Alert fatigue, also known as alarm fatigue or notification fatigue, is a prevalent issue common across many fields, including healthcare, construction and mining, information technology, and cybersecurity. While it plagues these different industries in a similar way, alert fatigue in cybersecurity may be the most complicated and problematic.

What Is Alert Fatigue in Cybersecurity?

Alert fatigue is a phenomenon that occurs when cybersecurity professionals are inundated with such a high volume of security alerts that it leads to a diminished ability to react effectively to and investigate real threats.

Alert fatigue typically manifests from not filtering or prioritising alert-triggering issues as well as unmanaged incoming notifications. In many cases, it's a combination of these reasons.

Alerts in cybersecurity come in many forms and are triggered by various suspicious activities and events. Some of the most common activities or potential threats that might issue an alert notification include:

  • Suspicious network activity, such as data breaches, network intrusions, and other malicious activity
  • Series of failed login attempts that may indicate attempted unauthorised access
  • Detection of malware, ransomware, software viruses, and other malicious code

These targeted alerts are designed to notify cybersecurity professionals of such incidents, take timely action, and prevent or remedy them from escalating. The alerts are prompted by sophisticated security tools, such as intrusion detection systems, firewalls, and security information and event management (SIEM) systems, which work together to continuously monitor network activity and alert cybersecurity professionals when threats are detected.

When a system has overly-sensitive or poorly-defined security monitoring and alert protocols, the outcome can result in progressive alert fatigue. In turn, this can diminish the efficacy of such cybersecurity protocols, as the number of alerts can cause cybersecurity professionals to become overwhelmed by frequent notifications to the point where serious threats go overlooked.

What Causes Alert Fatigue?

The underlying reason behind alert fatigue is the sheer volume of notifications a cybersecurity system generates. This can be caused by a variety of factors, including:

  • False positives: When cybersecurity systems produce continuous alerts for non-threatening events (false positives), it progressively causes professionals to become desensitised to the notifications.
  • Complex cybersecurity systems: When multiple systems are in place, such as in federal government facilities, financial institutions, and enterprise organisations, it can be challenging to correlate and consolidate alerts, leading to a high volume and complex set of alerts.
  • Lack of context: Without proper context assigned to alert notifications, it can be confusing and challenging for security professionals to pinpoint the seriousness of an alert, leading to ambiguity and delayed responses.
  • Poorly defined management processes: A well-defined set of incident response processes and procedures can enable teams to process alerts effectively. However, poorly-defined processes and procedures are problematic because they intensify alert fatigue.
  • Lack of resources: A limited number of security professionals to handle a large volume of alert notifications can make it challenging to keep up with and respond to alerts in a timely manner.
  • Limited customisation: Cybersecurity alerts that are not properly customised and filtered can lead to non-threatening or irrelevant alerts, thereby exacerbating alert fatigue.

In many organisations, a combination of these causes contributes to alert fatigue issues. This is particularly the case in environments with multiple implemented security tools, each generating its own set of alerts, leading to the deluge and eventual fatigue of notifications.

Consequences and Risks of Alert Fatigue

When alert fatigue runs rampant in cybersecurity environments, the repercussions come with several risks and consequences, including:

  • False sense of security: When security professionals become progressively inundated and desensitised to alerts, they may assume alerts are false positives and begin to ignore them, which may lead to a false sense of security.
  • Delayed response: Security professionals who become overwhelmed and fatigued by constant alerts may be slow to react to critical threats, leading to a delayed response in mitigating actual risks.
  • Increased workload: When the staff responsible for alert monitoring becomes overwhelmed with notifications, they may experience added work stress and tension, which may lead to higher burnout, turnover, and decreased productivity.
  • Legal and regulatory compliance issues: Security breaches can lead to inadequate compliance and regulatory problems, which may result in costly fines and penalties.
  • Increased costs: When cybersecurity systems fail to filter and prioritise real alerts, they may allocate additional resources to staff to manage the high volume of alerts, thereby leading to increased costs for the organisation.
  • Reputation damage: A cybersecurity breach can be immensely damaging to an organisation's operations and, subsequently, its reputation, leading to customer and revenue loss.
  • Decreased morale: Alert fatigue can have costly consequences on the morale of an organisation's security team, as they may become demotivated, disengaged, and unproductive in their work.

Alert Fatigue in Cybersecurity: A Growing Problem

It’s undebatable that alert fatigue is becoming a growing cybersecurity problem. An IDC white paper reported that cybersecurity teams struggle with alert fatigue across organisations of all sizes, with up to 30% of alerts not being investigated or completely ignored.

According to IBM and the Ponemon Institute's report on data breach costs, the average cost of a data breach in 2022 reached a record high of $3.86 million, and the average time to identify and contain a breach was 277 days. Detection time is the most significant contributor to the overall costs associated with data breaches. The longer a breach remains undetected, the more sensitive forms of data can be extracted.

The Ponemon Institute's report titled The Cost of Malware Containment found, on average, organisations receive roughly 17,000 malware alerts in a typical week, but only 19% of those alerts are deemed reliable. This indicates that the vast majority of alerts are false positives that directly contribute to alert fatigue.

Promon, a prominent application security provider, found that two-thirds of cybersecurity professionals surveyed at the Black Hat Europe expo claimed to have experienced burnout in 2022. Over 50% of respondents attributed their workload as the biggest source of stress in their positions.

So, what can organisations and cybersecurity teams do to minimise alert fatigue and optimise the efficacy of notification monitoring protocols? Let’s explore some of the potential solutions to combat alert fatigue.

How to Mitigate Alert Fatigue and Improve Cybersecurity Efficacy

To minimise alert fatigue and improve the overall efficacy of cybersecurity, organisations and teams can utilise the following solutions:

Establish Thresholds to Prioritise Alerts Based on Severity

Setting thresholds is one of the effective and systematic ways to make sweeping improvements in mitigating alert fatigue. The premise behind this solution is to establish a system that assigns a priority level to certain types of alerts.

For example, a cybersecurity team can assign different levels based on alert severity. For example, level 1 for critical alerts demanding immediate attention, level 2 for priority alerts requiring action within a set time-frame, and level 3 for low-priority alerts to be addressed during regular working hours.

Proofpoint's Threat Response Solutions address this challenge by providing valuable context around threats and automating response actions, such as the quarantine and containment activities throughout a security system's infrastructure.

Utilise Automated Correlation and Triage

“Automated correlation” identifies and groups related alerts to minimise redundancies and allow cybersecurity professionals to focus on the most critical alerts. For example, if the same IP address generates multiple alerts, automated correlation can group them together, making investigating significantly easier.

Similar to setting priority thresholds, “automated triage” escalates alerts based on their level of severity. By assigning a priority level to each alert, teams quickly identify and respond to the most critical alerts, such as major data breaches. This measure is rooted in Emerging Threat (ET) intelligence, Proofpoint's solution to help cybersecurity teams better understand the historical context of where security threats originate, who's behind them, what methods they used when they initiated the attack, and what information they're after.

Automated correlation and triage tools can be integrated into existing cybersecurity systems, such as prevention and intrusion detection systems, SIEM systems, and threat intelligence platforms.

Implement an Incident Response Plan

An incident response plan is a predetermined set of procedures and guidelines that a cybersecurity team can follow when reacting to a security incident. This plan aims to ensure that high-priority alerts are responded to quickly and efficiently, thereby reducing the amount of time spent investigating and troubleshooting the incident. Key elements of an incident response plan include:

  • Identifying critical assets and systems that are most critical to the organisation and that would incur the most damage if compromised.
  • Assigning an incident response team or a group of individuals (e.g., IT, cybersecurity, legal professionals, etc.) responsible for responding to and handling security threats.
  • Determining incident response procedures that a team follows when handling a security threat, such as detection, containment, eradication, and recovery.
  • Defining communication protocols that a cybersecurity team follows when relaying information and updates to internal and external stakeholders (e.g., management, employees, customers, and the media) amidst a security threat.
  • Continuously improving and updating the incident response plan ensures processes and procedures remain relevant and effective. This also includes testing plans through exercises and drills and making adjustments as needed.

Other aspects go into alert fatigue mitigation, such as frequently reviewing and fine-tuning entire cybersecurity systems to help minimise the frequency of false positives and ensure only relevant alerts are triggered.

Another commonly utilised method has systems in place to keep employees well-trained on security awareness best practices, thereby reducing the possibility of human errors, like falling for phishing scams or overlooking serious alerts.

Reduce Alert Fatigue and Bolster Your Cybersecurity Systems

To learn more about how Proofpoint can help reduce alert fatigue and prevent it from disrupting your cybersecurity protocols, explore Threat Response Solutions to track any alert from any source and seamlessly organise them into incidents that can optimise your team's workflow.

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