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Monitoring up the Stack: DAM, Part 1

By Adrian Lane

Database Activity Monitoring (DAM) is a form of application monitoring by looking at the database specific transactions, and integration of DAM data into SIEM and Log Management platforms is becoming more prevalent. Regular readers of this blog know that we have covered this topic many times, and gone into gory technical detail in order to help differentiate between products. If you need that level of detail, I’ll refer you to the database security page in the Securosis Research Library. Here I will give the “cliff notes” version, describing what the technology is and some of the problems it solves. The idea is to explain how DAM augments SIEM and Log Management analysis, and outfit end users with an understanding of how DAM extends the analysis capabilities of your monitoring strategy.

So what is Database Activity Monitoring? It’s a system that captures and records database events – which at a minimum is all Structured Query Language (SQL) activity, in real-time or near-real-time, including database administrator activity, across multiple database platforms, and generating alerts on policy violations. That’s Rich’s definition from four years ago, and it still captures the essence.

For those of you already familiar with SIEM, DAM is very similar in many ways. Both follow a similar process of collecting, aggregating, and analyzing data. Both provide alerts and reports, and integrate into workflow systems to leverage the analysis. Both collect different data types, in different formats, from heterogenous systems. And both rely on correlation (and in some cases enrichment) to perform advanced analytics.

How are they different? The simple answer is that they collect different events and perform different analyses. But there is another significant difference, which I stressed within this series’ introductory post: context. Database Activity Monitoring is tightly focused on database activity and how applications use the database (for good and not so good purposes). With specific knowledge of appropriate database use and operations and a complete picture of database events, DAM is able to analyze database statements with far greater effectiveness.

In a nutshell, DAM provides focused monitoring of one single important resource in the application chain, while SIEM provides great breadth of analysis across all devices.

Why is this important?

  • SQL injection protection: Database activity monitoring can filter and protect against many SQL injection variants. It cannot provide complete prevention, but statement and behavioral analysis techniques catch many known and unknown database attacks. By white listing specific queries from specific applications, DAM can detect tampered and other malicious queries, as well as queries from unapproved applications (which usually doesn’t bode well). And DAM can transcend monitoring and actually block a SQL injection before the statement arrives at the database.
  • Behavioral monitoring: DAM systems capture and record activity profiles, both of generic user accounts, as well as, specific database users. Changes in a specific user’s behavior might indicate disgruntled employees, hijacked accounts, or even oversubscribed permissions.
  • Compliance purposes: Given DAM’s complete view of database activity, and ability to enforce policies on both a statement and transaction/session basis, it’s a proven source to substantiate controls for regulatory requirements like Sarbanes-Oxley. DAM can verify the controls are both in place and effective.
  • Content monitoring: A couple of the DAM offerings additionally inspect content, so they are able to detect both SQL injection — as mentioned above – and also content injection. It’s common for attackers to abuse social networking and file/photo sharing sites to store malware. When ‘friends’ view images or files, their machines become infected. By analyzing the ‘blob’ of content prior to storage, DAM can prevent some ‘drive-by’ injection attacks.

That should provide enough of an overview to start to think about if/how you should think about adding DAM to your monitoring strategy. In order to get there, next we’ll dig into the data sources and analysis techniques used by DAM solutions, so you can determine whether the technology would enhance your ability to detect threats, while increasing leverage.

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