The problem of alert fatigue, also known as alarm fatigue or notification fatigue, is widely spread across various industries, such as healthcare, construction, information technology and cybersecurity. Although this issue affects different sectors similarly, the cybersecurity industry experiences the most severe and complex consequences of the phenomenon.
Cybersecurity teams are becoming overwhelmed by the ever-increasing amount of information they have to process on a daily basis. However, understanding the reasons behind this can effectively help manage these situations and better prepare those dealing with a high number of alerts to filter and address them.
What is Alert Fatigue in Cybersecurity?
Cybersecurity alert fatigue concerns the overall impact of managing an overwhelming volume of security alerts, leading to the inability to process real threats effectively. Alert fatigue typically arises when alerts triggered by issues are not filtered or prioritised appropriately, compounded by the unmanaged influx of notifications: it is often the result of a combination of these factors.
The rise of advanced threat detection systems and the increasing complexity of cybersecurity environments have led to significant growth in the number of security tools and technologies generating alerts. These alerts can include notifications about potential data breaches, anomalous network activities, system vulnerabilities, malware infections, and other security-related events. However, not all alerts are equally important or require immediate attention, and as a result, security teams may start to overlook or ignore alerts, potentially missing critical threats.
Who does it affect?
While a security analyst typically manages alerts, other roles within the cyber world may contribute to assessing security threats. Here are some of the key stakeholders who may experience alert fatigue:
- Security Analysts: The security staff responsible for monitoring and responding to security events are at the forefront of this phenomenon as they are the ones who receive and analyse the alerts generated by security systems. The overwhelming volume of alerts, including false positives and redundant notifications, can lead to fatigue and make it challenging for them to identify and address real security incidents effectively.
- Incident Response Teams: Incident response teams are responsible for investigating and mitigating security incidents within an organisation. Alert fatigue can impact their ability to respond to critical incidents promptly. If overwhelmed by a flood of alerts, they may need help prioritising and allocating resources effectively, potentially leading to delays in incident containment and response.
- Security Managers and Directors: This issue can also affect security managers and directors who oversee the overall security operations within an organisation. They rely on the information provided by their team to make strategic decisions, allocate resources, and establish security policies. If the quality of alerts is compromised due to desensitisation, it can hinder their ability to make well-informed decisions and adequately manage the business’s security posture.
- IT Operations Teams: IT operations teams manage and maintain the organisation’s IT infrastructure. They may receive alerts related to system vulnerabilities, performance issues, or other IT-related events. If inundated with a high volume of alerts, they may struggle to differentiate between security-related alerts and operational alerts, leading to confusion, and potentially missing critical security incidents.
- System Administrators: System administrators are responsible for maintaining and securing the organisation’s systems and networks. They may receive alerts about system misconfigurations, unauthorised access attempts, or malware infections. Alert fatigue can make it difficult for them to identify genuine threats and take appropriate actions to mitigate risks effectively.
The Causes of Alert Fatigue
The root cause of this problem lies in the overwhelming number of notifications, which can be challenging. What are the factors that contribute to being inundated with so many alerts?
- High Volume of Notifications: The increasing complexity of cybersecurity environments, coupled with the proliferation of security tools and technologies, can lead to a significant extension of alerts. As the number of security systems and sensors deployed within an organisation increases, so does the number of generated alerts. Dealing with such a large volume can be hard to handle for security analysts and operators, consequently contributing to desensitisation.
- False Positives: False positives occur when an alert is triggered for an event that is not actually a security issue. They can result from misconfigurations, software glitches, or limitations in the detection capabilities of security tools. False positives are common in many security systems, and frequent encounters with such alerts can erode trust in the system, contributing to the problem.
- Lack of Prioritisation: Some alerts have different levels of criticality. While some represent higher-priority security incidents that require immediate attention, others may be lower-priority events that can be addressed later. Without proper prioritisation mechanisms or context, security teams may struggle to focus on the most significant threats and miss critical alerts.
- Poor Quality: The quality of alerts plays a crucial role in the effectiveness of the incident response, and those that lack relevant information, fail to provide sufficient details about the affected systems or users, or do not align with the organisation’s specific context, can impede the response process.
- Lack of Automation and Orchestration: Manual handling of alerts can be time-consuming and tedious, increasing the chances of missing critical security issues. Automated systems that filter and prioritise alerts can significantly reduce the burden on those responsible and improve efficiency.
- Inadequate Training and Skills: Insufficient training and a lack of cybersecurity skills are also issues. With proper knowledge of the organisation’s security environment, analysts may be able to interpret and respond to alerts effectively.
- High-Pressure Environment: The high-pressure nature of cybersecurity operations, where the timely response to security incidents is critical, can contribute to burnout. Constantly dealing with a barrage of alerts and the pressure to identify and mitigate threats quickly can lead to stress and affect notification handling capabilities.
In most organisations, it is usually a mixture of these factors that results in the burnout of those responsible for mitigating risks, which can land them in trouble if a security breach is successful.
The Consequences of Alert Fatigue
As with any cyber attack, the consequences of alert fatigue for the organisation can be catastrophic. The type of security risk and its severity will ultimately depend on the dire consequences. However, no security incident is good or welcomed, highlighting the fact that there are vulnerabilities within a company’s security protocols.
Here are some of the expected consequences related to burnout for cybersecurity professionals:
- Increased Response Time: The cybersecurity team may take longer to investigate and prioritise alerts, leading to incident containment and mitigation delays. This delay gives attackers a larger window of opportunity to carry out their malicious activities and can exacerbate the potential impact of security incidents.
- Decreased Response Effectiveness: When there is burnout, the team may need more attention and resources for each incident. This can result in adequate investigations, complete remediation, and an overall reduction in the organisation’s ability to respond to and recover from security incidents effectively.
- Increased Operational Costs: The consequences of missed security incidents can increase an organisation’s operational costs. Remediation efforts for undetected breaches or prolonged system vulnerabilities can be significantly more expensive than addressing incidents in their early stages. Businesses may also be compelled to invest in additional resources or technologies to mitigate alert fatigue and enhance the efficiency of their security operations.
- Reputational and Regulatory Consequences: Failing to detect and respond to security incidents can lead to significant reputational damage. The organisation’s reputation may suffer if sensitive data is compromised or customer trust is eroded due to undetected breaches. Furthermore, alert fatigue can result in non-compliance with industry-specific security requirements in regulated industries, such as finance or healthcare, leading to potential legal and regulatory consequences.
- Employee Burnout and Turnover: Constant exposure to excessive alerts and the pressure to respond quickly can lead to burnout. The stress associated with an overload of alerts may negatively impact mental health and job satisfaction, increasing employee turnover and affecting the stability and continuity of the organisation’s cybersecurity operations.
Why is Alert Fatigue a Problem?
There are a few reasons as to why this phenomenon is becoming a growing concern that cybersecurity teams struggle with in organisations of all sizes. According to some estimates, roughly 30% of cybersecurity incidents are a product of alert fatigue, suggesting that the issue is of great concern.
Here are some of the contributing factors that have made the risks of alert fatigue such a big problem:
- Increasing Complexity: The cybersecurity landscape is continuously evolving and becoming more complex every day, making organisations deploy a wide range of tools, systems and sensors to protect their networks, applications and data. This complexity leads to overwhelming alerts generated by these diverse security solutions. As the number of security technologies and data sources increases, so does the likelihood of burnout among security professionals
- The Sophistication of Threats: Cyber threats are becoming more sophisticated, persistent and targeted. Attackers are deploying advanced techniques to bypass traditional security defences, making detecting and responding to their activities more challenging. As organisations face a barrage of notifications related to various types of attacks, such as malware infections, phishing attempts, and advanced persistent threats (APTs), security professionals are becoming increasingly challenged and affected by attempting to sift through them.
Ten Ways of Managing Alert Fatigue
Organisations need to reduce alert fatigue both to protect their assets and security data from attack vectors, and to ensure the well-being of the employees who are responsible for filtering through the chaos of so many notifications.
Here are 10 ways to help reduce alert fatigue and build a better cybersecurity posture.
1. Optimise Security Technology
Most businesses need to be using more security products to detect potential cyber threats. The fact that they are generally not integrated multiplies the volume of alerts, increasing the number of false positives. This is an extra workload for those responsible for managing the notifications and has absolutely no benefit.
To mitigate this, organisations should consider consolidating strategies to reduce the number of tools they use and instead consider replacing them with a comprehensive system covering multiple IT network areas.
2. Assess the Threat Surface
Many organisations are using a number of systems and devices, both hardware and software, that have the potential to be infiltrated by attackers. Here are a few examples:
- Desktops and laptops
- Mobile phones
- Routers, switches, and servers
- Removable data storage
- Smart devices
- Unsupported or unpatched software
- Misconfigured cloud services
- Services and devices that connect to the Internet, including those that support remote work and Internet of Things (IoT)
- Web and desktop applications
By evaluating whether or not all these devices and systems are needed, organisations can begin to decrease the use of them, and by doing so, reduce the attack surface, resulting in fewer types of alerts.
3. Prioritise Threat Alerts
It is essential to prioritise the types of security alerts by categorising them into one of three risk factors: high, medium and low. Those responsible for assessing the alerts can then manage them more effectively.
4. Adjust Alert Thresholds
Adjust the alert thresholds and parameters to ensure they are aligned with your organisation’s specific environment and risk tolerance. Fine-tuning thresholds helps eliminate unnecessary notifications triggered by normal or non-threatening activities and can significantly reduce false positives.
5. Automate wherever possible
Implement automation technologies and playbooks to automate repetitive and routine tasks associated with alert handling and incident response. Automation reduces the manual workload on security analysts, improves response times and reduces the risk of fatigue.
6. Elaborate further on Notifications
When handing over alerts to cybersecurity team members, it helps to elaborate in detail as to what the alert consists of. Information about it will save the next person dealing with it a lot of time and help with the remediation process.
7. Threat Intelligence Integration
Integrate threat intelligence feeds into the alerting systems to enhance the accuracy and relevance of alerts. External threat intelligence helps identify Indicators of Compromise (IOCs) and prioritise alerts based on the organisation’s specific threat landscape.
8. Continuous In-House Training
Provide ongoing education and training programmes to keep security teams updated on the latest threats, attack techniques and emerging security technologies. Continuous learning enhances their skills, knowledge and ability to handle alerts, effectively reducing the chances of alert fatigue.
9. Incident Response Metrics
Establish and track key performance metrics related to incident response, such as Mean Time To Detect (MTTD) and Mean Time To Respond (MTTR). These metrics provide insights into the efficiency of the alert management process, highlight improvement areas, and help measure the impact of implemented strategies.
10. Employee Well-Being
Prioritise the well-being of security teams by creating a supportive work environment. Implement measures to prevent burnout, encourage work-life balance, and provide opportunities for rest and recovery. Supporting the staff’s mental health and job satisfaction helps reduce the likelihood of fatigue and turnover.
In conclusion, cybersecurity alert fatigue is a significant challenge caused by the overwhelming volume of alerts and sophisticated threats. It hampers incident response and poses risks to an organisation’s security. Prioritising threats, reducing false positives, leveraging contextual information, and ensuring employee well-being are key strategies to mitigate alert fatigue. By implementing these practices, companies can improve response efficiency and maintain a strong security posture in the face of evolving cyber threats.