Alert Overload: False Positives’ Hidden Costs in Cybersecurity 

Let’s say you just bought a new house. Even though it’s in a gated neighborhood with security guards, you don’t want to risk anything, so you install a state-of-the-art security system. Every day, you get a flurry of alerts on your phone, triggered by your family coming and going through the front door, opening a window for fresh air, and every time your dog walks past the motion detector. 

After a few weeks, you start to ignore the alerts, feeling confident that they are simply tracking normal, innocuous behaviors. Then, one day, there was a break-in at your home. You check your alerts; sure enough, there’s one about the front door being opened and the alarm going off. How could you have missed it?  

This is the predicament cybersecurity professionals face today. A company’s once manageable landscape of firewalls and anti-virus software has exploded; with more devices, users, systems, and tools, data is being generated at a staggering rate. This exponential growth in monitored data – a necessity given that threat actors launch attacks every 39 seconds - has led to an avalanche of alerts. When that data isn’t leveraged and filtered efficiently, false positives grow, and genuine threats are missed because even a seasoned security team will be stuck trying to dig itself out of the snowpack.  

False Positives: A Numbers Game with Serious Consequences 

False positives are security alerts triggered by activity deemed suspicious but ultimately stemming from harmless events. The frequency of false positives is staggering. In last year’s State of Threat Detection and Response, 48% of security professionals reported a 3X increase in daily alerts, noting that at least 50% were false positives.   

Orca’s 2022 Cloud Security Alert Fatigue Report found that 59% of organizations received over 500 cloud security alerts daily, and 38% got more than 1000 per day. Fifty-six percent of teams reported spending over 20% of their work hours investigating and prioritizing alerts, yet most teams reported only a mere 10% of alerts were critical. False positives do more than waste time; 55% of respondents say critical alerts are missed daily and weekly due to teams becoming desensitized and ineffective alert prioritization.  

What’s behind these alert storms? The answer comes down to one word: growth. The rate of cyberattacks is growing, attack surfaces are growing, and to cope with both situations simultaneously, the number of security tools companies use is growing. However, more tools from multiple vendors result in more alerts (false positives and true alerts) and more alert fatigue due to siloed tools reporting the same alert.  

The Causes of False Positive Alerts 

Getting rid of false positives is a constant struggle. There’s an inherent trade-off – stricter rules and definitions might catch more threats, but they’ll also flag more innocent activities as suspicious. Conversely, looser rules reduce false positives but increase the risk of missing actual threats. 

System complexity makes it challenging to define clear-cut rules that accurately distinguish between malicious and normal activity, so unexpected combinations of legitimate actions can sometimes trigger false positives. The effectiveness of anomaly-based detection relies heavily on the quality and completeness of the data being analyzed; incomplete or inaccurate data can lead to false positives, as the tool might identify normal deviations as suspicious.  

Additionally, as attackers morph their tactics, the goalposts of “suspicious” keep shifting, making it a perpetual game of catch-up for security tools. By the time a signature or anomaly-based rule is created to detect a specific threat, attackers might have already moved on to new methods. Even with the best tools, analysts ultimately need to review and verify alerts, but fatigue, lack of training, or simple human error can lead to overlooking real threats or mistakenly validating false positives. 

The Consequences of Alert Overload and False Positives 

Already stretched thin, security teams need to sift through a digital haystack of mostly false positives; almost half of those surveyed in the Orca report said over 40% of alerts are false positives. Still, each demands investigation. Eventually, alert fatigue inevitably sets in, leading to desensitization and missing genuine threats. In turn, the company risks being exposed to data breaches, business disruption, financial losses, and reputational damage. It’s like the boy who cried wolf, only this time the wolf is a cybercriminal, and the consequences are far more dire than a wasted trip to the sheepfold.  

From a staffing perspective, alert fatigue is a top contributor to burnout, turnover, and decreased morale among security teams, further weakening the organization’s defenses.  

Alerts Create a False Sense of Security 

When alerts flood in, inadequately filtered and prioritized, it’s easy to become overwhelmed and numb. A steady stream of confirmed false positives can lull teams into a false sense of security. They might believe their defenses are effective simply because they’re constantly triggered, not realizing the lack of real threats signifies a blind spot in their monitoring or investigative process.  

Poor filtering and prioritization are equally problematic, leading to wasted resources and missed opportunities for threat detection. A sophisticated attack could go undetected because it doesn’t match the criteria for alert generation, a critical vulnerability could be deemed low-risk based on its similarity to a past false positive, or a high-priority threat might be ignored in favor of lower-priority alerts. 

A barrage of unfiltered alerts makes prioritization difficult and can lead to decision paralysis, hindering the team’s ability to respond swiftly and decisively. The Orca study found that 79% of organizations have more than 500 cloud security alerts open daily, and 46% of teams report it takes three or more days to remediate an alert. Even if a potential threat is noticed, understanding it without event correlation and context obscures the real picture. The result is sluggish response times that enable attackers to inflict further damage before they’re stopped. 

Embrace the Inevitable, But Never Accept the Consequences

False positives are an unfortunate reality of a rapidly evolving cyber landscape, but you don’t have to face the unrelenting alert storm alone. CYREBRO’s Managed Detection and Response (MDR), powered by proprietary technology, is designed to reduce false positives and significantly increase threat detection with laser-focused precision. Using relevant threat intelligence, advanced analytics, and forensic data, our expert analysts triage alerts, investigate incidents, and provide appropriate mitigation steps. Our clarity and insights empower your team to focus on dangerous lighting strikes rather than swimming in rain puddles. 

When combined with our Security Information and Event Management (SIEM), which is continually optimized and fine-tuned using the MITRE ATT&CK framework as well as other methods, you can enhance your overall resilience and fortify your environment. In a chaotic digital world, cybersecurity teams can’t afford to make mistakes and miss threats due to false positives. The only way to keep your team from drowning is to equip them with efficient security solutions that lighten their load and help them battle the storm. 

Sign Up for Updates