A number of months ago when Rich released his paper on Database Activity Monitoring, one of the sections was on Alerting. Basically this is the analysis phase, where the collected data stream is analyzed in context of the policies that are to be enforced, and the generation of an alert when a policy is violated. In that section he mentioned the common types of analysis, and one other that is not typically available but makes a valuable addition: Heuristics. I feel this is an important tool for policy enforcement- not just for DAM, but also for DLP, SIM, and other security platforms- so I wanted to elaborate on this topic.

When you look at DAM, the functional components are pretty simple: Collect data from one or more sources, analyze data in relation to a policy set, and alert when a policy has been violated. Sometimes data is collected from the network, sometimes from audit logs, and sometimes directly from the database’s in-memory data structures. But regardless of the source, the key pieces of information about who did what are culled from the source, and mapped to the policies, with alerts via email, log file entries, and/or SNMP traps (alerts). All pretty straightforward.

So what are heuristics, or ‘behavioral monitoring’?

Many policies are intended to detect abnormal activity. But in order to quantify what is abnormal, you first have to understand what is normal. And for the purposes of alerting, just how abnormal does something have to be before it warrants attention? As a simplified example, think about it this way; you could watch all cars passing down a road and write down the speed of the cars as they pass by. At the end of the day, you could take the average vehicle speed and reset the speed limit to that average; that would be a form of behavioral benchmarking. If we then started issuing tickets to passing motorists 10% over or under that average: a behavior-based policy.

This is how behavioral monitoring helps with Database Activity Monitoring.

Typical policy enforcement in DAM relies on straight comparisons; for example, if user X is performing Y operation, and location is not Z, then generate an alert. Behavioral monitoring builds a profile of activity first, and then compares events not only to the policy, but also to previous events. It is this historical profile that shows what is going on within the database, or what normal network activity against the database looks like, to set the baseline. This can be something as simple as failed login attempts over a 2-hour time period, so we could keep a tally of failed login attempts and then alert if the number is greater than three. But in a more interesting example, we might record the number of rows selected by a by a specific user on a daily basis for a period of a month, as well as an average number of rows selected by all users over the same of a month. In this case we can create a policy to alert if if a single user account selects more that 40% above the group norm, or 100% more than that user’s average selection.

Building this profile comes at some expense in terms of processor overhead and storage, and this grows with the number of different behaviors traits to keep track of. However, behavior polices have an advantage in that they help us learn what is normal and what is not. Another advantage: as building the profile is dynamic and ongoing, thus the policy itself requires less maintenance, as it automatically self-adjusts over time as usage of the database evolves. The triggers adapt to changes without alteration of the policy. As with platforms like IDS, email, and web security, maintenance of policies and review of false positives forms the bulk of the administration time required to keep a product operational and useful. Implemented properly, behavior-based monitoring should both cut down on false positives and ease policy maintenance.

This approach makes more sense, and provides greater value, when applied to application-level activity and analysis. Certain transaction types create specific behaviors, both per-transaction and across a day’s activity. For example, to detect call center employee misuse of customer databases, where the users have permission to review and update records, automatically constructed user profiles are quite effective for distinguishing legitimate from aberrant activity- just make sure you don’t baseline misbehavior as legitimate! You may be able to take advantage of behavioral monitoring to augment Who/What/When/Where policies already in place. There are a number of different products which offer this technology, with varying degrees of effectiveness. And for the more technically inclined, there are many good references: public white papers, university theses, patents, and patent submissions. If you are interested send me email, and I will provide specific references.