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What is Detection Engineering?

May 21, 2024
Written by
Ganga Sumanth

Detection engineering is about developing, improving, and refining the processes and systems used to pinpoint potential security incidents before they escalate into full-blown breaches. It’s a practice that continuously scans for indications of malicious activity and guarantees that everyone on the security team is always a step ahead when playing this dangerous game of cat and mouse.

The process involves threat modeling that identifies what needs to be detected, determines the log resources for detection, and uses detection content while managing it over time to adapt to new threats. In short, detection engineering isn’t as simple as setting up traps to catch malicious actors. It’s also the development of a proactive and dynamic defense strategy that will prove a ready fallback if and when a threat materializes.

Table of Contents

  1. The role that detection engineers play
  2. The core components of detection engineering
  3. Detection engineering process
  4. Detection engineering tools and technologies
  5. Challenges that detection engineers face
  6. Get the skills that you need

The role that detection engineers play

Detection engineers are the architects behind the structures that monitor and analyze data across an organization’s network. They also develop and implement detection rules and models that identify if there are signs of cyber threats based on multiple indicators, such as malicious behaviors, anomalous activity, and behavioral analytics. Detection engineers must also keep up with both the technology landscape and potential attack vectors to make sure that detection mechanisms stay effective in the face of cyber threats. 

Another important role that detection engineers play is the continuous iteration and improvement of detection capabilities. With cyber threats getting more sophisticated, so must the detection strategies. Regularly updating detection rules, tuning systems to reduce false positives, and integrating new technologies and methodologies to improve detection capabilities.

The core components of detection engineering

In detection engineering, there are several core components that work together to strengthen an organization’s cybersecurity defenses. Let's talk about these important elements:

Threat modeling

This is a foundational step that involves identifying threats that are specific to an organization’s environment and asking important questions about its resources: What needs to be protected? Who are the potential attackers? What tactics might they use? Threat modeling is a tremendous help when working on making security efforts a priority and tailoring detection strategies against threats that are the most relevant to your organization.

Detection rules

These are the criteria or algorithms designed to find indicators of compromise or suspicious activities. Detection rules can be developed based on known attack signatures, anomalous behavior patterns, or a combination of both. If you want to develop effective detection rules, you need a deep understanding of both the current threat landscape and the organization’s unique environment to make sure that these rules are both sensitive enough to catch real threats and specific enough to minimize false positives.

Alert systems

Once the detection rules find a potential threat, alert systems are the ones responsible for notifying the necessary personnel. These systems need to ensure that alerts are actionable with enough context for security teams to swiftly assess the situation and respond accordingly. Having an efficient alert system is critical; it should prioritize and categorize alerts to help teams focus on the most critical issues first.

Data sources and integration

Detection engineering relies heavily on multiple data sources like network traffic, system logs, application logs, and more. Once these data sources are integrated properly, you should have a more comprehensive view of your organization’s security posture and more accurate and swift detection of possible threats.

Continuous improvement and tuning

Because of the very sophisticated cyber threats nowadays, detection mechanisms need regular reviews and updates, including refining detection rules to reduce false positives, adjusting thresholds, and incorporating feedback from incident response activities to improve detection capabilities.

Collaboration with other security functions

Detection engineering requires collaboration with other cybersecurity functions, such as threat intelligence and risk management. Having collaborative approaches like this will help guarantee that the detection strategies are informed by the latest threat intelligence and are aligned with the organization’s overall security posture.

Detection engineering process

This is an iterative process that constantly evolves to keep pace with the changing times. Here’s a breakdown of the typical steps involved in this process, tailored for cybersecurity professionals:

Step 1: Threat identification and intelligence gathering

The first step is all about understanding the threats. It involves collecting intelligence on emerging threats, tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP) used by cybercriminals. You can use threat feeds, industry reports, incident analyses, and more as the source for intelligence.

Step 2: Threat modeling and risk assessment

Based on your gathered intelligence, you can now assess the unique vulnerabilities and potential attack vectors of your organization. This step helps in prioritizing threats based on their relevance and potential impact on the organization.

Step 3: Development of detection strategies

After you get a clear understanding of the threats and vulnerabilities of your organization, detection engineers will develop strategies to detect potential attacks. This step involves creating detection rules or algorithms that can identify signs of malicious activities across different data sources.

Step 4: Implementation and integration

The next step is the implementation of the detection strategies within the organization’s security infrastructure. You will need to integrate the detection mechanisms with existing security tools and systems to make sure of comprehensive monitoring across the organization’s digital infrastructure.

Step 5: Testing and validation

Now, it’s time to implement the detection strategies within your organization’s security infrastructure. It requires integrating the detection mechanisms with existing security tools and systems to make sure of comprehensive monitoring across the entire organization’s digital environment.

Step 6: Monitoring and alerting

With the detection systems operational, it's important that you keep on monitoring. The systems analyze data streams in real time to find signs of compromise. Once a threat is detected, the system will generate an alert to further investigate by the security team.

Step 7: Incident response and mitigation

After an alert is received, the incident response team will take over. They will proceed by investigating the potential threat and by taking the necessary steps to mitigate any damages. This phase is important if you want to minimize the impact of a security incident.

Step 8: Post-incident analysis and feedback loop

Once an incident is resolved, a thorough analysis will be conducted to understand the attack vectors, tactics used, and the overall performance of the detection and response mechanisms. You should feed back the insights gained from this analysis into the process to inform future threat identification and strategy development.

Step 9: Continuous refinement

The detection engineering process doesn't end there. It needs ongoing refinement and adjustment based on new threats, technological advancements, and lessons learned from past incidents. Continuous improvement cycles like this ensure that the detection capabilities remain effective and aligned with your organization’s security needs.

Detection engineering tools and technologies

As a cybersecurity professional, you need to use a variety of tools and technologies that will help you identify and mitigate threats effectively. Here are some tools that you need to look at:

1. Security Information and Event Management (SIEM) systems: SIEM systems are central to detection engineering. They aggregate and analyze data from different sources across your organization’s IT infrastructure to find signs of potential security threats and incidents. SIEM systems can also help in real-time monitoring, event log management, and incident response, which makes them a very important part of detection engineering.

2. Machine learning and behavior analytics: Detection engineers are now incorporating machine learning algorithms into their workflows. They used it to identify patterns and anomalies that might indicate a security threat. These algorithms can learn from historical data to predict and detect out-of-the-ordinary behaviors, thereby improving the ability to proactively identify threats that are unusual from the norm.

3. Log management solutions: Having effective log management is important for detection engineering, as logs from servers, apps, and security devices contain important data about your organization’s security posture. Tools that help in collecting, aggregating, storing, and analyzing log data help detection engineers discover security incidents.

4. Endpoint Detection and Response (EDR) and Extended Detection and Response (XDR): EDR tools are responsible for monitoring endpoint services to detect and respond to cyber threats, while XDR extends this capability across multiple layers of the security stack. They help detection engineers to have broader visibility of the organization’s network, which helps a lot when detecting sophisticated threats and coordinated response efforts.

5. Threat intelligence platforms: Threat intelligence platforms are where detection engineers find out about known threats, such as indicators of compromise (IoCs), tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) used by cybercriminals. This intelligence is important so that you can develop your own effective detection strategies, as well as stay ahead of potential threats.

Challenges that detection engineers face

  1. Threats are constantly evolving, which requires detection engineers to continuously update their detection methods and tools to identify new and sophisticated attack vectors​​.
  2. Legitimate activities can sometimes be flagged as malicious and can trigger unnecessary alarms and divert attention from genuine threats. To mitigate this, include refining detection algorithms and using rigorous testing​​.
  3. The overload of data from network traffic, logs, and alerts can make it difficult to identify genuine threats among the noise. Advanced data analytics and machine learning can help sift through large datasets more efficiently​​.
  4. The cybersecurity landscape is continually changing with new technologies and methodologies. Keeping up with these developments is important to maintaining effective defense mechanisms against cyber threats​​.
  5. Often, the process of creating new detections starts with available data rather than focusing on relevant threats. This approach can lead to inefficiencies in identifying and mitigating actual cybersecurity risks​​.
  6. Prioritizing which threats to address first is often based on gut feelings, assumptions, individual perspectives, and analysis bias rather than a structured evaluation of the most relevant and imminent threats​​.
  7. Modern malware often uses obfuscation and evasion techniques that make it difficult for traditional detection methods to identify and analyze them effectively. This sophistication in malware development requires constant innovation in detection techniques​​.

Get the skills that you need

The field of detection engineers is perpetually dynamic. New challenges and technologies emerge rapidly, and as security professionals, we have no other choice but to keep pace. But with our personal lives and job responsibilities, how can we do that?

AppSecEngineer is an information security training platform that can help you with that dilemma. Not only do we cater to individuals looking to get the skills and the prowess to go against cyber threats, but we also work with huge organizations to train their teams. 

Detection engineering skills? We got you!

Source for article
Ganga Sumanth

Ganga Sumanth

Ganga Sumanth is an Associate Security Engineer at we45. His natural curiosity finds him diving into various rabbit holes which he then turns into playgrounds and challenges at AppSecEngineer. A passionate speaker and a ready teacher, he takes to various platforms to speak about security vulnerabilities and hardening practices. As an active member of communities like Null and OWASP, he aspires to learn and grow in a giving environment. These days he can be found tinkering with the likes of Go and Rust and their applicability in cloud applications. When not researching the latest security exploits and patches, he's probably raving about some niche add-on to his ever-growing collection of hobbies: Long distance cycling, hobby electronics, gaming, badminton, football, high altitude trekking.

Ganga Sumanth


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