Crisis in the SOC as skills shortage bites deep, says report

News by Davey Winder

A report from Agari shows how the alarming shortage of SOC analysts is swinging the threat-response balance in favour of the bad guys.

British companies are heading towards a security operations centre (SOC) crisis which could dramatically swing the threat success balance in favour of the bad guys.

The Agari 'Email Fraud & ID Deception insights Trends' report published today should serve as a wake-up call to organisations across the country that the SOC is cracking up under the strain of a severe skilled staff shortage.

According to the Agari research, based upon the number of phishing incidents reported and the time it takes to investigate just this threat sector, the average SOC needs a total of 54 skilled analysts to perform optimally.

Yet the average number of analysts in UK-based SOCs is just 12.

"The fact that UK enterprises are suffering an average deficit of over 40 analysts at any one time," Crane Hassold, director of threat research for the Agari Cyber Intelligence Division, told SC Media UK, "should be a massive red flag that organisations are simply unable to deal with the burgeoning number, and increased sophistication of threats – especially those using targeted email."

The phishing threat isn't the only thing that's sucking up the time of SOC analysts, but it has become a pretty important resource drain when those resources are being stretched so thinly.

The research suggests that analysts in UK SOCs spend an average of 4.25 hours triaging phishing incidents that turn out to be false positives, whereas actual phishing incidents require only slightly longer at 4.81 hours. The significance of these figures becomes apparent when you read that of the 24,000 phishing incidents reported by employees per UK organisation each year, on average, some 55 percent of these are false positives.

"The number of suspected email threats reported by employees shows that much has been achieved in educating staff on the threat of phishing and other email threats," Hassold said. "However, the increase in these reports is flooding SOCs with a raft of false positives, which current resources just can’t deal with."

And there lies the rub: the cost of manually handling these reports is over £3 million a year, according to Agari, assuming of course that SOCs can find the skilled analysts required.

Rod Soto, head of security research at JASK, compares the problem to having a castle with no guards or an open backdoor in your house with no locks or cameras. "The impact comes in significant losses in financial terms, reputation and intellectual property," Soto told SC.

The skills shortage also plays out with other organisations continually seeking to "pry your most valued professionals away with ever new shiny things and increasing compensation" as Steffan Jones, the Security Operations Manager responsible for Alert Logic’s European arm of its Global SOC says.

"The expertise is out there," Jones said, "but a lot is in motion far more than other IT disciplines."

Which means that most enterprises are forever behind the curve in terms of being properly prepared to defend the business.

"Consequently, there will be less focus on delivering proactive security awareness and expertise to end users and business projects, broadening the scope for monitoring and workload of the SOC to undertake," Jones warned, "resulting in a vicious cycle rather than a virtuous one."

So, what should enterprises be doing in order to mitigate the risks that this apparent shortage of optimally-staffed SOCs bring to the data security party?

Barbara Kay, senior director security at ExtraHop, feels that there is a "rich vein of talent within organisations if they cross-train existing IT teams to understand security".

She admitted that this "takes a commitment, but leverages existing knowledge of the business and its IT systems."

Kay told SC that security teams must consciously reassess their processes and tools to get the most from their people, meaning both better and fewer tools which are flexible and proactive in adopting automated processes and machine learning as staples.

Javvad Malik, security advocate for AlienVault, agreed that "having tools that are built together and can also integrate threat intelligence… can help reduce the different applications needed to be managed".

Kunal Hatodé, senior manager (EMEA) for advanced cyber security services at NTT Security, added that "with the help of an automated workflow orchestration tool, it’s possible to carry out investigations across all internal and external tools in a shorter time, at least 60 percent quicker, by carrying them out in parallel rather than sequentially".

We'll leave the last word to JASK's Rod Soto though, who provided SC with this handy bullet point list of measures the enterprise can take:

  • Hire on skills not degrees

  • Reach within your own organisation for potential individuals that can be trained and already know your enterprise systems

  • Once you have personnel invest in them, have a career path and make them feel appreciated so they do not leave

  • Embrace technologies that will allow cybersecurity operators to perform further tasks. Things such as SOC automation, Machine Learning and AI

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