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Data, data everywhere but not a drop of value


The sailor in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner relates his experiences after long sea voyage when his ship is blown off course:

“Water, water, every where,

And all the boards did shrink;

Water, water, every where,

Nor any drop to drink.”

An albatross appears and leads them out, but is shot by the Mariner and the ship winds up in unknown waters.  His shipmates blame the Mariner and force him to wear the dead albatross around his neck.

Replace water with data, boards with disk space, and drink with value and the lament would apply to the modern IT infrastructure. We are all drowning in data, but not so much in value. “Big data” are datasets that grow so large that managing them with on-hand tools is awkward. They are seen as the next frontier in innovation, competition, and productivity.

Log management is not immune to this trend. As the basic log collection problem (different sources, different protocols and different formats) has been resolved, we’re now collecting even larger datasets of logs. Many years ago we refuted the argument that log data belonged in a RDBMS, precisely because we saw the side problem of efficient data archival begin to overwhelm the true problem of extracting value from the data. As log data volumes continue to explode, that decision continues to be validated.

However, while storing raw logs in a database was not sensible, their power in extracting patterns and value from data is well established. Recognizing this, EventVault Explorer was released in 2011. Users can extract selected datasets to their choice of external RDBMS (a datamart) for fuzzy searching, pivot tables etc.   As was noted here , the key to managing big data is to personalize the results for maximum impact.

As you look under the covers of SIEM technology, pay attention to that albatross called log archives. It can lead you out of trouble, but you don’t want it around your neck.

Top 5 Compliance Mistakes


5.   Overdoing compensating controls

When a legitimate technological or documented business constraint prevents you from satisfying a requirement, a compensating control can be the answer after a risk analysis is performed. Compensating controls are not specifically defined inside PCI, but are instead defined by you (as a self-certifying merchant) or your QSA. It is specifically not an excuse to push PCI Compliance initiatives through completion at a minimal cost to your company. In reality, most compensating controls are actually harder to do and cost more money in the long run than actually fixing or addressing the original issue or vulnerability. See this article for a clear picture on the topic.

4. Separation of duty

Separation of duties is a key concept of internal controls. Increased protection from fraud and errors must be balanced with the increased cost/effort required.   Both PCI DSS Requirements 3.4.1 and 3.5 mention separation of duties as an obligation for organizations, and yet many still do not do it right, usually because they lack staff.

3. Principle of Least privilege

PCI 2.2.3 says they should “configure system security parameters to prevent misuse.” This requires organizations to drill down into user roles to ensure they’re following the rule of least privilege wherever PCI regulations apply.   This is easier said than done; more often it’s “easier” to grant all possible privileges rather than determine and assign just the correct set. Convenience is the enemy of security.

2. Fixating on excluding systems from scope

When you make the process of getting things out of scope a higher priority than addressing real risk, you get in trouble. Risk mitigation must come first and foremost. In far too many cases, out-of-scope becomes out-of-mind. This may make your CFO happy, but a hacker will get past weak security and not care if the system is in scope or not.

And drum roll …

1. Ignoring virtualization

Many organizations have embraced virtualization wholeheartedly given its efficiency gains. In some cases, virtualized machines are now off-premises and co-located at a service provider like Rackspace. This is a trend at federal government facilities.   However, “off-premises” does not mean “off-your-list”. Regardless of the location of the cardholder data, such systems are within scope as are the hypervisor. In fact, PCI DSS 2.0 says, if the cardholder data is present on even one VM, then the entire VM infrastructure is “in scope.”

IT Operations and SIEM Management Drive Business Success


While there are still some who question the ‘relevance’ of IT to the enterprise, and others who question the ‘future’ of IT, those involved in day-to-day business activities recognize and acknowledge that IT operations is integral to business success and this is unlikely to change in the immediate future.  Today’s IT staffer with security incident and event management (SIEM) responsibility must be able not only to detect, identify and respond to anomalies in infrastructure performance and operations, but also build processes, make decisions and take action based on the business impact of the incidents and events recorded in ubiquitous logs.

The 5 Most Annoying Terms of 2011


Since every cause needs “Awareness,” here are my picks for management speak to camouflage the bloody obvious:

  5. Events per second

Log Management vendors are still trying to “differentiate” with this tired and meaningless metric as we pointed out in The EPS Myth.

  4. Thought leadership

Mitch McCrimmon describes it best.

  3. Cloud

Now here is a term that means all things to all people.

  2. Does that make sense?

The new “to be honest.” Jerry Weismann discusses it in the Harvard Business Review.

  1. Nerd

During the recent SOPA debate, so many self-described “country boys” wanted to get the “nerds” to explain the issue to them; as Jon Stewart pointed out, the word they were looking for was “expert.”

SIEM and the Appalachian Trail


The Appalachian Trail is a marked hiking trail in the eastern United States extending between Georgia and Maine. It is approximately 2,181 miles long and takes about six months to complete. It is not a particularly difficult journey from start to finish; yet even so, completing the trail requires more from the hiker than just enthusiasm, endurance and will.

Likewise, SIEM implementation can take from one to six months to complete (depending on the level of customization) and like the Trail, appears deceptively simple.   It too, can be filled with challenges that reduce even the most experienced IT manager to despair, and there is no shortage of implementations that have been abandoned or uncompleted.   As with the Trail, SIEM implementation requires thoughtful consideration.

1) The Reasons Why

It doesn’t take too many nights scurrying to find shelter in a lightning storm, or days walking in adverse conditions before a hiker wonders: Why am I doing this again? Similarly, when implementing any IT project, SIEM included, it doesn’t take too many inter-departmental meetings, technical gotchas, or budget discussions before this same question presents itself: Why are we doing this again?

  All too often, we don’t have a compelling answer, or we have forgotten it. If you are considering a half year long backpacking trip through the woods, there is a really good reason for it.   In the same way, one embarks on a SIEM project with specific goals, such as regulatory compliance, IT security improvement or to control operating costs.   Define the answer to this question before you begin the project and refer to it when the implementation appears to be derailing. This is the compass that should guide your way.   Make adjustments as necessary.

2) The Virginia Blues

Daily trials can include anything from broken bones to homesickness, a circumstance that occurs on the Appalachian Trail about four to eight weeks into the journey, within the state lines of Virginia. Getting through requires not just perseverance but also an ability to adapt.

For a SIEM project, staff turnover, false positives, misconfigurations or unplanned explosions of data can potentially derail the project. But pushing harder in the face of distress is a recipe for failure. Step back, remind yourself of the reasons why this project is underway, and look at the problems from a fresh perspective. Can you be flexible? Can you make find new avenues to go around the problems?

  3) A Fresh Perspective

In the beginning, every day is chock full of excitement, every summit view or wild animal encounter is exciting.   But life in the woods will become the routine and exhilaration eventually fades into frustration.

In  much the same way, after the initial thrill of installation and its challenges, the SIEM project devolves into a routine of discipline and daily observation across the infrastructure for signs of something amiss.

This is where boredom can set in, but the best defense against the lull that comes along with the end of the implementation is the expectation of it. The journey’s going to end.   Completing it does not occur when the project is implemented.   Rather, when the installation is done, the real journey and the hard work begins.

Humans in the loop – failsafe or liability?


Among InfoSec and IT staff, there is a lot of behind-the-scenes hand wringing that users are the weakest link.   But are InfoSec staff that much stronger?

While automation is and does have a place, Dan Geer, of CIA-backed venture fund In-Q-Tel, properly notes that while ” …humans can build structures more complex” than they can operate, ” …Are humans in the loop a failsafe or a liability? Is fully automated security to be desired or to be feared?”

We’ve considered this question before at Prism, when “automated remediation” was being heavily touted as a solution for mid-market enterprises, where IT staff is not abundant. We’ve found that human intervention is not just a fail-safe, but a necessity.   The interdependencies, even in medium sized networks are far too complex to automate.   We introduced the feature a couple of years back and in reviewing the usage, concluded that such “automated remediation” does have a role to play in the modern enterprise. Use cases include changes to group membership in Active Directory, unrecognized processes, account creation where the naming convention is not followed or honeypot access. In other words, when the condition can be well defined and narrowly focused, humans in the loop will slow things down. However for every such “rule” there are hundreds more that will be obvious to a human but missed by the narrow rule.

So are humans in the loop a failsafe or a liability? It depends on the scenario.

What’s your thought?

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