Lippis Report 144: Cloud Web Security Shifts To Content And Context Threat Detection

nicklippis.jpgWith all the investment in IT security over the years, one would think that threats would have subsided; but they have only increased and largely increased with exploits and iframes (redirection on a reputable website to infect its visitors) up nearly by a factor of 2000 over the past two years. This has resulted in an increase in data theft Trojans over the same period by a factor of 6000, according to the 2009 ScanSafe Global Threat Report, enriching hackers and cybercriminals. What’s driving this exploit growth is that hackers and cybercriminals are automating successful techniques for mass website infection. In addition, hackers increasingly collaborate, sharing best practices to infect websites for personal gain. In short, IT and business leaders are not confronting individual hackers, but a community of cybercriminals working together to steal corporate data that is increasingly organized as a traditional business with suppliers, resellers and end users. And this community’s opportunities to attack individuals and corporations have only increased with the huge growth in mobile access and deep corporate reliance of web-based applications to automate business processes.

Cloud Web Security For Zero Day Threat Defense

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IT leaders, especially those in small- to medium-sized companies are at a disadvantage with limited and even decreased IT staff and capital budgets, making it difficult for them to keep up with an ever-increasing volume of threats and complex exploit profiles. To mitigate these fears and concerns IT leaders have been turning to Cloud Web Security offerings by Cisco, BlueCoat, Websense, McAfee and others. While limited at first to URL filtering, Cloud Web Security is becoming sophisticated enough to identify threats by analyzing content in a contextual basis. Further, Cloud Web Security is in essence a SaaS offering affording on premises and mobile threat defense by extending a corporate perimeter around its mobile workforce.

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The Web has become fundamental to business and the overall economy. The use of the internet has evolved from a static research tool to a dynamic communication platform, with corporate revenue directly linked to Web availability. Second, Web access is wide and varied in terms of end-points used, be it desktops, laptops, netbooks, smartphones, kiosks, etc., and networks providing access such as corporate networks, broadband, WLAN, hotspots. From a security point of view exploits infect corporate IT assets primarily through malicious content on web sites, email and blended email/web combinations. The Web will be used increasingly as the threat vector of choice by hackers and cybercriminals to distribute malware and perpetuate identity theft, financial fraud, and corporate espionage. As networks have become borderless, security vulnerabilities have increased by opening up doors or entry points that hackers can exploit, be those doors end-point devices, web sites, bad sections of web sites, applications, email, etc.

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To mitigate these vulnerabilities IT leaders have deployed Web Security services in their enterprises in an effort to control which web sites employees’ access. But with the huge growth of laptops and smartphones, Cloud Web Security has been introduced beyond the corporate perimeter to protect all users and mobile devices too. Cloud Web Security threat prevention is getting much smarter by incorporating both content analysis with context offering, a powerful defense against zero-day exploits for all users regardless of location.

Annual Global Threat Report 2009

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Cisco ScanSafe

To make these points, I focus on Cisco’s Cloud Web Security offering through their acquisition of ScanSafe. Prior to Cisco’s acquisition of ScanSafe, IDC’s “Worldwide Web Security 2009-2013 Forecast and 2008 Vendor Shares” ranked it as the worldwide market leader with over 30% share with Websense in second place at 7%. ScanSafe’s suite of services includes Web Malware Scanning, Web Filtering and Anywhere+ for roaming user protection. Unlike other solutions, which rely on URL databases and signatures to filter and identify malicious sites, ScanSafe, through its Outbreak Intelligence engine scans all Web requests in real time, so IT leaders receive comprehensive protection from all threats, including threats that appear before an anti-virus signature is available – and that’s a huge advantage.

ScanSafe Web Security

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What’s unique about Cisco ScanSafe is the sheer volume of data – billions of web requests daily – it processes for threat identification. The visibility gained from ScanSafe is also fed into Cisco’s Security Intelligence Operations (SIO) that incorporates data from IntelliShield, SensorBase and the huge footprint from participating Cisco customers who have opted into send their IPS appliance security data to SIO, creating the largest threat collection network on the planet. SIO’s broad threat collection and exploit mitigation dissemination will only increase the accuracy of the entire Cisco security portfolio, including ScanSafe.

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Since ScanSafe is a Cloud Web Security service consisting of over 15 data centers deployed across the world, access is independent of geographic location. In essence a user connecting to the Web will have their traffic pass through one of ScanSafe’s data centers. In the ScanSafe data center the requested Web page is split into its basic components such as Java, PDF, Windows EXE, etc., and scanned within an analysis engine called Outbreak Intelligence for zero-day exploits via twenty-six specialized scanlets. The output of the scanlets is processed by a meta scanner that processes contextual information to decide if the content should be blocked or allowed to pass. This process of content scanning takes less than 5ms assuring user performance is not impeded. What’s impressive about ScanSafe is its scale. It sees billions of web requests per day and all of this scanning and filtering of traffic is captured within Outbreak Intelligence that provides real time harvesting of data that allows it to identify and stop an exploit well before anti-virus vendors can produce a signature and propagate it to their customers.

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Signatures Defense Is Not An Effective Zero Day Threat Mitigation Technique

For example, during the Zeus Botnet and Gumblar exploit ScanSafe was blocking these exploits from propagating to clients well before anti-virus firms developed and distributed a signature. This lapse of time between exploit identification, signature development and mitigation is reduced to zero in ScanSafe’s Outbreak Intelligence, offering a much better approach to defense. Consider Gumblar, which first spiked near the 16th of April 2009 and took anti-virus vendors nearly a week to develop a signature, all the while ScanSafe was blocking it from clients. After anti-virus vendors released a Gumblar signature Gumblar traffic did indeed decline, but the hacker modified his/her exploit and near the 23rd of April Gumblar spiked again forcing the anti-virus vendors to identify it, analyze it, write a new signature and finally distribute it. During this time ScanSafe had been blocking the mutated Gumblar from its clients. This cycle continued for nearly six weeks starting from threat outbreak and included four hacker mutations and subsequent signatures until the anti-virus vendors delivered consistent protection.

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The above is an example of ScanSafe’s ability to detect and block exploits in scale. The more content ScanSafe’s data centers scan the smarter its Outbreak Intelligence gets. This is important for two reasons. First in this market the suppliers with the largest market share are rewarded with the greatest visibility into exploits and thus offer the quickest and most potent defenses. Thus with its dominant share ScanSafe has a level of threat visibility that allows it to accurately and quickly mitigate exploits. Second since ScanSafe is a cloud-based service it can deliver a solution for on-premise and mobile users quickly and easily. This combination is not only powerful for large enterprises but for small- to medium-sized business as well, where IT skills and capital constraints had precluded them from offering the same protections as larger firms, until now. In fact the small to medium enterprise (SME) market can offer its employees the same level of protection as large enterprises when using ScanSafe.

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ScanSafe’s data centers not only offer scale of processing but fault tolerance and redundancy are built into their design so that in the case of a data center outage, the data center that’s nearest in proximity is equipped with enough capacity to support all users without negatively impacting performance. ScanSafe has a track record of 100% availability over the past 7 years. For traveling mobile users their protection follows them anywhere in the world. For example a traveling mobile worker may deplane in Singapore connecting to the ScanSafe Singapore data center, but upon arrival in the U.K. the London data center will service this mobile user so that his/her policy is consistent worldwide while performance is maximized.

Reporting Is A Key ScanSafe Differentiator

ScanSafe reporting is arguably the most detailed in the market at analyzing web security threats and offers depth unattainable by enterprise system thanks to its position in the cloud. There are over 5000 customizable reports with 75 reporting attributes and 11 categories with comprehensive drill downs. This reporting flexibility allows administrators to define important data too. There are virtually no report design restraints offering great insight and visibility into web activity. The reports are based on a data warehouse infrastructure providing cumulative, trending and forensic reports being processed and maintained by ScanSafe’s storage, compute and network infrastructure. Its reporting is SaaS-based, meaning that IT leaders do not need to purchase or run reporting software on-premise. Reporting is key as IT leaders are provided with visibility for both on-premise and off-premises Web usage, offering them tools for charge back, forensics, application planning, etc.

Consistent or Different Policy

Policy is an enabler for IT leaders to gain control over Web use by in office and mobile workers. ScanSafe delivers IT leaders control knobs over content such as URL filtering, dynamic classifications of websites, end-user education through threat labeling of search engine results before employees click on links plus other traditional policy settings. In addition, ScanSafe’s Anywhere+ allows IT Security leaders to set flexible on- and off- premises policy. For example, in-office employees may have policy set for both acceptable use and malware prevention; however, off-premises employees may have policy set for malware prevention. As Anywhere+ becomes integrated with Cisco’s AnyConnect client, this capability will be pushed to the millions of users that use the AnyConnect client. Providing a consistent policy framework for on- and off-premises is a work in progress at Cisco, but they do have the product breadth to deliver on its implementation.

Cloud Web Security has primarily been focused on URL filtering as its primary control. But URL filtering has become less effective as a control or security technique due to large quantities of dynamic content delivered over the internet. URL filtering schemes are unable to identify different types of content within pages especially within Web 2.0 sites. This is where content analysis has blossomed as an accurate approach to identify every component of web page content that is attempting to traverse a corporate firewall or reach a mobile end-point independent of website categorization.

Cloud Web Security offerings are delivering a network approach to zero-day exploit mitigation that is faster and more accurate than traditional client-based anti-virus signature approaches. Cloud Web Security offerings that are based upon content analysis with a contextual basis are best positioned to mitigate exploits. As these offerings are cloud-based their use is naturally extended to static and mobile locations offering protection to both desktop and mobile users with consistent reporting and customizable policy creation. Another large benefit is that Cloud Web Security solutions are well within the reach of small- to medium-sized businesses, offering these firms an effective way to close the gap between effective defense and budget plus staff limitations. Cloud Web Security should be considered as part of IT’s overall arsenal to defend workers and corporate assets from hacker and cybercriminal threats.

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