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Apr 22 2008   6:09PM GMT

Using Your IDS as a Boat Anchor

Arian Eigen Heald Arian Eigen Heald Profile: Arian Eigen Heald

Setting up your Intrusion Detection System to send you email alerts designed by the consultants who put it in and thinking you are secure is the equivalent of wrapping a chain around the server and tossing it in when you go fishing. It will do just as much, if not more good in the lake as it will on your network.

Here are some rules to follow for using an Intrusion Detection System on your network:

1. “Set It and Forget It” makes an IDS useless.

Why? Activity is happening on the network all the time. Suspicious events happen that are based on low level alerts that can aggregate – setting your email to high alerts only means you are missing the boat. Plan to spend at least an hour a day looking at the primary console and logs after you’ve finished cruising your firewall logs. And no, using an ESM (Enterprise Security Managment) tool to alert you does not get you off the hook. Only the human mind is capable of correlating activities and events in a remotely effective manner. We don’t yet have sufficient heuristics to automate intrusion detection.

Intrusion Detection Systems have a back end database to hold all the signatures they can monitor for. Some IDSs install agents on servers and have remote sensor collectors (say for the other side of the continent). The signatures can be updated almost daily. Do you need to install all the new signatures? No, but you’d better make sure you install the newest and nastiest ones that apply to your network. And keep the servers and database patched.

2. “We get too many false positives!” means it has not been configured correctly.

Why? Intrusion Detection Systems must be tuned. That means using about a month to analyze the traffic your IDS sees and eliminate the normal flow of events from your alerts. IDSs have an enormous database of signatures and if you turn all alerts for those signatures ON, you’ll be watching for UNIX hacks on your all-Microsoft network. Remove unneeded signatures from monitoring, and little by little you will remove alerts that are really normal traffic on your network. Why a month? Some transmissions only occur once a month. And taking out those signatures gives your sensors more CPU to see the traffic.

3. “One Size Fits All” means you’re not wearing anything.

I usually ask for the individual policies for each IDS sensor. For each sensor placement on your network, you want your intrusion detection system to watch for different traffic. It’s the best way to deploy sensors sparingly (and effectively) on a network. One sensor on the core router will not be enough, unless it can hold multiple policies: one for your internal network, one for your DMZ, and one for your extranet.

Think about it. You want to be watching for web-based attacks on your DMZ, but they will mean very little on your corporate network. Those signatures can be minimized internally, unless your internal web servers are high risk. If your DMZ is accessed from the Internet, many more signatures will need to be enabled. If you have one generic policy, you’re drowning in false positives and missing the REAL nasty traffic in the flotsam. And yes, you will have to spend time tuning and updating them on a regular basis.

4. “We have an IDS!” doesn’t mean it’s working.

Have you tested your IDS to make sure it’s working? I’m ashamed to say that too many IT Auditors don’t take a good look at this, and incorporate a simple test into their audits. A well tuned IDS should report an internal user running a portscan. It damages nothing, and is one of the most frequent first steps taken by a hacker with ill intent. And make sure that management knows ahead of time, but not the engineers in charge of the IDS. See what happens, and how quickly they report it.

4. “Oh, we outsource THAT,” means your risk has gone UP when your costs went down.

Unfortunately, I have yet to see an outsourced policy configuration on an IDS that was truly effective. IDSs are time intensive, and no one knows your network like an admin ON your network. As a result, you may get some very well-formatted canned reports every month, and it is certainly better than no IDS at all, but the effectiveness of the system decreases with every step away from your network. It’s a business decision, I know.

The other risk has to do with intrusions – you can outsource the functions, but you cannot outsource the responsibility, for both fiduciary and reputation risk should a breach occur.

Just buy a real boat anchor.

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