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What Is Security Control Effectiveness?

LAST UPDATED: July 03, 2023

Picus Labs   By Picus Labs  •  June 23, 2023, 15 min read

In today's threat landscape, the effectiveness of security controls plays a pivotal role in safeguarding organizations from cyber attacks. In this blog post, we will delve into the concept of security controls, discuss what constitutes an effective security control, explain the importance of their effectiveness, and explore how organizations can leverage a Breach and Attack Simulation (BAS) solution to evaluate the performance of their security measures.

What Are Security Controls?

Security controls are safeguards or countermeasures employed to manage or reduce the risk to digital or physical assets. These countermeasures can take on various forms such as mechanisms, policies, or procedures. Their design is meant to protect an organization's data, infrastructure, information, and computer systems from potential threats and vulnerabilities. 

Fundamentally, the purpose of security controls is to prevent, detect, and respond to security incidents or breaches, thereby minimizing potential damages and ensuring the integrity, confidentiality, and availability of the assets.

With this broad understanding of security controls, it becomes easier to appreciate the different types that organizations typically incorporate into their security infrastructure. These controls can take the form of specific technologies and solutions, each catering to a unique aspect of the overall security posture. They include, but are not limited to,

  • Next Generation Firewalls (NGFW), 

  • Web Application Firewalls (WAF),

  • Intrusion Detection and Prevention Systems (IPS & IDS), 

  • Endpoint Detection and Response (EDR) solutions, 

  • Email Gateway solutions,

  • AntiVirus and Anti-Malware solutions,

  • Extended Detection and Response (XDR) technologies, 

  • Data Loss Prevention (DLP) solutions, 

  • Security Information and Event Management (SIEM) systems.

Each of the listed solutions are provided with a brief explanation.

a. Next-Generation Firewalls (NGFWs) 

These are advanced firewalls that go beyond traditional packet filtering and port/protocol inspection by incorporating features like application-level inspection, intrusion prevention systems, and user identity tracking.

b. Web Application Firewalls (WAFs)

These protect web applications from common web-based attacks like SQL injection, cross-site scripting (XSS), and cross-site request forgery (CSRF). They monitor HTTP/HTTPS traffic and can block threats before they reach the application.

c. Intrusion Detection and Prevention Systems (IDS & IPS)

IDS systems monitor network traffic, looking for suspicious activity and alerting system administrators to potential threats. IPS systems not only detect potentially harmful activities but also take action to block or prevent them.

d. Endpoint Detection and Response (EDR) solutions

These tools monitor endpoint and network events and record information in a central database where further analysis, detection, investigation, reporting, and alerting take place.

e. Email Gateway solutions

These protect the organization's email services from threats like phishing, spam, malware, and ransomware by scanning and filtering email traffic.

f. AntiVirus and Anti-Malware solutions

These programs detect, prevent, and remove malicious software on a network or system. They're designed to protect against various forms of malware, including viruses, ransomware, worms, trojans, and spyware.

g. Extended Detection and Response (XDR) technologies

XDR is an integrated suite of security products that unifies control and integrates detection and response capabilities across multiple attack vectors - endpoints, network, email, and more.

h. Data Loss Prevention (DLP) solutions

These tools prevent unauthorized access and sharing of sensitive data. They help ensure that employees don’t send sensitive information outside the organization.

i. Security Information and Event Management (SIEM) systems

These solutions provide real-time analysis of security alerts generated by applications and network hardware. They collect, store, analyze, and report on log data for incident response, forensics, and regulatory compliance purposes.

What Is Security Control Effectiveness?

Security control effectiveness is a measure that demonstrates how effectively the existing security controls and defense measures within an organization can prevent, detect, or respond to a cyberattack. This metric is evaluated based on how closely the performance of these controls aligns with the organization's security plan and its ability to manage risk according to the organization's current risk tolerance level.

A high degree of security control effectiveness is an indicator that existing defense solutions by an organization effectively protect against both known and emerging threats, primarily those targeting the specific region or sector where the organization operates.

Testing the effectiveness of your security controls involves a dynamic and continuous evaluation process, considering the evolving threat-landscape and the organization's changing risk profile. In the upcoming sections, we will talk about how you can leverage a Breach and Attack Simulation (BAS) solution to test the effectiveness of your security controls.

Why Is Security Control Effectiveness Important for Cyber Defense?

Security Control Effectiveness is vital for cyber defense because it provides organizations with a realistic understanding of their security posture and the ability to defend against threat actors that particularly target their industry or region. 

We can examine the importance of security control effectiveness under four main categories.

  • Identifying Operational Effectiveness: Despite organizations spending significantly on security measures, many aren't aware of how operationally effective their security controls are. Understanding the effectiveness of security controls can ensure that resources are allocated appropriately and not wasted on inefficient measures.

  • Preventing Security Breaches: Recent breaches often involve security controls failing to pick up evidence of an attacker's activity or identify controls that were disabled by an attacker or an IT team. Effective security controls can better detect such activities, thereby reducing the risk of breaches.

  • Validating Preventive and Detective Security Controls: Regular validation of security controls can test and measure the ability of security measures to defend against the latest threats. This can include checking the effectiveness of preventive controls like Next-Generation Firewalls (NGFW), Intrusion Prevention Systems (IPS), and Web Application Firewalls (WAF), and detective controls like Security Incident and Event Management (SIEM) and Endpoint Detection & Response (EDR).

  • Assessing Impact of Changes: Organizations' security infrastructure and policies are constantly changing. Understanding the effectiveness of security controls can help evaluate the impact of these changes on the organization's cyber resilience. This can include assessing changes in security controls, IT infrastructure, and security policies.

By measuring and improving Security Control Effectiveness, organizations can enhance their cyber defense and reduce the risk of security breaches.

How Often Should the Effectiveness of Security Controls Be Evaluated?

In today's evolving threat landscape, the effectiveness of security controls should be evaluated continuously. Traditional on-point assessments such as red teaming or penetration testing, while valuable, may not suffice in the face of constantly emerging threats and sophisticated attack vectors. These techniques often provide a snapshot of an organization's security posture at a specific point in time, potentially leaving blind spots in between assessments.

To address this gap, organizations should consider leveraging tools such as Breach and Attack Simulation (BAS) that provide a continuous assessment of their security controls. BAS solutions can simulate a wide array of real-world threats on an ongoing basis, testing and validating the effectiveness of security controls across various prevention and detection layers.

The continuous assessment facilitated by BAS solutions enables organizations to regularly measure their security controls' performance, identify vulnerabilities, and mitigate them promptly. Continuous evaluation also supports dynamic improvement by offering granular context, actionable insights, and recommendations for mitigation strategies. It also allows organizations to adapt to changes in their threat landscape, technology infrastructure, and business operations, ensuring that their security posture remains robust over time.

In summary, given the rapid evolution and increasing complexity of cyber threats, the effectiveness of security controls should be evaluated as a continuous process rather than a one-time or periodic event. By doing so, organizations can proactively protect their critical assets, minimize their risk exposure, and maintain a strong and resilient cybersecurity posture.

How to Measure the Effectiveness of Security Controls with BAS?

Breach and Attack Simulation (BAS) tools offer a robust framework for measuring the effectiveness of security controls. 

Step 1: Identifying the Threat Actors 

Depending on their region and industry, each organization may face a unique threat landscape. In other words, a healthcare organization and a financial institution could be targeted by different threat actors, APT groups, or malware campaigns.

An effective BAS vendor provides its customers with an up-to-date threat library and ready-to-run threat templates. Users can utilize these to conduct attack simulations that mimic the tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) specifically targeting their sector.

For instance, suppose your organization operates in the finance sector across Eastern Europe and North America. Let's say your BAS vendor has just added a new threat that mimics the attack campaign of a particular APT group running ransomware campaigns against banks in Ukraine. If your organization aligns with the victim profile, you might choose to simulate this threat over another one targeting healthcare institutions in Korea.

Thus, identifying and prioritizing relevant threats based on industry and geographic factors, such as emerging threats affecting your sector and region, can assist you in implementing immediate countermeasures to enhance the effectiveness of your security controls.

Step 2: Defining Attack Simulation Scope

To provide a solid test for your security measures, you can customize the attack simulation scope using BAS. 

During an attack simulation, the BAS platform continuously monitors the organization's security controls, including but not limited to

  • Next-Generation Firewalls (NGFW), 

  • Web Application Firewalls (WAF)

  • Intrusion Detection and Prevention Systems (IDS) solutions, 

  • Anti-virus and Anti-malware Software, 

  • Endpoint Detection and Response (EDR), and

  • Extended Detection and Response (XDR) technologies, 

  • Data Leakage Prevention (DLP),

  • Security Information and Event Management (SIEM) solutions, and

  • Mail Security solutions,

to evaluate their effectiveness in detecting, preventing and mitigating the simulated attack. This is achieved by deploying simulation agents in your organizational network and initiating a controlled attack simulation, giving you clear insights into your controls' efficiency.

Figure 1. Defining the Attack Simulation Scope 

Thus, defining the attack simulation scope using a Breach and Attack Simulation (BAS) platform empowers organizations to accurately measure the effectiveness of their security controls. The BAS platform tests the organization's defenses by simulating real-world attack scenarios, providing an authentic evaluation of the security controls under genuine threat conditions. 

The continuous monitoring and assessment process across a wide range of security controls, facilitated by deploying simulation agents across the network, results in comprehensive, clear insights into the efficiency and robustness of the organization's security controls. As a result, this helps organizations identify potential vulnerabilities, verify their defense mechanisms, and make well-informed decisions about optimizing their security investments.

Step 3: Threat Simulation and Assessment

The core of Breach and Attack Simulation (BAS) is performing simulated attacks mimicking real-world tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) used in the wild. These simulations include various attack vectors such as Advanced Persistent Threat (APT), malware campaigns, data exfiltration scenarios, and exploiting known vulnerabilities. 

Through these cyberattack simulations, BAS solutions provide a genuine evaluation of your security posture and cover every aspect of your infrastructure, scrutinizing your security systems' responsiveness and effectiveness.

Step 4: Enriching Simulation Results and MITRE ATT&CK Mapping

Breach and Attack Simulation (BAS) tools provide an empirical methodology for quantifying the effectiveness of your security controls through the calculation of overall prevention and detection scores.

The overall prevention score is calculated based on the success of the attacker's objectives in the face of the applied security controls. For example, if you have a total of 50 attacker objectives and 20 of them are unachieved due to effective security controls, the prevention score would be 40%. This reflects how effective your security controls are in preventing an attacker from achieving their objectives.

Similarly, the overall detection score provides a measure of the efficiency of your logging and alerting systems. If you have a total of 50 completed threats, with 20 logged and 10 alerted, your detection score would be 30%. This score is a composite of log analysis (50%) and alert analysis (50%), providing a balanced view of your detection capabilities.

Figure 2. Overall Prevention and Detection Results of an Arbitrary Host Levering BAS.

These scores generated by BAS tools give you an immediate and quantifiable view of how effective your security controls are reacting to simulated threats. They provide a metric for understanding your security posture against even the latest threats, and aid in identifying where improvements may be needed. Therefore, they are an invaluable resource for maintaining and enhancing the effectiveness of your security controls.

In addition, Breach and Attack Simulation (BAS) tools significantly contribute to enhancing security control effectiveness, especially when integrated with the MITRE ATT&CK framework. This powerful combination allows you to identify which techniques are currently bypassing your security controls. 

Figure 3. Security Control Effectiveness of a Host Against Defense Evasion ATT&CK Tactic

For instance, consider a scenario where your Threat Library has 1488 attack actions mapped to the 'Defense Evasion' tactic under the MITRE ATT&CK Framework. If your security controls block only 484 attack actions, leaving 919 unblocked, this clearly illustrates a gap in your security posture. A BAS tool quantifies this as roughly a 32.5% effectiveness rate, directing your attention to improving your existing security controls to better detect malicious actions related to possible defense evasion techniques.

Thus, BAS tools aid in visualizing and prioritizing areas of vulnerability for strategic enhancement of your security controls.

Step 5: Mitigation of Security Gaps

BAS tools play a crucial role in mitigating security gaps within your organization. They guide your preventive and detective security controls to operate more effectively by focusing on areas of improvement uncovered in the simulations. This is achieved by providing specific prevention signatures and detection rules to combat the threats that were not addressed during the simulated attacks.

On the preventive side, these tools enable relevant prevention signatures that correspond to unblocked threats, ensuring your security controls are ready for such challenges in real scenarios. 

Figure 4. Vendor Based Prevention Signatures with Picus Continuous Security Control Validation Platform.

In terms of detective controls, BAS solutions assist in fine-tuning your Security Information and Event Management (SIEM) systems, Endpoint Detection and Response (EDR), and Extended Detection and Response (XDR) technologies. 

Figure 5. Query Rule for Windows Firewall Configurations Discovery via Netsh Tool.

Thus, BAS solutions help in identifying logging gaps, enhancing detection, and improving alerting capabilities of your systems.

Through the continuous security validation life cycle, BAS tools support an effective response to identified security threats. This is achieved by regularly testing and adjusting security measures to meet the evolving risk profile. As a result, organizations are better equipped to address potential vulnerabilities, thereby enhancing the effectiveness of their security controls.

Step 6: Validation and Continuous Updating

BAS tools allow for continuous validation, providing ongoing measurements of threat prevention and detection rates, and updating the threat library regularly. This ensures that you are always prepared for new and emerging threats, thereby validating the resilience of your security controls over time.

In essence, BAS tools offer an all-encompassing platform to measure, analyze, and enhance your security controls, providing the best defense against current and future cyber threats.

How Can I Measure Security Control Effectiveness Against Emerging Cyber Threats?

Security Control Effectiveness against evolving cyber threats demands a continuous, proactive, and comprehensive approach. This need is fulfilled by solutions like Breach and Attack Simulation (BAS).

BAS solutions utilize simulated threats to assess the effectiveness of an organization’s existing security controls. These simulations mimic real-world tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) that cyber threat actors employ. As such, these simulations serve as a controlled, safe "attack" on your systems, enabling you to evaluate your defense mechanisms and identify areas for improvement.

One of the essential components of BAS solutions is the Threat Library—a collection of simulated threats and attack vectors. BAS vendors constantly update these libraries with input from red team professionals conducting extensive cyber threat intelligence (CTI) research. These libraries incorporate the latest attack trends seen in the cyber landscape and are tailor-made to reflect specific sectors, regions, and threat actor groups.

Figure 6. Emerging Threat Simulation with Breach and Attack Simulation.

It's important to consider the relative advantages of BAS solutions compared to more traditional security assessments like red teaming and penetration testing. While these methods are invaluable for assessing security vulnerabilities, they can be resource-intensive, periodic, and may not cover the full spectrum of the potential threat landscape.

Red team exercises and penetration tests often require substantial resources and planning, focusing only on a limited subset of potential threats. After the testing phase, there is often a period of reporting and mitigation, which can create a gap between threat identification and remediation.

On the other hand, BAS solutions offer automated, continuous simulations against a comprehensive and ever-evolving library of threats. This automation facilitates regular testing of security controls' effectiveness, yielding prompt insights and actionable intelligence. This proactive approach enables your organization to stay a step ahead of threat actors and ensure an optimized and robust security posture at all times.

How Does Security Control Effectiveness Contribute to an Organization's Overall Security Posture?

Security control effectiveness is a critical factor in determining an organization's overall cybersecurity posture. When security controls are effective, they provide multiple benefits that strengthen the organization's security defenses. First and foremost, effective security controls act as a strong deterrent, making it more difficult for malicious actors to penetrate the organization's systems and networks. By implementing robust access controls, firewalls, intrusion detection and prevention systems, and other security measures, organizations can significantly reduce the risk of unauthorized access and data breaches.

Furthermore, security control effectiveness contributes to early detection and response to security incidents. Effective controls enable organizations to quickly identify and mitigate threats, minimizing the impact and potential damage caused by cyberattacks. Through continuous monitoring, real-time alerts, and incident response protocols, organizations can effectively contain and remediate security incidents, reducing the overall risk exposure.

In addition to preventing and mitigating cyber threats, security control effectiveness supports regulatory compliance and risk management. Many industry regulations and frameworks require organizations to implement specific security controls to protect sensitive data and ensure privacy. By maintaining effective controls, organizations can meet these compliance requirements, avoid legal and financial repercussions, and build trust with customers and stakeholders.

Moreover, security control effectiveness helps organizations adapt to the ever-changing threat landscape. By regularly evaluating and enhancing security controls through tools like Breach and Attack Simulation (BAS), organizations can identify vulnerabilities, prioritize remediation efforts, and stay ahead of emerging threats. This proactive approach enhances the organization's ability to detect and respond to evolving cyber threats, making them more resilient against potential attacks.

Overall, security control effectiveness is a foundational element that significantly contributes to an organization's ability to protect its systems, data, and reputation. By implementing and maintaining effective security controls, organizations can establish a robust cybersecurity posture that safeguards their assets, mitigates risks, and instills confidence in their stakeholders.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Here are the most asked questions about Security Control Effectiveness
What Is the Relationship Between Security Control Effectiveness and the Mitigation of Cybersecurity Threats?
The relationship between security control effectiveness and the mitigation of cybersecurity threats is vital. Effective security controls, such as robust firewalls, intrusion detection systems, and access controls, play a crucial role in preventing, detecting, and responding to threats. By identifying vulnerabilities, minimizing the attack surface, and swiftly detecting malicious activities, organizations can proactively mitigate cybersecurity threats. The effectiveness of security controls directly impacts an organization's ability to defend against and minimize the impact of cyberattacks, enhancing overall cybersecurity resilience.
Can Automated Systems Effectively Measure Security Control Effectiveness?
Automated systems can effectively measure security control effectiveness by continuously monitoring and assessing the performance of security controls. Through tools like Breach and Attack Simulation (BAS), organizations can simulate real-world attack scenarios, evaluate the response of security controls, and measure their effectiveness in detecting and preventing threats. Automated systems provide a consistent and scalable approach to security control evaluation, enabling organizations to gather quantitative data, identify vulnerabilities, and prioritize remediation efforts. While human analysis and interpretation are still necessary, automated systems enhance the efficiency and accuracy of measuring security control effectiveness, helping organizations strengthen their cybersecurity posture.
What Factors Can Affect the Effectiveness of Security Controls?
The effectiveness of security controls in preventing and detecting cyber threats is influenced by factors such as the sophistication of the threats, the timeliness and accuracy of threat intelligence, the robustness of control configurations, and the integration and collaboration between different security solutions. Effective controls should have the ability to proactively identify and block known and emerging threats, detect anomalous activities, and respond in real-time to mitigate the impact of attacks. Regular testing, monitoring, and updates are necessary to ensure that controls remain effective against evolving cyber threats.

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