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Database Activity Analysis Survey

By Adrian Lane

I ran into Slavik Markovich of Sentrigo, and David Maman of GreenSQL, on the vendor floor at the RSA Conference. I probably startled them with my negative demeanor – having just come from one vendor who seems to deliberately misunderstand preventative and detective controls, and another who thinks regular expression checks for content analysis are cutting edge. Still, we got to chat for a few minutes before rushing off to another product briefing. During that conversation it dawned on me that we continue to see refinement in the detection of malicious database queries and deployment methods to block database activity by database activity monitoring vendors. Not just from these vendors – others are improving as well.

For me, the interesting aspect is the detection methods being used – particularly how incoming SQL statements are analyzed. For blocking to be viable, the detection algorithms have to be precise, with a low rate of false positives (where have you heard that before?). While there are conceptual similarities between database blocking and traditional firewalls or WAF, the side effects of blocking are more severe and difficult to diagnose. That means people are far less tolerant of screw-ups because they are more costly, but the need to detect suspicious activity remains strong. Let’s take a look at some of the analytics being used today:

  • Some tools block specific statements. For example, there is no need to monitor a ‘create view’ command coming from the web server. But blocking administrative use and alerting when remote administrative commands come into the database is useful for detection of problems.
  • Some tools use metadata & attribute-based profiles. For example, I worked on a project once to protect student grades in a university database, and kill the connection if someone tried to alter the database contents between 6pm and 6am for an unapproved terminal. User, time of day, source application, affected data, location, and IP address are all attributes that can be checked to enforce authorized usage.
  • Some tools use parameter signatures. The classic example is “1=1”, but there are many other common signatures for SQL injection, buffer overflow, and permission escalation attacks.
  • Some tools use lexical analysis. This is one of the more interesting approaches to come along in the last couple of years. By examining the use of the SQL language, and the various structural options available with individual statements, we can detect anomalies. For example, there are many different options for the create table command on Oracle, but certain combinations of delimiters or symbols can indicate an attempt to confuse the statement parser or inject code. In essence you define the subset of the query language you will allow, along with suspicious variations.
  • Some tools use behavior. For example, while any one query may have been appropriate, a series of specific queries indicates an attack. Or a specific database reference such as a user account lookup may be permissible, but attempting to select all customer accounts might not be. In some cases this means profiling typical user behavior, using statistical analysis to quantify unusual behavior, and blocking anything ‘odd’.
  • Some tools use content signatures. For example, looking at the content of the variables or blobs being inserted into the database for PII, malware, or other types of anomalous content.

All these analytical options work really well for one or two particular checks, but stink for other comparisions. No single method is best, so having multiple options allows choosing the best method to support each policy.

Most of the monitoring solutions that employ blocking will be deployed similarly to a web application firewall: as a stand-alone proxy service in front of the database, an embedded proxy service that is installed on the database platform, or as an out-of-band monitor that kills suspicious database sessions. And all of them can be deployed to monitor or block. While the number of companies that use database activity blocking is miniscule, I expect this to grow as people gradually gain confidence with the tools in monitoring mode.

Some vendors employ two detection models, but it’s still pretty early, so I expect we will see multiple options provided in the same way that Data Loss Prevention (DLP) products do. What really surprises me is that the database vendors have not snapped up a couple of these smaller firms and incorporated their technologies directly into the databases. This would ease deployment, either as an option for the networking subsystem, or even as part of the SQL pre-processor. Given that a single database installation may support multiple internal and external web applications, it’s very dangerous to rely on applications to defend against SQL injection, or to place to much faith in the appropriateness of administrative commands reaching the database engine. ACLs are particularly suspect in virtualized and cloud environments.

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