• Dana Epp

Information Security Stillness: Tuning for Tranquility

Updated: Mar 16, 2018

Think for a second about your digital defenses. When you are probed, do you know? When you are attacked, are you aware? Do you even care?

Over the last decade there has been a paradigm shift. Where in the past it was quite easy to review and audit logs for attacks, it is becoming much more difficult as of late. Why is this? Well, it is something I call the "noise poise". Far too many security tools report any activity that they see, without understanding the context that they are in. The result? Far too much noise overwhelms the information security professional, making it more difficult to really see what is going on. Intrusion detection sensors are the worst for this, because they trigger so many false positives that when a true attack occurs, many people miss it.

This can be fixed. What we have to do is tune our tools for silence, eliminating the regular false positives and putting ourselves in a state of tranquility, or stillness. This way we can truly listen, knowing that any noise made should be investigated further.

What do I mean? Consider network probing. Do you really care if some script kiddie runs nmap against your firewall? Probably not. Especially if your firewall is configured properly. How about the IIS related traversal attacks against your Apache server? (Snort reports I currently get hit with over 100 IIS attacks a day on my personal Apache server) Doubtful. Useless noise. The idea is to tune any security checkpoint you have to give you a sense of stillness. This may take time. A good way to do this is to go through a series of steps to get to that state of tranquility:

  1. Understand what it is that your security tool can log, and what it can't. By first understanding its capabilities, you can then learn how to better utilize it.

  2. Understand what the security tool does in the context of your layered defensive posture. You will probably have internal firewalls protecting critical resources tuned more sensitively than you perimeter firewall against certain kinds of probes. Know your enemy to know thyself.

  3. Once you understand the landscape the tool is defending against, set it to its most sensitive setting, generating a plethora of logs so you can really see what it can trigger. Remember, many of the alerts will be false positives, and that is OK at this stage.

  4. Apply filters and adjust the logging settings to remove acceptable events. If possible, have these events stored in secondary event logs, allows for correlation later if needed. This is where the power of tools like Perl can really come in handy. It can help to filter commonly accepted events and sift through the noise for you. How did I know I get hundreds of IIS attacks a day on my Apache server? Because I have a script that goes through my Snort reports and sifts out this information for me, giving me a single line telling me of the attack instead of having 100 separate event entries. I could just as easily not look for this sort of attack... but I have my reasons for wanting to know when this sort of attack occurs.

  5. At this stage, the waters begin to calm. Events that are triggered now can be more scrutinized. Some events may not be malicious, but they may not fit in with your information security policies. Misconfigured networked devices may throw events, or unapproved software may attempt to do tasks that are unknown to the administrator. This is the time where you can fix your defenses. You shouldn't be trying to filter these events with your security tools, but rather fix the actual problem at the source. Either fix or remove the offending soft/hardware, or modify the security policy. Never just accept the activity as normal. False positives should be stomped out where possible.

  6. Stand in stillness. Listen for the enemy. Trust in your alarms, and verify the events.

There is a fine balance when doing this. If you don't filter, you will be overwhelmed with logging events, and the attack will probably get through along with a plethora of extraneous logs and false alarms. Filter too much, and the attack will slip through undetected. Only you can decide how to set a balance between the two. When doing so though, consider this:

  1. Remember the Rule of Immediate and Proper Response. You should be prepared to respond to anything. When someone yells "The sky is falling" (and they always do) you have to be able to quickly filter out the nutjobs from the sincere. You can only do this if you are working in stillness, looking for where the ripples are in you defenses. When done right, you can respond with "I already know".

  2. Know your Five W's. Ensure your filters take into account who is accessing what resource from where, why, and when. Consider what is considered normal activity during office hours, and when it is not. Should someone be accessing the corporate financial data at 2 in the morning? Should VPN access be allowed after hours? Your policy will dictate what is acceptable, and it will also allow you to tune the sensitivity of your filters accordingly. Where possible use security tools that are intelligent enough to apply time of day conditional sensors and filters.

  3. Respect the Rule of Change Management when modifying your logging facilities. No single person should be allowed to adjust, or more importantly turn off, security event logging without management understanding WHY. Intentionally ignoring security alerts is a bad idea. And leaving such critical data to a single person may breach the Rule of Trust.

Let me explain WHY ignoring security alerts is a bad idea. It all comes down to the human condition. The weakest link is the human factor; there is a major reason for this. Too many false positives in any environment will eventually be ignored. Perhaps you heard of such a fable when you were a child. If you recall, a boy "cried wolf" one to many times, and was gobbled up. The same is true in the security world. There are stories about how in World War II, the French resistance would purposely trigger security defenses three or four times in a night to annoy the Germans into turning off their safeguards, or giving up on checking the alarms all together because they were tired of false alarms. Then they would sneak by undetected. Or the hacker that would continuously trigger the IDS sensor...causing the admin to turn it off because it continuously paged him all night every night for a week. (Coincidentally... this specific example occurred in a few well published attacks)

Don't ever relax your security in this manner. When you least expect it - expect it.

Be vigilant. Be safe. And be still.