Glossary Glossary

False Positive

A false positive in cybersecurity is an alert or indication that a security system has incorrectly identified a threat or vulnerability when none exists. It is a false alarm generated by security software and tools. False positives can arise for various reasons, such as overly aggressive security settings and outdated threat data.

In the context of attack surface management (ASM), these misclassifications can lead to unnecessary alerts, wasted resources, reduced ability to identify and respond to genuine threats, and, ultimately, contribute to a larger attack surface.

Table of Contents

What Is a False Positive in Cybersecurity?: A Deep Dive

What Are the Impacts of a False Positive in Cybersecurity?

The implications of false positives extend beyond mere inconvenience. They can significantly deter an organization’s attack surface reduction efforts, leading to:

What Is a False Positive in Cybersecurity
  • Wasted time and resources: Security teams dedicate valuable time and resources investigating false positives, diverting their attention from genuine security issues.
  • Alert fatigue: Overwhelmed by false alarms, security teams may become desensitized to alerts, increasing the risk of overlooking real threats.
  • Increased costs: The time and resources consumed in investigating and remediating false positives can add to direct and indirect security costs.
  • Attack surface growth: False positives distract security teams from handling real threats, potentially allowing attackers to exploit unaddressed vulnerabilities and compromise systems undetected.

What Causes a False Positive in Cybersecurity?

Several factors can contribute to the occurrence of false positives. Here are some of the most common ones.

  • Overly sensitive security settings: When security systems like firewalls, antivirus, and vulnerability scanners have very stringent settings, they may flag harmless activities and files as malicious.
  • Incorrect asset inventory: In some instances, security solutions can mistakenly attribute assets to your organization and create false positive alerts when vulnerabilities are found in them.
  • Outdated threat data: Security systems may detect vulnerabilities that no longer apply to an asset. These flaws may have already been mitigated and marked as acceptable, but related alerts still get generated.
  • Outdated threat signatures: Security tools often rely on threat signatures or patterns of code or behaviors associated with known malware or malicious activities. If these signatures are outdated or incomplete, they may misclassify harmless resources as potentially dangerous.
  • Software bugs: False positives may be caused by software bugs or glitches in security tools or operating systems (OSs).
  • Human error: There are cases when false positives are caused by human error, such as incorrectly configuring security settings or failing to update threat signatures.

How Do You Mitigate False Positives?

Here are some effective strategies to reduce the occurrence of false positives.

  • Fine-tune security settings: Regularly review and adjust security configurations to balance sensitivity and accuracy. Avoid overly restrictive settings that trigger excessive false positives.
  • Leverage high-confidence discovery techniques: Organizations can use ASM solutions that use reliable asset discovery and vulnerability detection techniques to avoid incorrect asset attribution and irrelevant security alerts.
  • Update threat signatures and intelligence sources: Keep security tools updated with the latest threat and vulnerability data to prevent misclassifying harmless files and activities.
  • Implement safelisting and blocklisting: Create lists of known safe assets (safelists) and known malicious files (blocklists) to help distinguish between benign and suspicious activities.
  • Implement an efficient prioritization method: Eliminating all false positives can be difficult despite implementing the measures above. However, security teams can focus on what matters most and avoid alert fatigue by ranking alerts according to their severity and impact.

False positives in cybersecurity can be detrimental to an organization’s security posture, leading to wasted resources, increased risks of overlooking genuine threats, and uncontrolled attack surface growth. To avoid these adverse effects, companies must implement adequate approaches addressing the root causes of false positives.

Key Takeaways

  • A false positive in cybersecurity refers to instances where a security system or tool flags a benign entity or activity as a potential threat.
  • A false positive in cybersecurity can result in wasted time and resources, alert fatigue, increased costs, and a larger attack surface.
  • False positives can be caused by overly sensitive security settings, outdated threat signatures, software bugs, and human error.
  • False positives can be mitigated by fine-tuning security settings, updating threat signatures and intelligence sources, relying on high-confidence asset discovery and attribution techniques, implementing safelisting and blocklisting, and using an efficient prioritization method.

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