Security Big Data Analytics: Past, Present and Future - Exabeam

Security Big Data Analytics: Past, Present and Future

April 12, 2022


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11 mins

Security big data analytics, or cybersecurity analytics, helps security analysts and solution vendors do much more with log and event data. Legacy Security Information and Event Management (SIEM) solutions are limited to manually defining correlation rules, which are brittle, hard to maintain, and result in many false positives.

Machine learning techniques can help security systems identify patterns and threats with no prior definitions, rules, or attack signatures — and with much higher accuracy. However, to be effective, machine learning needs very big data. The challenge is storing more data, analyzing it in a timely manner, and extracting new insights.

In this article:

How can security big data analytics combat cyberthreats?

Traditionally, security technologies used two primary analytical techniques to detect security incidents:

  • Correlation rules — manually defined rules specifying a sequence of events that indicates an anomaly, which could represent a security threat, vulnerability or active security incident.
  • Network vulnerabilities and risk assessment — scanning networks for known attack patterns and known vulnerabilities, such as open ports and insecure protocols.

The common denominator of these older techniques is that they are good at detecting known bad behavior. However they suffer from two key drawbacks:

  • False positives — Because they are based on rigid, predefined rules and signatures, there is a high level of false positives, leading to alert fatigue.
  • Unknown events — What happens if a new type of attack is attempted that no one had created a rule for? What happens if an unknown type of malware infects your systems? Traditional systems based on correlation rules find it difficult to detect unknown threats.

Advanced threat analytics powered by machine learning

Addressing unknown risks — including insider threats, which are difficult to detect because they are legitimate credentials logged into corporate systems — requires advanced analytics. Advanced threat analytics technology can:

  • Identify anomalies in personnel or device behavior — Create a model of “normal” behavior for a person, a device, or a group of devices on the network, and identify anomalies, even ones that were not predefined as rules.
  • Detect anomalies in the network — Create a model of network traffic to identify anomalies. Is traffic unusual for this period or time of day?
  • Perform machine learning based malware detection — Analyze binaries transmitted by email or downloaded, including those not flagged by antivirus, to understand whether the program is benign or malicious.
  • Perform machine learning based intrusion detection — Identify patterns in network traffic or access control that are similar to historic intrusions or attacks.

To achieve these types of analysis, new analytics methods and access to data is needed.

Security Big Data Analytics: Past, Present and Future
Supervised learning for phishing domain detection

Key concepts in data science, machine learning, and cybersecurity

What is data science?

Data science leverages scientific and mathematical analysis of data sets, as well as human understanding and exploration, to derive business insights from big data.

IN THE CONTEXT OF SECURITY: Data science helps security analysts and security tools make better use of security data, to discover hidden patterns and better understand system behavior.

What is machine learning in cybersecurity?

Machine learning is part of the general field of artificial intelligence (AI). It uses statistical techniques to allow machines to learn without being explicitly programmed.

IN THE CONTEXT OF SECURITY: Machine learning goes beyond correlation rules, to examine unknown patterns and use algorithms for prediction, classification and insight generation.

Security Big Data Analytics: Past, Present and Future

Important note: Artificial Intelligence (AI) is claimed to be a part of many security analytics solutions. Don’t take vendor claims for granted; check what exactly is included in the term “AI”. How are vendors building their models? Which algorithms are used? Look under the hood to understand what exactly is being offered.

Supervised vs. unsupervised learning

Supervised machine learning

Security Big Data Analytics: Past, Present and Future

In supervised learning, the machine learns from a data set that contains inputs and known outputs. A function or model is built that makes it possible to predict what the output variables will be for new, unknown outputs.

IN THE CONTEXT OF SECURITY: Security tools learn to analyze new behavior and determine if it is “similar to” previous known good or known bad behavior.

Unsupervised machine learning

Security Big Data Analytics: Past, Present and Future

In unsupervised learning, the system learns from a dataset that contains only input variables. There is no correct answer, instead the algorithm is encouraged to discover new patterns in the data.

IN THE CONTEXT OF SECURITY: Security tools use unsupervised learning to detect and act on abnormal behavior (without classifying it or understanding if it is good or bad).

What is deep learning in cybersecurity?

Deep learning techniques simulate the human brain by creating networks of digital “neurons” and using them to process small pieces of data, to assemble a bigger picture. Deep learning is most commonly applied to unstructured data, and can automatically learn the significant features of data artifacts. Most modern applications of deep learning utilize supervised learning.

IN THE CONTEXT OF SECURITY: Deep learning is primarily used in packet stream and malware binary analysis, to discover features of traffic patterns and software programs and identify malicious activity.

What is data mining in cybersecurity?

Data mining is the use of analytics techniques, primarily deep learning, to uncover hidden insights in large volumes of data. For example, data mining can uncover hidden relations between entities, discover frequent sequences of events to assist prediction, and discover classification models which help group entities into useful categories.

IN THE CONTEXT OF SECURITY: Data mining techniques are used by security tools to perform tasks like anomaly detection in very large data sets, classification of incidents or network events, and prediction of future attacks based on historical data.

What is user entity behavior analytics (UEBA)?

UEBA solutions are based on a concept called baselining. They build profiles that model standard behavior for users, hosts and devices (called entities) in an IT environment. Using machine learning techniques, they identify anomalous activity, comparing the activity to established baselines to detect security incidents.

The primary advantage of UEBA over traditional security solutions is that it can detect unknown or elusive threats, such as zero day attacks and insider threats. In addition, UEBA reduces the number of false positives because it adapts and learns actual system behavior, rather than relying on predetermined rules which may not be relevant in the current context.

Three algorithms for detecting outliers and anomalies

Random Forest

Random Forest is a powerful supervised learning algorithm that addresses the shortcomings of classic decision tree algorithms. A decision tree attempts to fit behavior to a hierarchical tree of known parameters.

For example, in the tree below, customer satisfaction is distributed according to two variables: product color and customer age. A decision tree algorithm will inaccurately predict that a different color or slightly different age is a good predictor of satisfaction. This is called overfitting—the model uses insufficient or inaccurate data to make predictions on new data.

Security Big Data Analytics: Past, Present and Future

Random Forest automatically breaks up decision trees into a large number of subtrees or stumps. Each subtree emphasizes different information about the population under analysis. It then obtains the result of each subtree, and takes a majority vote of all the subtrees to obtain the final result (a technique called bagging).

By combining all the subtrees together, Random Forest can cancel out the errors of each individual tree and dramatically improve model fitting.

Security Big Data Analytics: Past, Present and Future

IN A SECURITY CONTEXT: Random Forest can help analyze sequential event paths and improve predictions about new events, even when the underlying data is insufficient or improperly structured.

Dimension Reduction

Dimension Reduction is the process of converting a data set with a high number of dimensions (or parameters describing the data) to a data set with less dimensions, without losing important information.

For example, if the data includes one dimension for the length of objects in centimeters and another dimension for inches, one of these dimensions is redundant and does not really add any information, as can be seen by their high correlation. Removing one of these dimensions will make the data easier to explain.

Generally speaking, a Dimension Reduction algorithm can determine which dimensions do not add relevant information and reduce a data set with n dimensions to k, where k<n.

Besides correlation analysis, other ways to remove redundant dimensions include analysis of missing values, variables with low variance across the data set, using decision trees to automatically pick the least important variables and augmenting those trees with Random Forest, factor analysis, backward feature elimination (BFE), and principal component analysis (PCA).

IN A SECURITY CONTEXT: Security data typically consists of logs with a large number of data points about events in IT systems. Dimension Reduction can be used to remove the dimensions that are not necessary for answering the question at hand, helping security tools identify anomalies more accurately.

Security Big Data Analytics: Past, Present and Future
Security Big Data Analytics: Past, Present and Future
Image Source: Inside Big Data

Isolation Forest

Isolation Forest is a technique for detecting anomalies or outliers. It isolates data points by randomly selecting a feature of the data, then randomly selecting a value between the maximum and minimum values of that feature. The process is repeated until the feature is found to be substantially different from the rest of the data set.

The system repeats this process for a large number of features, and builds a random decision tree for each feature. An anomaly score is then computed for each feature, based on the following assumptions:

  • Features which are really anomalies will take only a small number of isolation steps to be far off from the rest of the data set.
  • Features which are not anomalies will take numerous isolation steps to become far off from the data set.

A threshold is defined, and features which require relatively long decision trees to become fully isolated are determined to be normal, with the rest determined to be abnormal.

IN THE CONTEXT OF SECURITY: Isolation Forest is a technique that can be used by UEBA and other next-gen security tools to identify data points that are anomalous compared to the surrounding data.

SIEM and Big Data Analytics

Security Information and Event Management (SIEM) systems are a core component of large security organizations. They capture, organize and analyze log data and alerts from security tools across the organization. Traditionally, SIEM correlation rules were used to automatically identify and alert on security incidents.

Because SIEMs provide context on users, devices and events in virtually all IT systems across the organization, they offer ripe ground for advanced analytics techniques. Today’s SIEMs either integrate with advanced analytics platforms like UEBA, or provide these capabilities as an integral part of their product.

Next-generation SIEMs can leverage machine learning, deep learning, and UEBA to go beyond correlation rules and provide:

  • Complex threat identification — Modern attacks often consist of several types of events, each of which might appear innocuous on its own. Advanced data analytics looks at data for multiple events over a historic timeline, and captures suspicious activity.
  • Entity behavior analysis — SIEMs baseline behavior of critical assets like servers, medical equipment or industrial machinery, and automatically discover anomalies that suggest a threat.
  • Lateral movement detection — Attackers who penetrate an organization typically move through a network, accessing different machines and switching credentials, to escalate their privileges for access to sensitive data. SIEMs analyze data from across the network and multiple system resources, and use machine learning to detect lateral movement.
  • Insider threats — SIEMs identify that a person or system resource is behaving abnormally. They can “connect the dots” between a misbehaving user account and other data points, to discover a malicious insider, or a compromised insider account.
  • Detection of new types of attacks — by leveraging advanced analytics, SIEMs capture and alert on zero day attacks, or malware which does not match a known binary pattern.

Exabeam is an example of a next-generation SIEM with built-in advanced analytics capabilities — including complex threat identification, automatic event timelines, dynamic peer grouping of similar users or entities, lateral movement detection and automatic detection of asset ownership.

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