now, a bonus question: whose job is it to triage the alerts to decide on the appropriate action?



Think harder – whose job is it to triage the alerts that MSSPs sends you?

After you figured out that it is indeed the job of the MSSP customer, how do you think they should go about it? Some of the data needed to triage the alert may be in the alert itself (such as a destination IP address), while some may be in other systems or data repositories. Some of said systems may be available to your MSSP for access (example: your Active Directory) and some are very unlikely to be (example: your HR automation platform). So, a good MSSP will actually triage the alerts coming from their technology platform to the best of their ability – they do have the analysts and some of the data, after all. So, think of MSSP alerts as of “half-triaged” alerts that requires further triage.

For example:

  • NIPS alerts + firewall log data showing all sessions between the IP pair + logs from an attack target + business role of a target (all of these may be available to the MSSP) = high-fidelity alert that arrives from the MSSP; it can probably be acted upon without much analysis
  • NIPS alerts + firewall log data (these are often available to the MSSP) = “half-triaged” alerts that often need additional work by the customer
  • NIPS alerts (occasionally these are the only data available) = study this Wikipedia entry on GIGO.

A revelation: MSSPs are in the business of … eh… business. So, MSSP analysts are expected to deliver on the promise of cost-effectiveness. Therefore, the quality of their triage will depend on the effectiveness of their technology platform, available data (that customers provide to them!), skills of a particular analyst and – yes! – expected effort/time to be spent on each alert (BTW, fast may mean effective, but it may also mean sloppy. Slow may mean the same…)

Another revelation: MSSP success with alert triage will heavily depend on the data available to their tools and analysts. As a funny aside, will you go into this business: I will send you my NIDS alerts only (and provide no other data about my IT, business, etc) and then offer to pay you a $1,000,000 if you only send me the alerts that I really care about and that justify an immediate action in my environment. Huh? No takers?

So, how would an MSSP customer triage those alerts? They need (surprise!):

  • People i.e. security analysts who are willing and capable of triaging alerts
  • Data i.e. logs, flows, system context data, business context, etc that can be used to understand the impact of the alerts.

The result may look like this:


Mind you that some of the systems that house the data useful for alert triage (and IR!) are the same systems you can use for monitoring – but you outsourced the monitoring to the MSSP. Eh… that can be a bit of problem 🙂 That is why many MSSP clients prefer to keep their own local log storage inside a cheap log management tool – not great for monitoring, but handy for IR.

Shockingly, I have personally heard about cases where MSSP clients were ignoring 100% of their MSSP alerts, had them sent to an unattended mailbox or hired an intern to delete them on a weekly basis (yup!). This may mean that their MSSP was no good, or that they didn’t give them enough data to do their job well… As a result, your choice is:

  • you can give more data to an MSSP and [if they are any good!] you will get better alerts that require less work on your behalf, or
  • you can give them the bare minimum and then complain about poor relevance of alerts (in this case, you will get no sympathy from me, BTW)

And finally, an extra credit question: if your MSSP offers incident response services that costs extra, will you call them when you have an incident that said MSSP failed to detect?! Ponder this one…

Blog posts related to this research on MSSP usage:

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