As we continue our march through the Privileged User Lifecycle, we have locked down privileged accounts as tightly as needed. But that’s not the whole story, and the lifecycle ends with a traditional audit. Because verifying what the administrators do with their privileges is just as important as the other steps. Admittedly, some organizations have as large a cultural issue with granular user monitoring because they actually want to trust their employees. Silly organizations, right? But in this case there is no monitoring slippery slope – we aren’t talking about recording an employee’s personal Facebook interactions or checking out pictures of Grandma. We’re talking about capturing what an administrator has done on a specific device.

Before we get into the how of privileged user monitoring, let’s look at why you would monitor admins. There are two main reasons:

  • Forensics: In the event of a breach, you need to know what happened on the device, quickly. A detailed record of what an administrator did on a device can be instrumental to putting the pieces together – especially in the event of an inside job. Of course privileged user monitoring is not a panacea to forensics – there are a zillion other ways to get compromised – but if the breach began with administrator activity, you would have a record of what happened, and the proverbial smoking gun.
  • Audit: Another use is to make your auditor happy. Imagine the difference between showing the auditor a policy saying how you do things, and showing a screen capture of an account being provisioned or a change being committed. Monitoring logs are powerful for showing that the controls are in place.

Sold? Good, but how to you move from concept to reality? You have a couple of options, including:

  1. SIEM/Log Management: As part of your other compliance efforts, you likely send most events from sensitive devices to a central aggregation point. This SIEM/Log Management work can also be used to monitor privileged users. By setting up some reports and correlation rules for administrator activity you can effectively figure out what administrators are doing. By the way, this is one of the main use cases for SIEM and log management.
  2. Configuration Management: A similar approach is to pull data out of a configuration management platform which tracks changes on managed devices. A difference between using configuration management and a SIEM is the ability to go beyond monitoring, and actually block unauthorized changes.

Screen Capture

If a picture is worth a thousand words, how much would you say a video is worth? An advantage of routing your administrative sessions through a proxy is the ability to capture exactly what admins are doing on every device. With a video screen capture of the session and the associated keystrokes, there can be no question of intent – no inference of what actually happened. You’ll know what happened – you just need to watch the playback.

For screen capture you can deploy an agent on the managed device or you could route sessions through a proxy. We started discussing the P-User Lifecycle by focusing on how to restrict access to sensitive devices. After discussing a number of options, we explained why proxies make a lot of sense for making sure only the right administrators access the correct devices at the right times. So it’s appropriate that we come full circle and end our lifecycle discussion back in a similar position.

Let’s look at performance and scale first. Video is pretty compute intensive, and consumes a tremendous amount of storage. The good news is that an administrative session doesn’t require HD quality to catch a bad apple red-handed. So significant compression is feasible, and can save a significant chunk of storage – whether you capture with an agent or through a proxy. But there is a major difference in device impact between these approaches. An agent takes resources for screen capture from the managed device, which impacts the server’s performance – probably significantly. With a proxy, the resources are consumed by the proxy server rather than the managed device.

The other issue is the security of the video – ensuring there is no tampering with the capture. Either way you can protect the video with secure storage and/or other means of making tampering evident, such as cryptographic hashing. The main question is how you get the video into secure storage. Using an agent, the system needs a secure transport between the device and the storage. Using a proxy approach, the storage could be integrated into (or very close to) the proxy device.

We believe a proxy-based approach to monitoring privileged users makes the most sense, but there are certainly cases where an agent could suffice. And with that we have completed our journey through the Privileged User Lifecycle, but we aren’t done yet. This “cloud computing” thing threatens to dramatically complicate how all devices are managed, with substantial impact on how privileged users need to be managed. So in the next post we will delve into the impact of the cloud on privileged users.