Behavior Transparency: Where Application Security Meets Cyber Awareness

How can you tell when software is behaving strangely if you don’t know what the right behavior is? That’s an important question when it comes to threat actors. After all, attackers often hijack honest software, networks and systems for dishonest ends. To stop them with security tools, the first step must be to have great cyber awareness. 

The best evolving approach to this problem is behavior transparency. This is a broad term for applying the concept of transparency (such as app tracking transparency, certificate transparency and transparency around external network actions) for software to internal network activity.

In its simplest form, this is a practical list of expected behaviors for any piece of software. It helps your defense team tell the difference between normal software actions and what could be malicious ones that could lead to a data breach. 

What Should Be Transparent? 

The benefit of behavior transparency is that it helps cope with the huge quantity of noise whenever any security system seeks out strange actions. After all, it’s much easier to find a needle in a haystack if you first remove all the known hay. 

There are two elements to this: technical transparency and transparency as used in cyber awareness for non-security personnel. On the technical side, it should specify the ports software should use and what it will use those ports for. It should also include expected connection behavior, such as connection to other software components and network regions. 

This isn’t just a matter of sharing that information within one company or agency. It must happen industrywide, and there’s reason to believe it will happen. Behavioral information is most useful when it’s published, then used by security products and change-management tools on a large scale. Those tools can then use that data for the task of vulnerability assessment to better estimate possible malicious behavior. It can also save people time by reducing false positives.

Of course, many software companies do publish behavior transparency data already as an effort toward large-scale cyber awareness. But the key is to publish these behaviors in standard machine-readable formats instead of, say, PDFs. Some advocate for using GitHub or some other popular forum for this. The movement within the industry to make this happen has already begun. 

For example, the SolarWinds attack and other large-scale attacks might have been stopped by behavior transparency data. In hindsight, it’s clear that the SolarWinds attack involved (among other things) the connection to a subdomain that should have sounded the alarms. They could have if tools deployed by the victims had behavior transparency data that did not include that subdomain as an acceptable or normal function. 

Benefits for Software Onboarding and Cyber Awareness Training

Knowing the normal behavior expected of software can also be useful for software onboarding and cyber awareness. 

An effective software onboarding process should include clear instruction for employees about the purpose and function of the new software. In order to keep employees apprised of the cyber awareness aspect, you should teach them what is basically behavior transparency in the other direction. Tell them what the software normally does and what it shouldn’t do. Emphasize that they can log in through only one process and that anything offering another option should be considered suspicious. 

Another threat is when employees (remote, mostly, but also in-house) feel stymied or hampered by correct procedures. If the procedures aren’t straightforward, people tend to invent their own work-arounds. By explaining how the software works (and how work-arounds create openings for attackers) — as well as the right procedures, policies and practices relating to the software — you can avoid some attacks.

The larger business software industry is still grappling with formal standards and practices around behavior transparency data and systems. But, meanwhile, you can deploy the concept for software onboarding and employee cyber awareness training to increase your digital safety today. 

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Author: Mike Elgan