A new approach to an old problem

One of the more pernicious problems in information security is allowing someone to perform something they are authorized to do, but catching when they do it in a potentially harmful way. For example, in most business environments it’s important to allow users broad access to sensitive information, but this exposes us to all sorts of data loss/leakage scenarios. We want to know when a sales executive crosses the line from accessing customer information as part of their job, to siphoning it for a competitor.

In recent years we have adopted tools like Data Loss Prevention to help detect data leaks of defined information, and Database Activity Monitoring to expose deep database activity and potentially detect unusual activity. But despite these developments, one major blind spot remains: monitoring and protecting enterprise file repositories.

Existing system and file logs rarely offer the level of detail needed to truly track activity, generally don’t correlate across multiple repository types, don’t tie users to roles/groups, and don’t support policy-based alerts. Even existing log management and Security Information and Event Management tools can’t provide this level of information.

Four years ago when I initially developed the Data Security Lifecycle, I suggested to a technology called File Activity Monitoring. At the time I saw it as similar to Database Activity Monitoring, in that it would give us the same insight into file usage as DAM provides for database access. Although the technology didn’t yet exist it seemed like a very logical extension of DLP and DAM.

Over the past two years the first FAM products have entered the market, and although market demand is nascent, numerous calls with a variety of organizations show that interest and awareness are growing. FAM addresses a problem many organizations are now starting to tackle, and the time is right to dig into the technology and learn what it provides, how it works, and what features to look for.

Imagine having a tool to detect when an administrator suddenly copies the entire directory containing the latest engineering plans, or when a user with rights to a file outside their business unit accesses it for the first time in 3 years. Or imagine being able to hand an auditor a list of all access, by user, to patient record files. Those are merely a few of the potential uses for FAM.

Defining FAM

We define FAM as:

Products that monitor and record all activity within designated file repositories at the user level, and generate alerts on policy violations.

This leads to the key defining characteristics:

  • Products are able to monitor a variety of file repositories, which include at minimum standard network file shares (SMB/CIFS). They may additionally support document management systems and other network file systems.
  • Products are able to collect all activity, including file opens, transfers, saves, deletions, and additions.
  • Activity can be recorded and centralized across multiple repositories with a single FAM installation (although multiple products may be required, depending on network topology).
  • Recorded activity is correlated to users through directory integration, and the product should understand file entitlements and user/group/role relationships.
  • Alerts can be generated based on policy violations, such as an unusual volume of activity by user or file/directory.
  • Reports can be generated on activity for compliance and other needs.

You might think much of this should be possible with DLP, but unlike DLP, File Activity Monitoring doesn’t require content analysis (although FAM may be part of, or integrated with, a DLP solution). FAM expands the data security arsenal by allowing us to understand how users interact with files, and identify issues even when we don’t know their contents. DLP, DAM, and FAM are all highly complementary.

Through the rest of this series we will dig more into the use cases, technology, and selection criteria.

Note – the rest of the posts in the series will appear in our Complete Feed.