Asset-Centric vs Threat-Centric Digital Situational Awareness

As an Air Force officer I was taught the importance of situational awareness (SA). The surprisingly good (at least for now) Wikipedia entry describes SA as "knowing what is going on so you can figure out what to do" (Adam, 1993) and knowing "what you need to know not to be surprised" (Jeannot et al., 2003). Wikipedia also mentions fighter pilots who leveraged SA to win dogfights. When applied to information security, I like to use the term digital situational awareness (DSA).

In 2005 invented the term pervasive network awareness (PNA) for my book Extrusion Detection to describe one way to achieve a certain degree of SA:

Pervasive network awareness is the ability to collect the network-based information -- from the viewpoint of any node on the network -- required to make decisions.

PNA is inherently an asset-centric means to improve SA. PNA involves watching assets for indications of violations of confidentiality, integrity, and/or availability (the CIA triad). An asset-centric approach is not the only means to detect incidents, however.

During the past few years several firms have offered services that report indications of security incidents using threat-centric means. These services are not traditional managed security service providers (MSSPs) because they are not watching assets, per se, under the control or operation of a client. In other words, these firms are not placing sensors on company networks and watching for breaches involving monitored systems.

Rather, these next-generation firms seek and investigate infrastructure used by threats to perpetrate their crimes. For example, a threat-centric security firm will identify and analyze the command-and-control mechanisms used by malware or crimeware. The reporting mechanism will be mined for indications of hosts currently under unauthorized control. An example of this is the ongoing Mpack activity I mentioned in Web-Centric Short-Term Incident Containment.

These services improve digital situation awareness by taking a threat-centric approach. The ultimate threat-centric approach would be to monitor activities of the threats themselves, by instrumenting and observing their workplace, communications lines, and/or equipment. Since that is out of the reach of everyone except law enforcement (and usually beyond their reach unless they are extraordinarily lucky and persistent), watching command-and-control channels is the next best bet.

Asset-centric and threat-centric DSA are not mutually exclusive. In fact, threat-centric DSA is a powerful complement to asset-centric DSA. If a company subscribes to a threat-centric DSA service, the service may report that a company system has been compromised and is leaking sensitive data. If confirmed to be true, and if not detected by asset-centric means, the event shows the following:

  • Preventative measures failed (since the asset was compromised).

  • Asset-centric monitoring failed (since it was not detected).

  • Incident response must be initiated (since the compromised asset is not just vulnerable, but actually under the control of an unauthorized party).

With this new understanding, prevention and detection measures can hopefully be improved to reduce the chances of future incidents.

Please do not ask me for recommendations on any of these services; I am not trying to promote anyone. However, I have mentioned two such services before, namely Support Intelligence in Month of Owned Corporations and Secure Science in my review of Phishing Exposed.


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