Endpoint Security Management Buyer’s Guide: Ongoing Controls—File Integrity MonitoringBy Mike Rothman
After hitting on the first of the ongoing controls, device control, we now turn to File Integrity Monitoring (FIM). Also called change monitoring, this entails monitoring files to see if and when files change. This capability is important for endpoint security management. Here are a few scenarios where FIM is particularly useful:
- Malware detection: Malware does many bad things to your devices. It can load software, and change configurations and registry settings. But another common technique is to change system files. For instance, a compromised IP stack could be installed to direct all your traffic to a server in Eastern Europe, and you might never be the wiser.
- Unauthorized changes: These may not be malicious but can still cause serious problems. They can be caused by many things, including operational failure and bad patches, but ill intent is not necessary for exposure.
- PCI compliance: Requirement 11.5 in our favorite prescriptive regulatory mandate, the PCI-DSS, requires file integrity monitoring to alert personnel to unauthorized modification of critical system files, configuration files, or content files. So there you have it – you can justify the expenditure with the compliance hammer, but remember that security is about more than checking the compliance box, so we will focus on getting value from the investment as well.
Again we start with a process that can be used to implement file integrity monitoring. Technology controls for endpoint security management don’t work well without appropriate supporting processes.
- Set policy: Start by defining your policy, identifying which files on which devices need to be monitored. But there are tens of millions of files in your environment so you need to be pretty savvy to limit monitoring to the most sensitive files on the most sensitive devices.
- Baseline files: Then ensure the files you assess are in a known good state. This may involve evaluating version, creation and modification date, or any other file attribute to provide assurance that the file is legitimate. If you declare something malicious to be normal and allowed, things go downhill quickly. The good news is that FIM vendors have databases of these attributes for billions of known good and bad files, and that intelligence is a key part of their products.
- Monitor: Next you actually monitor usage of the files. This is easier said than done because you may see hundreds of file changes on a normal day. So knowing a good change from a bad change is essential. You need a way to minimize false positives from flagging legitimate changes to avoid wasting everyone’s time.
- Alert: When an unauthorized change is detected you need to let someone know.
- Report: FIM is required for PCI compliance, and you will likely use that budget to buy it. So you need to be able to substantiate effective use for your assessor. That means generating reports. Good times.
Now that you have the process in place, you need some technology to implement FIM. Here are some things to think about when looking at these tools:
- Device and application support: Obviously the first order of business is to make sure the vendor supports the devices and applications you need to protect. We will talk about this more under research and intelligence, below.
- Policy Granularity: You will want to make sure your product can support different policies by device. For example, a POS device in a store (within PCI scope) needs to have certain files under control, while an information kiosk on a segmented Internet-only network in your lobby may not need the same level of oversight. You will also want to be able to set up those policies based on groups of users and device types (locking down Windows XP tighter, for example, as it doesn’t newer protections in Windows 7).
- Small footprint agent: In order to implement FIM you will need an agent on each protected device. Of course there are different definitions of what an ‘agent’ is, and whether one needs to be persistent or it can be downloaded as needed to check the file system and then removed – a “dissolvable agent”. You will need sufficient platform support as well as some kind of tamper proofing of the agent. You don’t want an attacker to turn off or otherwise compromise the agent’s ability to monitor files – or even worse, to return tampered results.
- Frequency of monitoring: Related to the persistent vs. dissolvable agent question, you need to determine whether you require continuous monitoring of files or batch assessment is acceptable. Before you respond “Duh! Of course we want to monitor files at all times!” remember that to take full advantage of continuous monitoring, you must be able to respond immediately to every alert. Do you have 24/7 ops staff ready to pounce on every change notification? No? Then perhaps a batch process could work.
- Research & Intelligence: A large part of successful FIM is knowing a good change from a potentially bad change. That requires some kind of research and intelligence capability to do the legwork. The last thing you want your expensive and resource-constrained operations folks doing is assembling monthly lists of file changes for a patch cycle. Your vendor needs to do that. But it’s a bit more complicated, so here are some other notes on detecting bad file changes.
- Change detection algorithm: Is a change detected based on file hash, version, creation date, modification date, or privileges? Or all of the above? Understanding how the vendor determines a file has changed enables you to ensure all your threat models are factored in.
- Version control: Remember that even a legitimate file may not be the right one. Let’s say you are updating a system file, but an older legitimate version is installed. Is that a big deal? If the file is vulnerable to an attack it could be, so ensuring that versions are managed by integrating with patch information is also a must.
- Risk assessment: It’s also helpful if the vendor can assess different kinds of changes for potential risk. Replacing the IP stack is a higher-risk change than updating an infrequently used configuration file. Again, either could be bad, but you need to prioritize, and a first cut from the vendor cut can be useful.
- Forensics: In the event of a data loss you will want a forensics capability such as a log of all file activity. Knowing when different files were accessed, by what programs, and what was done can be very helpful for assessing the damage of an attack and nailing down the chain of events which resulted in data loss.
- Closed loop reconciliation: Thousands of file adds, deletes, and changes happen every – and most are authorized and legitimate. That said, for both compliance and operational reliability, you want to be able to reconcile the changes you expect against the changes that actually happened. During a patch cycle, a bunch of changes should have happened. Did all of them complete successfully? We mentioned verification in the patch management process, and FIM technology can provide that reconciliation as well.
- Integration with Platform: There is no reason to reinvent the wheel – especially for cross-functional capabilities such as discovery, reporting, agentry, and agent deployment/updating/maintenance – so leverage your endpoint security management platform to streamline implementation and for operational leverage.
This description of file integrity monitoring completes our controls discussion. Between periodic and ongoing controls you have seen with a fairly comprehensive toolset for managing the security of endpoints in your environment. We have alluded extensively to the Endpoint Security Management platform, and in the next post will flesh it out – as well as mentioning buying considerations.