Why Cato Uses MITRE ATT&CK (And Why You Should Too)

Mitre-Attack-Framework
Mitre-Attack-Framework

As Indicators of Compromise (IoC) and reactive security continue to be the focus of many blue teams, the world is catching on to the fact that adversaries are getting smarter by the minute and IoCs are getting harder to find and less effective to monitor, giving adversaries the upper hand and letting them be one step ahead.

With the traditional IoC-based approach, the assumption is that whenever adversaries use some specific exploit it will generate some specific data. It could be an HTTP request, a domain name, a known malicious IP, and the like. By looking at information from sources such as application logs, network traffic, and HTTP requests enterprises can detect these IoCs and stop adversaries from compromising their networks.

In 2020 there were about 18,000 new CVEs reported and in 2021 there were about 20,000, as this trend continues the number of IoCs that are discovered becomes unmanageable and many of them can be modified in small ways to avoid detection. What’s more, as we will show in this blogpost, IoCs are not even the full security picture, representing a small portion of the attacks confronting enterprises. All of which suggests that security professionals need to expand their methods of detecting and stopping attacks.

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TTPs: The New Approach to Detecting Attacks

The security community has noticed this trend and has started shifting from IoC-based detection to understanding adversaries’ Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (TTPs). Having identified TTPs, security vendors can then develop the necessary defenses to mitigate risk.

Many tools have been developed to help understand and map these TTPs, one such tool is MITRE’s ATT&CK Framework.

ATT&CK is a collaborative effort involving many security vendors and researchers. The project aims to map adversary TTPs to help create a common language for both red and blue teams.

ATT&CK contains a few different matrices, each with its own sector. In the enterprise matrix, which is focus of our work, there are 14 “tactics.” A “tactic” is a general goal that the adversary is trying to accomplish, under each tactic there are several “techniques.” A “technique” is the means the adversary uses to accomplish his tactic, it is a more technical categorization of what the adversary may do to implement his tactic. Each technique can appear under multiple tactics and can be further divided into sub-techniques. Some tactics can be seen across the network with Reconnaissance, Initial Access, Execution, and Exfiltration associated with the network’s perimeter.

To better understand the value of ATT&CK, look at “The Pyramid of Pain,” which shows the relationship between the types of indicators you might use to detect an adversary’s activities and how hard it will be for them to change them once caught. TTPs being the hardest to change thus causing more pain to the adversary if detected.

The Pyramid of Pain
This diagram shows us in a simple manner why aiming to identify TTPs can be more beneficial and improve defenses against adversaries rather than those focusing on IoCs.

As enterprises shift from reactive and IoC-based security, which heavily relies on processing IoCs from threat intelligence feeds, to TTP-based security, which requires a proactive approach based on research, enterprise security becomes more challenging. At the same time, TTP-based security brings numerous benefits. These include better visibility into one’s security posture, better understanding of security risks, and an improved understanding of how to expand security capabilities to better defend against real adversaries.

Cato Implements MITRE ATT&CK

Cato has implemented the MITRE ATT&CK methodology of identifying and protecting against TTPs on top of the traditional IoCs. We incorporated this ability into our product by implementing a tagging system that tags each security event with the relevant ATT&CK tactics, techniques, and sub-techniques. This allows customers to visualize and understand what threats they face and what attack flows they are vulnerable to, further enabling them to understand where to improve their insight, and what TTPs their adversaries are using.

Event Example
A view of an event that is mapped to ATT&CK in the Cato Cloud

So, what did implementing a TTP-based approach reveal to us?

As we dove into the details of our signatures, we saw that we could divide them into two main approaches:

  • IoC-based – Covering a specific vulnerability using well-defined IoCs.
  • TTP-based – Covering a behavior of an adversary.

We started by looking at our products’ coverage over the entire ATT&CK matrix and trying to understand where we are most vigilant and where we are less so. Our scope was the most common threats we cover (in our customers’ networks), and new threats we covered from the last year.

After going through this process and creating a visualization of our threat protection with the ATT&CK Navigator, we found that Cato Cloud provides protection across all stages of the attack flow with particular strengths in the Initial Access and Execution stages.

ATTACK Coverage
Cato’s protection capabilities mapped onto the ATT&CK matrix. The darker the color, the more vulnerabilities Cato protects against in that technique. (For simplicity, sub-techniques are not shown.)

We should not be satisfied with this data alone, while signature numbers and mappings are an insightful metric, the real insights should be derived from events in the field. So, we then examined Cato’s defenses based on the actual events of exploitation attempts in each ATT&CK technique. Our sampling looked at a two-week period spanning some 1,000 networks.

ATTACK Events
Cato’s security events mapped onto the ATT&CK Matrix. Again, the darker the color the more events found to be using that technique in the last two weeks. Sub-techniques are not shown to keep it simple.

From this mapping, we can see two things.

Most events are from scanning techniques, this is expected as a single scan can hit many clients with many protocols and generate many events.

We see events from many different techniques and tactics, which means that covering more than just the perimeter of the network does increase security as adversaries can appear in any stage of the attack flow and should never be assumed to exist only in the perimeter.

Putting aside scans, we found that TTP-based signatures identified far more security events than the IoC-based signatures did. Below is a table mapping the percentage of events identified by TTP-based (ATT&CK) and IoC-based approaches over our sampling period. Looking at the table, three techniques represent 87% of all events in the last two weeks. Counting the signatures, we saw that on average 78% of all signatures were IoC-based and only 22% were TTP-based.

Blog
Top 3 techniques based on number of events, excluding scans.

But when we looked at the number of total events, we noticed that on average 94% are TTP-based and only 6% are IoC-based, this affirms our TTP-based approach’s effectiveness in focusing on those areas of actual importance to organizations.

TTP: Lets You Focus on Quality Not Chase Quantity

Focusing on TTP-based signatures provides a wide angle of protection against unknown threats, and the potential to block 0-days out of the box. On top of 0-days, these signatures cover past threats just as well, giving us a much greater ratio of threats covered per signature.

The IoC-based approach is less valuable, identifying fewer threats confronting today’s enterprises. TTP-based signatures prove to save production time by having a better protection for less effort and giving us more confidence in our coverage of the ATT&CK Matrix.

What’s more, when covering IoC-based signatures, the focus is on the number of signatures, which does not necessarily result in better security and might even lead to a false sense of one. The bottom line is that one good TTP-based signature can replace 100 IoC-based ones, allowing enterprises to focus on quality of protection without having to chase quantity of threats.

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