Reverse Engineering the Analyst: Building Machine Learning Models for the SOC

Many cyber incidents can be traced back to an original alert that was
either missed or ignored by the Security Operations Center (SOC) or
Incident Response (IR) team. While most analysts and SOCs are vigilant
and responsive, the fact is they are often overwhelmed with alerts. If
a SOC is unable to review all the alerts it generates, then sooner or
later, something important will slip through the cracks.

The core issue here is scalability. It is far easier to create more
alerts than to create more analysts, and the cyber security industry
is far better at alert generation than resolution. More intel feeds,
more tools, and more visibility all add to the flood of alerts. There
are things that SOCs can and should do to manage this flood, such as
increasing automation of forensic tasks (pulling PCAP and acquiring
files, for example) and using aggregation filters to group alerts into
similar batches. These are effective strategies and will help reduce
the number of required actions a SOC analyst must take. However, the
decisions the SOC makes still form a critical bottleneck. This
is the “Analyze/ Decide” block in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Basic SOC triage stages

In this blog post, we propose machine learning based strategies to
help mitigate this bottleneck and take back control of the SOC. We
have implemented these strategies in our FireEye Managed Defense SOC,
and our analysts are taking advantage of this approach within their
alert triaging workflow. In the following sections, we will describe
our process to collect data, capture alert analysis, create a model,
and build an efficacy workflow – all with the ultimate goal of
automating alert triage and freeing up analyst time.

Reverse Engineering the Analyst

Every alert that comes into a SOC environment contains certain bits
of information that an analyst uses to determine if the alert
represents malicious activity. Often, there are well-paved analytical
processes and pathways used when evaluating these forensic artifacts
over time. We wanted to explore if, in an effort to truly scale our
SOC operations, we could extract these analytical pathways, train a
machine to traverse them, and potentially discover new ones.

Think of a SOC as a self-contained machine that inputs unlabeled
alerts and outputs the alerts labeled as “malicious” or “benign”. How
can we capture the analysis and determine that something is indeed
malicious, and then recreate that analysis at scale? In other words,
what if we could train a machine to make the same analytical decisions
as an analyst, within an acceptable level of confidence?

Basic Supervised Model Process

The data science term for this is a “Supervised Classification
Model”. It is “supervised” in the sense that it learns by being shown
data already labeled as benign or malicious, and it is a
“classification model” in the sense that once it has been trained, we
want it to look at a new piece of data and make a decision between one
of several discrete outcomes. In our case, we only want it to decide
between two “classes” of alerts: malicious and benign.

In order to begin creating such a model, a dataset must be
collected. This dataset forms the “experience” of the model, and is
the information we will use to “train” the model to make decisions. In
order to supervise the model, each unit of data must be labeled as
either malicious or benign, so that the model can evaluate each
observation and begin to figure out what makes something malicious
versus what makes it benign. Typically, collecting a clean, labeled
dataset is one of the hardest parts of the supervised model pipeline;
however, in the case of our SOC, our analysts are constantly triaging
(or “labeling”) thousands of alerts every week, and so we were lucky
to have an abundance of clean, standardized, labeled alerts.

Once a labeled dataset has been defined, the next step is to define
“features” that can be used to portray the information resident in
each alert. A “feature” can be thought of as an aspect of a bit of
information. For example, if the information is represented as a
string, a natural “feature” could be the length of the string. The
central idea behind building features for our alert classification
model was to find a way to represent and record all the aspects that
an analyst might consider when making a decision.

Building the model then requires choosing a model structure to use,
and training the model on a subset of the total data available. The
larger and more diverse the training data set, generally the better
the model will perform. The remaining data is used as a “test set” to
see if the trained model is indeed effective. Holding out this test
set ensures the model is evaluated on samples it has never seen
before, but for which the true labels are known.

Finally, it is critical to ensure there is a way to evaluate the
efficacy of the model over time, as well as to investigate mistakes so
that appropriate adjustments can be made. Without a plan and a
pipeline to evaluate and retrain, the model will almost certainly
decay in performance.

Feature Engineering

Before creating any of our own models, we interviewed experienced
analysts and documented the information they typically evaluate before
making a decision on an alert. Those interviews formed the basis of
our feature extraction. For example, when an analyst says that
reviewing an alert is “easy”, we ask: “Why? And what helps you make
that decision?” It is this reverse engineering of sorts that gives
insight into features and models we can use to capture analysis.

For example, consider a process execution event. An alert on a
potentially malicious process execution may contain the following fields:

  • Process Path
  • Process MD5
  • Parent Process
  • Process Command

While this may initially seem like a limited feature space, there is
a lot of useful information that one can extract from these fields.

Beginning with the process path of, say, “C:\windows\temp\m.exe”, an
analyst can immediately see some features:

  • The process resides in a
    temporary folder: C:\windows\temp\
  • The process is two
    directories deep in the file system
  • The process executable
    name is one character long
  • The process has an .exe
  • The process is not a “common” process name

While these may seem simple, over a vast amount of data and
examples, extracting these bits of information will help the model to
differentiate between events. Even the most basic aspects of an
artifact must be captured in order to “teach” the model to view
processes the way an analyst does.

The features are then encoded into a more discrete representation,
similar to this:











Another important feature to consider about a process execution
event is the combination of parent process and child process.
Deviation from expected “lineage” can be a strong indicator of
malicious activity.

Say the parent process of the aforementioned example was
‘powershell.exe’. Potential new features could then be derived from
the concatenation of the parent process and the process itself:
‘powershell.exe_m.exe’. This functionally serves as an identity for
the parent-child relation and captures another key analysis artifact.

The richest field, however, is probably the process arguments.
Process arguments are their own sort of language, and language
analysis is a well-tread space in predictive analytics.

We can look for things including, but not limited to:

  • Network connection
    strings (such as ‘http://’, ‘https://’, ‘ftp://’).
  • Base64
    encoded commands
  • Reference to Registry Keys (‘HKLM’,
  • Evidence of obfuscation (ticks, $, semicolons) (read
    Bohannon’s work
    for more)

The way these features and their values appear in a training dataset
will define the way the model learns. Based on the distribution of
features across thousands of alerts, relationships will start to
emerge between features and labels. These relationships will then be
recorded in our model, and ultimately used to influence the
predictions for new alerts. Looking at distributions of features in
the training set can give insight into some of these potential relationships.

For example, Figure 2 shows how the distribution of Process Command
Length may appear when grouping by malicious (red) and benign (blue).

Figure 2: Distribution of Process Event
alerts grouped by Process Command Length

This graph shows that over a subset of samples, the longer the
command length, the more likely it is to be malicious. This manifests
as red on the right and blue on the left. However, process length is
not the only factor.

As part of our feature set, we also thought it would be useful to
approximate the “complexity” of each command. For this, we used
Shannon entropy”, a commonly used metric that measures the
degree of randomness present in a string of characters.

Figure 3 shows a distribution of command entropy, broken out into
malicious and benign. While the classes do not separate entirely, we
can see that for this sample of data, samples with higher entropy
generally have a higher chance of being malicious.

Figure 3: Distribution of Process Event
alerts grouped by entropy

Model Selection and Generalization

Once features have been generated for the whole dataset, it is time
to use them to train a model. There is no perfect procedure for
picking the best model, but looking at the type of features in our
data can help narrow it down. In the case of a process event, we have
a combination of features represented as strings and numbers. When an
analyst evaluates each artifact, they ask questions about each of
these features, and combine the answers to estimate the probability
that the process is malicious.

For our use case, it also made sense to prioritize an
‘interpretable’ model – that is, one that can more easily expose why
it made a certain decision about an artifact. This way analysts can
build confidence in the model, as well as detect and fix analytical
mistakes that the model is making. Given the nature of the data, the
decisions analysts make, and the desire for interpretability, we felt
that a decision tree-based model would be well-suited for alert classification.

There are many publicly available resources to learn about decision
trees, but the basic intuition behind a decision tree is that it is an
iterative process, asking a series of questions to try to arrive at a
highly confident answer. Anyone who has played the game “Twenty
Questions” is familiar with this concept. Initially, general questions
are asked to help eliminate possibilities, and then more specific
questions are asked to narrow down the possibilities. After enough
questions are asked and answered, the ‘questioner’ feels they have a
high probability of guessing the right answer.

Figure 4 shows an example of a decision tree that one might use to
evaluate process executions.

Figure 4: Decision tree for deciding
whether an alert is benign or malicious

For the example alert in the diagram, the “decision path” is marked
in red. This is how this decision tree model makes a prediction. It
first asks: “Is the length greater than 100 characters?” If so, it
moves to the next question “Does it contain the string ‘http’?” and so
on until it feels confident in making an educated guess. In the
example in Figure 4, given that 95 percent of all the training alerts
traveling this decision path were malicious, the model predicts a 95
percent chance that this alert will also be malicious.

Because they can ask such detailed combinations of questions, it is
possible that decision trees can “overfit”, or learn rules that are
too closely tied to the training set. This reduces the model’s ability
to “generalize” to new data. One way to mitigate this effect is to use
many slightly different decision trees and have them each “vote” on
the outcome. This “ensemble” of decision trees is called a Random
Forest, and it can improve performance for the model when deployed in
the wild. This is the algorithm we ultimately chose for our model.

How the SOC Alert Model Works

When a new alert appears, the data in the artifact is transformed
into a vector of the encoded features, with the same structure as the
feature representations used to train the model. The model then
evaluates this “feature vector” and applies a confidence level for the
predicted label. Based on thresholds we set, we can then classify the
alert as malicious or benign.

Figure 5: An alert presented to the
analyst with its raw values captured

As an example, the event shown in Figure 5 might create the
following feature values:

  • Parent Process:
  • Command Entropy: 5.08
  • Command Length

Based on how they were trained, the trees in the model each ask a
series of questions of the new feature vector. As the feature vector
traverses each tree, it eventually converges on a terminal “leaf”
classifying it as either benign or malicious. We can then evaluate the
aggregated decisions made by each tree to estimate which features in
the vector played the largest role in the ultimate classification.

For the analysts in the SOC, we then present the features extracted
from the model, showing the distribution of those features over the
entire dataset. This gives the analysts insight into “why” the model
thought what it thought, and how those features are represented across
all alerts we have seen. For example, the “explanation” for this alert
might look like:

  • Command Entropy = 5.08
    > 4.60:  51.73% Threat
  • occuranceOfChar “\”= 9.00 >
    4.50:  64.09% Threat
  • occuranceOfChar:“)” (=0.00) <=
    0.50: 78.69% Threat
  • NOT
    processTree=”cmd.exe_to_cscript.exe”: 99.6% Threat

Thus, at the time of analysis, the analysts can see the raw data of
the event, the prediction from the model, an approximation of the
decision path, and a simplified, interpretable view of the overall
feature importance.

How the SOC Uses the Model

Showing the features the model used to reach the conclusion allows
experienced analysts to compare their approach with the model, and
give feedback if the model is doing something wrong. Conversely, a new
analyst may learn to look at features they may have otherwise missed:
the parent-child relationship, signs of obfuscation, or network
connection strings in the arguments. After all, the model has learned
on the collective experience of every analyst over thousands of
alerts. Therefore, the model provides an actionable reflection of the
aggregate analyst experience back to the SOC, so that each
analyst can transitively learn from their colleagues.

Additionally, it is possible to write rules using the output of the
model as a parameter. If the model is particularly confident on a
subset of alerts, and the SOC feels comfortable automatically
classifying that family of threats, it is possible to simply write a
rule to say: “If the alert is of this type, AND for this malware
family, AND the model confidence is above 99, automatically call this
alert bad and generate a report.” Or, if there is a storm of probable
false positives, one could write a rule to cull the herd of false
positives using a model score below 10.

How the Model Stays Effective

The day the model is trained, it stops learning. However, threats –
and therefore alerts – are constantly evolving. Thus, it is imperative
to continually retrain the model with new alert data to ensure it
continues to learn from changes in the environment.

Additionally, it is critical to monitor the overall efficacy of the
model over time. Building an efficacy analysis pipeline to compare
model results against analyst feedback will help identify if the model
is beginning to drift or develop structural biases. Evaluating and
incorporating analyst feedback is also critical to identify and
address specific misclassifications, and discover potential new
features that may be necessary.

To accomplish these goals, we run a background job that updates our
training database with newly labeled events. As we get more and more
alerts, we periodically retrain our model with the new observations.
If we encounter issues with accuracy, we diagnose and work to address
them. Once we are satisfied with the overall accuracy score of our
retrained model, we store the model object and begin using that model version.

We also provide a feedback mechanism for analysts to record when the
model is wrong. An analyst can look at the label provided by the model
and the explanation, but can also make their own decision. Whether
they agree with the model or not, they can input their own label
through the interface. We store this label provided by the analyst
along with any optional explanation given by them regarding the explanation.

Finally, it should be noted that these manual labels may require
further evaluation. As an example, consider a commodity malware alert,
in which network command and control communications were sinkholed. An
analyst may evaluate the alert, pull back triage details, including
PCAP samples, and see that while the malware executed, the true
threat to the environment was mitigated. Since it does not
represent an exigent threat, the analyst may mark this alert as
‘benign’. However, the fact that it was sinkholed does not change that
the artifacts of execution still represent malicious activity. Under
different circumstances, this infection could have had a negative
impact on the organization. However, if the benign label is used when
retraining the model, that will teach the model that something
inherently malicious is in fact benign, and potentially lead to false
negatives in the future.

Monitoring efficacy over time, updating and retraining the model
with new alerts, and evaluating manual analyst feedback gives us
visibility into how the model is performing and learning over time.
Ultimately this helps to build confidence in the model, so we can
automate more tasks and free up analyst time to perform tasks such as
hunting and investigation.


A supervised learning model is not a replacement for an experienced
analyst. However, incorporating predictive analytics and machine
learning into the SOC workflow can help augment the productivity of
analysts, free up time, and ensure they utilize investigative skills
and creativity on the threats that truly require expertise.

This blog post outlines the major components and considerations of
building an alert classification model for the SOC. Data collection,
labeling, feature generation, model training, and efficacy analysis
must all be carefully considered when building such a model. FireEye
continues to iterate on this research to improve our detection and
response capabilities, continually improve the detection efficacy of
our products, and ultimately protect our clients.

The process and examples shown discussed in this post are not mere
research. Within our FireEye
Managed Defense
SOC, we use alert classification models built
using the aforementioned processes to increase our efficiency and
ensure we apply our analysts’ expertise where it is needed most. In a
world of ever increasing threats and alerts, increasing SOC efficiency
may mean the difference between missing and catching a critical intrusion.


A big thank you to Seth Summersett and Clara Brooks.


The FireEye ICE Data Science Team is a small, highly trained team of
data scientists and engineers, focused on delivering impactful
capabilities to our analysts, products, and customers. ICE-DS is
always looking for exceptional candidates interested in researching
and solving difficult problems in cybersecurity. If you’re interested,
check out 
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*** This is a Security Bloggers Network syndicated blog from Threat Research authored by Threat Research Blog. Read the original post at: