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SecurityTrails Blog · Jul 20 · by Sara Jelen

Security Automation: Definition, Benefits, Best Practices and Tools

Reading time: 14 minutes

Even if some people believe that robots and automation will replace the entire workforce and machines will do everything for us, the truth is that automation helps us to be more productive and work more efficiently. It relieves us from the most tedious and monotonous tasks in our daily work and lives.

Automation is already all around us. There’s little to nothing we haven’t found a way to automate. We have robot vacuums cleaning our homes, there is no way to remember the last time we had to leave our house to pay bills, many of us now use voice-to-text typing, and self-driving cars are going mainstream.

Automation has found its way into every environment, from industries to daily administrative tasks. If we found a way to automate the mere typing of words, we naturally found a way to automate low-level, repetitive, and time-consuming security tasks.

Hackers waste no time trying to access devices and networks to steal information, exploit application vulnerabilities, even launch ransomware attacks. Likewise, we shouldn’t be wasting our own time with tedious, repetitive security tasks and manually analyzing and responding to each and every alert and incident.

Many security tasks can be automated, and in turn made more time-effective, leaving time for security teams to work on deeper analysis and higher-level tasks. Security monitoring, detection and incident response, among other tasks, can be automated and frequently are.

Before we go deeper into security automation tools, let’s start with what security automation is, what it means in the current threat landscape, how to get the most out of automation, and more.

What is security automation?

Security automation is the automatic execution of security tasks without human intervention. This includes any security action involved with detecting, analyzing, preventing or remediating cyber threats that is automated (therefore, machine-based) and contributes to the overall organization’s security posture and plays an active (or better yet, proactive) role in future security strategies.

Before automation, many tedious security tasks were performed by practitioners and analysts who went through numerous alerts, analyzed, and decided whether and how to respond to them.

With security automation, security teams are now equipped with a solution that can work for them and take on all the security tasks that took time from security professionals. Valuable time that could be used for involvement in more strategic activities and work on proactive security measures.

There are a few signs that tell us a security task should be automated:

  • Repetitive, everyday tasks: Routine tasks that are done on a daily or otherwise regular basis, such as going through security alerts and analyzing them to differentiate between false positives and genuine alerts and potential threats.

  • Tiresome, monotonous tasks: Security tasks that always follow a similar set of rules and steps. For example, a security incident involving a flagged email and a potential phishing attempt would require analysts to manually check URLs, check domain owner information, IP geolocation, etc.

  • Time-consuming tasks: Security tasks such as correlating data and finding patterns in collected data can take up a lot of time and that time can be invaluable in uncovering suspicious activity before any real attacks happen.

What are the benefits of security automation?

In general, security automation has been predominantly utilized by SOC teams and security teams for quite some time. Its introduction addresses a couple of key challenges these teams face—best reflected through the benefits it has brought them.

Security automation benefits

Combats alert fatigue

Over the past several years, we’ve added a lot of detection tools and monitoring technologies to our workflows. Keeping in mind the amount of tools, the attack surface they monitor and the number of security incidents these tools respond to, many of which are just false positives, we can conclude that the number of alerts produced is substantial. So substantial, in fact, that reports show that 31.9% security professionals ignore alerts simply there are so many are false positives.

Alert fatigue happens to many security teams, making it difficult for them to stay afloat during the constantly evolving cyber threat landscape. If you notice that your security team is getting overwhelmed with alerts, and they’re unable to differentiate between false positives and real threats, adopting security automation can remedy this.

Combating the issue of alert fatigue also increases the productivity and efficiency of your security team. Security automation will take on the process of detecting, investigating and escalating security alerts, so security analysts’ focus will remain on inspecting and responding to real threats, fundamentally stopping security breaches.

Increases incident response and resolution time

Another obstacle in your security team’s operations is that one “bonus” that comes with a high number of tools and alerts, which can result in slow response, and in turn, slow resolution time. With so many alerts coming in, your security team isn’t able to analyze each one, so incident response actions aren’t efficient. This gives attackers leverage. Also slowing down the process is that tools often aren’t integrated, meaning they have to be manually combed through as well as manually correlated.

By quickly identifying and differentiating between opportunistic scans and other benign sources of security alerts, security automation reduces the time needed to respond to an incident. It addresses cyber threats in real time, prioritizes them, determines whether to take any action, and if so, escalates them to a designated security analyst who takes the next steps toward ensuring the incident is contained and resolved. All of this makes the organization more resilient in the face of different types of cyber crime.

Decreases the possibility of human error

Manual work always involves, at the very least, a slight possibility of human error and resulting inaccurate data. By using automation and removing human involvement in at least one area, you can greatly reduce the chances of error as the same rules and procedures are followed every time. Furthermore, introducing a security automation solution into the process will greatly improve the accuracy and consistency of alert investigations and threat data, as the tedious tasks where errors might slip up are done for you.

Operational efficiencies and cost

All of the above-mentioned benefits come down to this one final, and often cited, security automation benefit—improved ROI on automation and existing security tools and solutions.

When you have tools that aren’t integrated well with one another, you don’t the have resources for developers to build custom integrations and automate tasks, you have a staff shortage due to the cybersecurity skills gap or even because your security team is preoccupied with manually handling security tasks, and you aren’t getting the full value you could from invested resources.

By adopting automation, organizations can allow their analysts more time to spend on deeper analysis and more strategic involvement into security procedures within the same time frame, yielding increased returns on automation investments.

Best practices for adopting security automation

When hearing about all the nice, shiny benefits security automation has to offer, it may be tempting to jump right in to adopting new solutions and automating processes to savor the fruits of their labor. But, as with any business and operational change and improvement, it’s important to ease into it, both people- and technology-wise. So let’s take a look at the first steps and best practices of adopting security automation.

Start easy

For dramatic effect, and to quote what we said just above: “ease into it, both people- and technology-wise.” It isn’t usually necessary to automate every daily security task, or to automate many at the same time. Automation requires careful planning, assessment of the current situation, awareness of current blind spots, testing, monitoring of progress and calculating success using appropriate metrics that suit your business goals.

Adopting security automation gradually and bit by bit will allow you to stay in control. You’ll be better able to track the process and get its full benefit in terms of business continuity and overall cyber resilience.

And don’t start without training

Before introducing automated tasks into the workflow, you need to train your security team. Having a solid cybersecurity culture in your organization is a good place to start, but you’ll want to start with training them on how to properly interpret the new solution, as well as how to pick up where automation leaves off.

Once security alerts have been prioritized and sent for deeper analysis to the human side of the security team, they will then need to conduct deep investigations on these incidents, work on their remediation and get involved in business continuity process planning.

Make sure training covers even existing policies and tasking, with no gaps left unattended, and that each incident is handled from detection to remediation appropriately.

Know the do’s and don’t of automating tasks

Before adopting security automation, you need to know which tasks should and shouldn’t be automated. Let’s consider which tasks need to be automated the most—by recognizing which types of incidents they address, and from which sources or activities most incidents occur; as well as the most time-consuming tasks that involve your security team.

People are great at many things, but dull tasks that require almost absolute accuracy still aren’t our strongest suit. Lack of focus, low concentration, and errors will find their way. If that error happens to occur during an attack, it will be late to act.

Some unvarying tasks that take up analysts’ time (and that are usually automated) are:

  • Reconnaissance
  • Patching
  • Vulnerability assessment
  • Security monitoring
  • Alert prioritization
  • Data enrichment
  • Incident response
  • Alert escalation
  • Identity and access management

While some tasks and processes are practically destined to be automated and performed without human input for them to be effective, not every task can, or even should be, fully automated. This leads us to our next security automation best practice.

Don’t forget: You can never replace people

Simple, repetitive tasks can be easily handled by the vast array of security tools and solutions available, but complex, deeper issues and actions that require critical thinking, advanced problem solving and confident decision-making are still better left to your security team.

Some examples of tasks that shouldn’t be automated are:

  • Threat hunting
  • Penetration testing
  • Reverse engineering
  • Digital forensics
  • Building security strategic plan

A good rule of thumb is that if a process or task requires a significant amount of human involvement at many stages, don’t automate it at all. By focusing automation on lower-level tasks, security teams can focus on the tasks that need their active involvement and contextualization, which only human interaction can truly provide.

Top 5 best security automation tools and solutions

As we mentioned, there are plenty of security tasks and processes that could stand to be automated. There are also many tools to choose from, for each type of process.

Here are our favorite 5 security automation tools. We tried to find a tool to represent each different security process they aid, but such an extensive list wouldn’t fit in only one post!

1. GreyNoise

With GreyNoise, you can distinguish between targeted and opportunistic attacks in the SIEM you use, thus reducing false positives from what really matters. Written by Andrew Morris, it collects data from a network of constantly shifting servers in numerous data centers across the Internet.

GreyNoise

This allows you to find emerging opportunistic threats, filter known-good scanners from your logs, discern whether or not attackers are scanning the Internet for a given set of vulnerable services, and more. In fact, the company claims that their enterprise customers saw an average of 25% alert reduction once GreyNoise was implemented to reduce false positives and alert fatigue in their SOC.

In our #ProTips series you can find Andrew’s personal favorite ways to use GreyNoise, and even an interview with none other Andrew himself, so it’s obvious that GreyNoise is one of our favorite tools.

2. SecurityTrails Feeds

Watch over suspicious activity by inspecting our intelligence data on domain names, subdomains, IPs, SSL and port data to prevent possible suspicious campaigns including phishing, spam, malware and copyright violations.

SecurityTrails feeds

Boost your security research, explore intelligence data and prevent attacks with SecurityTrails Feeds. Data enrichment feeds we currently have available are the latest list of all discovered ccTLD and gTLD domains, subdomains, certs, and DMARC scans, which you can use within your own apps. We offer custom feeds too, tailored specifically to your needs.

3. Splunk

We’ve mentioned Splunk a few times in our blog, most recently as one of the best blue team tools available, and now it’s made its way onto another list of top tools.

Splunk

Splunk is often regarded as one of the best automation solutions out there for organizations that need to quickly analyze and monitor machine-generated big data generated by systems, applications, infrastructure, and more.

Their Security Operations Suite offers real-time security monitoring, advanced threat detection (which allows your analysts to spend more time on proactive threat hunting), endpoint security data, incident investigation and forensics, incident response, fraud detection, and there’s also the famous Splunk Phantom for SOC automation.

4. TheHive

TheHive is a free, open source solution that makes a perfect addition to every SOC. It truly is, as they claim, designed to make life easier for SOCs, with many core features targeted for them.

Security incident response

For example, multiple analysts can collaborate on investigations simultaneously, allowing for real-time information on new or existing tasks, and other observables available to all team members.

The observables can be IPs and email addresses, URLs, domain names, files or hashes, and large sets can be submitted. As a 4-in-1 tool, TheHive can be used in conjunction with their Cortex solution, which gives you the ability to analyze numerous observables at once using more than a hundred analyzers, and contain and eradicate malware or security incidents.

5. Panther

“Your SIEM can’t keep up. Run Panther.” Panther is an open-source platform for automating security operations, detecting threats with log data, and simply improving your cloud security posture and keeping it solid.

Better data loads

Security teams can use Panther for continuous monitoring and analyzing log data in real time to quickly identify suspicious behaviour, contextualize security alerts, search for indicators of compromise, identify misconfigurations, achieve compliance and lead with best security practices in code.

With Panther, you can automate the security monitoring pipeline to quickly and effectively detect and remediate security threats.

Difference between security automation and security orchestration

While often used interchangeably, security automation and security orchestration are, in fact, two different terms, each describing a different purpose.

Security automation is focused on single tasks that follow already established paths, and automates those tasks so they can run efficiently without human intervention. Automation also helps run operations more smoothly by simplifying the process and reducing the time it takes to detect and respond to security incidents.

On the other hand, security orchestration considers the use of multiple automated tasks, with security automation taking part in the longer, more complex tasks and processes security orchestration involves. It helps you connect the numerous tools your security teams use, and streamlines the entire security process. It’s the driving force behind efficient automation.

When security tools and solutions are connected, the data between them is shared, meaning quicker and easier access to all relevant intel, and in turn, better incident response. We’ll go over security orchestration more in-depth in future posts, as well as some of the best tools for it.

Final words

Security automation hasn’t been one of the concepts we’ve discussed in our blog as valuable to implement. Now, however, the time has come for security automation to be considered a real “must-have” in the current threat landscape.

Many issues arising from an increase in threats, cybersecurity talent shortage, alert fatigue and operational costs can be combated with efficiently and intelligently used security automation.

And just as we’ve automated washing our laundry and making coffee with the click of a button, mundane and repetitive security tasks should also be automated, to manage our time better and spend it on what truly matters. But as we said earlier, not all tasks can or should be automated, so save your time and energy for the actions that robots and technologies just can’t replace.

For now, that is.

SARA JELEN

Sara believes the human element is often at the core of all cybersecurity issues. It’s this perspective that brings a refreshing voice to the SecurityTrails team. Her ability to bridge cognitive/social motivators and how they impact the cybersecurity industry is always enlightening.