Security Experts:

The Cusp of a Virtual Analyst Revolution

Security Analytics and Threat Investigation Are in the Midst of a Sea Change

Once live stomping around vendor-packed expo halls at security conferences returns, it is highly probable that “Virtual Analyst” will play a starring role in buzzword bingo. Today, the loosely defined term represents an aspiration for security vendors and managed service providers but may be perceived as a threat by internal day-to-day security operations and threat hunting teams.

For context, security analytics and threat investigation are in the midst of a sea change. Cloud log analytics platforms now enable efficient and timely analysis of ever-increasing swathes of enterprise logs, events, and alerts dating back years. Threat Intelligence platforms are deeply integrated into cloud SIEM solutions—enabling both reactive and proactive threat hunting and automated incident investigation—and are entwined with a growing stack of sophisticated AI and ML capabilities. However, smart event correlation and alert fusion engines automatically triage the daily deluge of suspiciousness down to a manageable stack of high-priority incidents—replete with kill-chain reassembly and data enrichment.

In many environments the traditional tier-one security analyst responsibilities for triaging events (removing false positives and “don’t care” noise) and maintaining operational health of scale-limiting SOC systems (e.g., device connectors, log retention and storage parameters, ticket response management) have already been subsumed by modern SIEM solutions. Meanwhile, platform-native no-code/low-code-powered orchestration and automation capabilities, along with growing libraries of community-sourced investigation and response playbooks, have greatly accelerated incident response and efficacy for tier-two analysts—alleviating time-consuming repetitive tasks and increasing focus on new and novel incidents.

Arguably, the Virtual Analyst is already here—captured within the intelligent automation and efficiencies of modern cloud SIEM— and I believe the journey has just begun.

The near future evolution of the Virtual Analyst is being driven by two competing and intwined motions —the growing need for real-time threat response, and the inaccessibility of deep security knowledge and expertise.

Real-time threat response has long been thought an achievable target for in-house security operations teams and has underpinned many historic CISO security purchasing decisions. As the enterprise attack surface has grown, adversaries (external and internal) have increased the breadth and pace of attack, and in response businesses continue to invest heavily in instrumenting their environments with an “assume breach” mindset—widening the visibility aperture and exponentially increasing the volume and timeliness of threat-relatable data. Advanced log analytics capabilities and AI-powered event fusion processes are identifying more incidents earlier along the kill-chain and consequently providing more opportunities to conditionally mitigate a budding threat or disrupt a sequence of suspicious events. 

To successfully capitalize on that shrinking window of opportunity, responses need to occur at super-human speeds. The speed bump introduced by requiring a human in that response loop will increasingly materialize as the difference between having been attacked versus being breached. In this context, the Virtual Analyst represents the super-human capabilities AND responsibilities for real-time threat identification AND trusted automated mitigation of a live incident.

Although that Virtual Analyst capability will be tightly bound to a product (e.g., Cloud SIEM, SOC-as-a-Service), the second Virtual Analyst motion centers around access to deep security expertise.

If a product-bound Virtual Analyst can be considered a quick-learning high-speed generalist, the second motion can be thought of as a flexible “on-call” specialist—augmenting the security operations team’s investigative and response capabilities as needed—and may be conceptually akin to the on-demand specialist services provided by traditional managed security service and incident response providers. 

The differentiated value of cloud-based Virtual Analyst solutions will lie in leveraging broader internet-spanning datasets for threat detection and attribution, and powerful, rapid, ad hoc forensic-level investigation of incidents and response. For example, the in-house SOC team may engage the Virtual Analyst to augment an ongoing investigation by temporarily connecting it to their on-premises SIEM, and receive targeted direction for capturing and collecting incident-relevant non-SIEM data (e.g., PCAPs, VM images, storage snapshots, configuration files) that are uploaded and automatically investigated by the virtual analyst as well as incorporated for real-time instruction on system recovery and attack mitigation.

It’s tempting to think that on-premises security analysts’ days are numbered. Virtual analyst advancements will indeed increase the speed, fidelity, and efficacy of threat detection and incident response within the enterprise—replacing almost all repeated and repeatable analyst tasks. But AI-powered virtual analyst solutions will do so with little knowledge or context about the business and its priorities. 

With the day-to-day noise and incident investigation drudgery removed, security operations teams may evolve into specialist business advisors—partnering with business teams, articulating technology risks, and providing contextual security guidance.

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Gunter Ollmann is currently the CSO of Microsoft’s Cloud and AI Security division. He is a seasoned information security leader who has defined and trailblazed new security markets through his work with globally recognized companies, including Microsoft and IBM X-Force, and startups, including IOActive and Damballa. As a seasoned C-level executive and technologist, Mr. Ollmann has been instrumental in several dozen M&A deals (as acqui-hire, acquirer, consultant, or adviser) ranging from tens-of-millions to billion dollar transactions.