Blog Post August 10, 2023

Inside Incident Response: A Cybersecurity Expert's Take

By: Krystal Rennie, Director of Corporate Communications

In today’s rapidly evolving digital landscape, cyber threats can be identified around every corner, leaving the role of a threat research team to be non-negotiable. Through continuous monitoring, proactive analysis, and timely dissemination of threat intelligence, threat research teams are tasked with fortifying defenses and empowering organizations to stay one step ahead of cyber adversaries.  

In this blog post, we sit down with the Adlumin Threat Research team’s Director, Kevin O’Connor to discuss their pivotal role, shed light on Incident Response, and how the team’s insights are essential in the ongoing battle against cyberthreats. 

Kevin, please tell us more about your team’s role. 

The threat research team works to proactively identify threats that may have bypassed security controls. Another way to think about it is we look for new threats that have yet to be detected. Since they have yet to be detected, there are no rules to protect against these threats, like a specific new type of malware. The Adlumin Threat Research team looks specifically for these undetected threats so we can build defenses to identify those threats in the future.  

We’re also responsible for incident response for our customers. We work with customers when a breach has affected stored data or multiple systems and hasn’t been contained.  The team works with our customers to do complete, end-to-end incident response, identify the root cause, and eliminate the threat.  

Talk to us about the difference between investigation and incident response. 

An investigation analyzes a specific event that might have been triggered by a Managed Detection and Response (MDR) team or MDR software. An investigation looks at a particular event to see if it is malicious in nature, its disposition, and contain the threat from spreading.  

Incident response is the step that comes after an investigation, it includes a deeper dive into the events, additional analysis, potential reverse engineering, and most importantly, eradicating the threat. Then incident response determines the breach’s root cause and overall impact on the business and its assets. It focuses on discovering how the threat got into your network, how long it was there, what it did, and how it bypassed the defenses.  

What are the most common ways that attackers get in and what can customers do to protect themselves?

The most popular way attackers get in is through phishing or spear phishing emails.  

It’s the user who falls victim to these attempts and clicks the malicious link in their inbox that either leads them to a fake login site where they put in their credentials. The attacker can now access the e-mail account and associated productivity tools like OneDrive, Sharepoint and Word, where they can access files or add a malicious file. Or when users open infected attachments sent to them via email, the typical Word Document or PDF with malware is added to kick off the attack. The other half of it is being redirected to sites that then do browser-based exploitation; the attacker exploits your web connection to an accessed link to be able to put malware down on your device, I think those are the two paths within. The human interface between you and the computer results in a lot of exploitation.  

What adversary trends do you think we’ll see in the next year? 

I expect to see more examples of supply chain breaches that lead to compromise.  We saw it earlier with the MOVEit vulnerability, during SolarWinds, and even before that there’s been many examples of commercial software being used to attack the products customers. More advanced malware attackers look at supply chain compromises to enable attacks, especially widespread and against hardened targets.   

What are easy ways to quickly identify if you are being attacked vs being breached? 

It’s important to realize that most organizations are being attacked daily. Those daily attacks might be script kitties, but when we pull up any specific customer and look at their external network perimeter, we see attempts to get into any open services all the time, so the attacks are constant. 

In an attack, you’ll often see many signs of failed entry or exploitation attempts against the customer. So, if you think about an account inside of a customer, let’s say, the billing department, with access to all sorts of financial systems and billing data. And we see repeated phishing emails, maybe all using the same tactic, techniques, and procedure, to get that initial exploitation onto the victim’s machine – that might constitute an attack on your environment. 

Whereas, seeing things like excess connections from a specific host or something trying to reach back to your network is typically a sign of a breach. Other signs are actions taken on the network’s assets, like programs being installed, data being exfiltrated, or settings like security relevant logging being changed.  

What key items should be included in an Incident Response when a breach occurs? 

One of the most important parts that should be included in an Incident Response report is scope. With large-scale breaches, it can quickly reach numerous endpoints within your environment. You’ll need to know what network assets were compromised, what data was compromised, and what access the compromised users/systems have to the data. A timeline of infection and a timeline of exactly what was done, when, and how to contain it is also critical. 

Another key part of the IR report is the root cause analysis that explains how the attackers got into your system so you can close the door and lock it. Time is spent to eradicate the threat and if you don’t close that door the adversary could come back the next day and do the same thing over and over again. Plus, another attacker could also find the same door and exploit it. 

What do you enjoy most about your role?  

I enjoy finding new threats that haven’t been detected before. I love finding a new piece of malware that hasn’t been identified yet. It’s like when a scientist discovers a new animal in the wild. They found a new species of bird or beetle or whatever and get to document exactly how it works, what it does, and how it fits into the ecosystem. There’s a lot of technical investigation involved.  

For example, when we uncovered “PowerDrop,” a malicious PowerShell script that has set its sights on the U.S. aerospace industry, we discovered the malicious malware used advanced techniques to evade detection such as deception, encoding, and encryption. The malware runs remote commands against victim networks after gaining initial access, execution, and persistence into servers.

It’s a big puzzle that you put together, especially when you’re doing reverse engineering, it’s almost like an art and I enjoy it a lot.  

Incident Response and the Adlumin Advantage 

Most IR response firms use third-party tools and deploy it all over the environment to collect information and logs. A core capability of the Adlumin platform is we have insight into all the logs and events for the past three months or more for our customers, so we don’t have to deploy additional technology.  

The events are constantly being saved to a secure source, where attackers can’t really modify them. This is important because if you gather log sources after the attacker has disturbed the environment, the logs may have been poisoned. So, it’s hard to determine the truth. 

Since our agent is already collecting logs and events, even before an incident happens, a lot of the data is already safely stored and logged, which means we can cut down on incident response times and gives customers some savings while giving us an advantage in responding and catching attacks. 

To learn more about Adlumin’s Incident Response offering, download our datasheet today or contact one of our cybersecurity experts for demo.