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What You Need to Know About Intrusion Detection Systems

Firewalls and other simple boundary devices lack some degree of intelligence when it comes to observing, recognizing, and identifying attack signatures that may be present in the traffic they monitor and the log files they collect. Without sounding critical of such other systems’ capabilities, this deficiency explains why intrusion detection systems are becoming increasingly important in helping to maintain proper network security.

Firewalls and other simple boundary devices lack some degree of intelligence when it comes to observing, recognizing, and identifying attack signatures that may be present in the traffic they monitor and the log files they collect. Without sounding critical of such other systems’ capabilities, this deficiency explains why intrusion detection systems (often abbreviated IDS) are becoming increasingly important in helping to maintain proper network security. Whereas other boundary devices may collect all the information necessary to detect (and often, to foil) attacks that may be getting started or already underway, they haven’t been programmed to inspect for and detect the kinds of traffic or network behavior patterns that match known attack signatures or that suggest potential unrecognized attacks may be incipient or in progress.

In a nutshell, the simplest way to define an IDS might be to describe it as a specialized tool that knows how to read and interpret the contents of log files from routers, firewalls, servers, and other network devices. Furthermore, an IDS often stores a database of known attack signatures and can compare patterns of activity, traffic, or behavior it sees in the logs it’s monitoring against those signatures to recognize when a close match between a signature and current or recent behavior occurs. At that point, the IDS can issue alarms or alerts, take various kinds of automatic action ranging from shutting down Internet links or specific servers to launching backtraces, and make other active attempts to identify attackers and actively collect evidence of their nefarious activities.

By analogy, an IDS does for a network what an antivirus software package does for files that enter a system: It inspects the contents of network traffic to look for and deflect possible attacks, just as an antivirus software package inspects the contents of incoming files, e-mail attachments, active Web content, and so forth to look for virus signatures (patterns that match known malware) or for possible malicious actions (patterns of behavior that are at least suspicious, if not downright unacceptable).

To be more specific, intrusion detection means detecting unauthorized use of or attacks on a system or network. An IDS is designed and used to detect and then to deflect or deter (if possible) such attacks or unauthorized use of systems, networks, and related resources. Like firewalls, IDSs may be software-based or may combine hardware and software (in the form of preinstalled and preconfigured standalone IDS devices). Often, IDS software runs on the same devices or servers where firewalls, proxies, or other boundary services operate- an IDS not running on the same device or server where the firewall or other services are installed will monitor those devices closely and carefully. Although such devices tend to operate at network peripheries, IDS systems can detect and deal with insider attacks as well as external attacks.

Characterizing Intrusion Detection Systems
IDS systems vary according to a number of criteria. By explaining those criteria, we can explain what kinds of IDSs you’re likely to encounter and how they do their jobs. First and foremost, it’s possible to distinguish IDSs on the basis of the kinds of activities, traffic, transactions, or systems they monitor. In this case, IDSs may be divided into network-based, host-based, and application-based IDS types.

IDSs that monitor network backbones and look for attack signatures are called network-based IDSs, whereas those that operate on hosts defend and monitor the operating and file systems for signs of intrusion and are called host-based IDSs. Some IDSs monitor only specific applications and are called application-based IDSs. (This type of treatment is usually reserved for important applications such as database management systems, content management systems, accounting systems, and so forth.) Read on to learn more about these various types of IDS monitoring approaches:

Network-based IDS characteristics
Pros: Network-based IDSs can monitor an entire, large network with only a few well-situated nodes or devices and impose little overhead on a network. Network-based IDSs are mostly passive devices that monitor ongoing network activity without adding significant overhead or interfering with network operation. They are easy to secure against attack and may even be undetectable to attackers; they also require little effort to install and use on existing networks.

Cons: Network-based IDSs may not be able to monitor and analyze all traffic on large, busy networks and may therefore overlook attacks launched during peak traffic periods. Network-based IDSs may not be able to monitor switch-based (high-speed) networks effectively, either. Typically, network-based IDSs cannot analyze encrypted data, nor do they report whether or not attempted attacks succeed or fail. Thus, network-based IDSs require a certain amount of active, manual involvement from network administrators to gauge the effects of reported attacks.

Host-based IDS characteristics
Pros: Host-based IDS can analyze activities on the host it monitors at a high level of detail; it can often determine which processes and/or users are involved in malicious activities. Though they may each focus on a single host, many host-based IDS systems use an agent-console model where agents run on (and monitor) individual hosts but report to a single centralized console (so that a single console can configure, manage, and consolidate data from numerous hosts).

Host-based IDSs can detect attacks undetectable to the network-based IDS and can gauge attack effects quite accurately. Host-based IDSs can use host-based encryption services to examine encrypted traffic, data, storage, and activity. Host-based IDSs have no difficulties operating on switch-based networks, either.

Cons: Data collection occurs on a per-host basis; writing to logs or reporting activity requires network traffic and can decrease network performance. Clever attackers who compromise a host can also attack and disable host-based IDSs. Host-based IDSs can be foiled by DoS attacks (since they may prevent any traffic from reaching the host where they’re running or prevent reporting on such attacks to a console elsewhere on a network). Most significantly, a host-based IDS does consume processing time, storage, memory, and other resources on the hosts where such systems operate.

Application-based IDS characteristics
Pros: An application-based IDS concentrates on events occurring within some specific application. They often detect attacks through analysis of application log files and can usually identify many types of attack or suspicious activity. Sometimes application-based IDS can even track unauthorized activity from individual users. They can also work with encrypted data, using application-based encryption/decryption services.

Cons: Application-based IDSs are sometimes more vulnerable to attack than the host-based IDS. They can also consume significant application (and host) resources.

In practice, most commercial environments use some combination of network- and host- and/or application-based IDS systems to observe what’s happening on the network while also monitoring key hosts and applications more closely.

IDSs may also be distinguished by their differing approaches to event analysis. Some IDSs primarily use a technique called signature detection. This resembles the way many antivirus programs use virus signatures to recognize and block infected files, programs, or active Web content from entering a computer system, except that it uses a database of traffic or activity patterns related to known attacks, called attack signatures. Indeed, signature detection is the most widely used approach in commercial IDS technology today.

Another approach is called anomaly detection. It uses rules or predefined concepts about “normal” and “abnormal” system activity (called heuristics) to distinguish anomalies from normal system behavior and to monitor, report on, or block anomalies as they occur. Some IDSs support limited types of anomaly detection; most experts believe this kind of capability will become part of how more IDSs operate in the future. Read on for more information about these two kinds of event analysis techniques:

Signature-based IDS characteristics
Pros: A signature-based IDS examines ongoing traffic, activity, transactions, or behavior for matches with known patterns of events specific to known attacks. As with antivirus software, a signature-based IDS requires access to a current database of attack signatures and some way to actively compare and match current behavior against a large collection of signatures. Except when entirely new, uncataloged attacks occur, this technique works extremely well.

Cons: Signature databases must be constantly updated, and IDSs must be able to compare and match activities against large collections of attack signatures. If signature definitions are too specific, signature-based IDS may miss variations on known attacks. (A common technique for creating new attacks is to change existing, known attacks rather than to create entirely new ones from scratch.) Signature-based IDSs can also impose noticeable performance drags on systems when current behavior matches multiple (or numerous) attack signatures, either in whole or in part.

Anomaly-based IDS characteristics
Pros: An anomaly-based IDS examines ongoing traffic, activity, transactions, or behavior for anomalies on networks or systems that may indicate attack. The underlying principle is the notion that “attack behavior” differs enough from “normal user behavior” that it can be detected by cataloging and identifying the differences involved. By creating baselines of normal behavior, anomaly-based IDS systems can observe when current behavior deviates statistically from the norm. This capability theoretically gives anomaly-based IDSs abilities to detect new attacks that are neither known nor for which signatures have been created.

Cons: Because normal behavior can change easily and readily, anomaly-based IDS systems are prone to false positives where attacks may be reported based on changes to the norm that are “normal,” rather than representing real attacks. Their intensely analytical behavior can also impose sometimes-heavy processing overheads on systems where they’re running. Furthermore, anomaly-based systems take a while to create statistically significant baselines (to separate normal behavior from anomalies); they’re relatively open to attack during this period.

Today, many antivirus packages include both signature-based and anomaly-based detection characteristics, but only a few IDSs incorporate both approaches. Most experts expect anomaly-based detection to become more widespread in IDSs, but research and programming breakthroughs will be necessary to deliver the kind of capability that anomaly-based detection should be, but is currently not, able to deliver.

Finally, some IDSs are capable of responding to attacks when they occur. This behavior is desirable from two points of view. For one thing, a computer system can track behavior and activity in near-real time and respond much more quickly and decisively during early stages of an attack. Since automation helps hackers mount attacks, it stands to reason that it should also help security professionals fend them off as they occur. For another thing, IDSs run 24/7, but network administrators may not be able to respond as quickly during off hours as they can during peak hours (even if the IDS can page them with an alarm that an attack has begun). By automating a response to block incoming traffic from one or more addresses from which an attack originates, the IDS can halt an attack in process and block future attacks from the same address.

By implementing the following techniques, IDSs can fend off expert and novice hackers alike. Although experts are more difficult to block entirely, these techniques can slow them down considerably:

Breaking TCP connections by injecting reset packets into attacker connections causes attacks to fall apart.

Deploying automated packet filters to block routers or firewalls from forwarding attack packets to servers or hosts under attack stops most attacks cold—even DoS or DDoS attacks. This works for attacker addresses and for protocols or services under attack (by blocking traffic at different layers of the ARPA networking model, so to speak).

Deploying automated disconnects for routers, firewalls, or servers can halt all activity when other measures fail to stop attackers (as in extreme DDoS attack situations, where filtering would only work effectively on the ISP side of an Internet link, if not higher up the ISP chain, as close to Internet backbones as possible).

Actively pursuing reverse DNS lookups or other ways of attempting to establish hacker identity is a technique used by some IDSs, generating reports of malicious activity to all ISPs in the routes used between the attacker and the attackee. Because such responses may themselves raise legal issues, experts recommend obtaining legal advice before repaying hackers in kind.

What can help you?
GFI LANguard Security Event Log Monitor (S.E.L.M.) monitors the security event logs of all your Windows NT/2000/XP servers and workstations and alerts you to possible intrusions/attacks in real time, giving you peace of mind. It also provides daily/weekly/monthly reports of high security events happening on your network. Because GFI LANguard S.E.L.M. is not a network-based intrusion detection system, switches do not impair it, IP traffic encryption or high-speed data transfer, as are traditional intrusion detection products.

GFI LANguard S.E.L.M. allows you to monitor:

  • Users attempting to access secured shares
  • Users attempting to access confidential files
  • Network users attempting to logon under a different account
  • Administrator logons outside offices hours
  • Correct firewall configuration: Detect rogue users on the network
  • Attacks using local user accounts

Here is a view of the intrusion alerts:

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