It’s no secret that databases are fertile ground for malicious activities. Here’s how a seven-step process for monitoring known harbingers of an imminent attack can help reduce the risk.
The recently announced cyber attack at Yahoo, wherein 500 million user accounts were compromised over a period of several months, is irrefutable proof of an alarming reality – databases are under siege and many organizations are incapable of protecting them.
Although some of you may find this statement to be overly simplistic and presumptuous, those with a practical understanding of these digital repositories will likely appreciate my candor. Whether through a stolen system administrator credential, a customized malware exploit, an irresponsible third-party or a malicious insider, databases remain at imminent risk of unauthorized access. Despite the fact that databases house the financial, health, employment, credit and educational information of virtually every American, secrets related to our national security and invaluable intellectual property, many organizations are incapable of identifying uninvited visitors once they’ve gained access. This is evidenced by the Yahoo attack wherein nation-state operatives navigated the company’s customer database for several months without detection.
Foreign governments, cybercrime groups and other adversaries of the United States are well aware that databases have become fertile ground for their malicious activities. Accordingly, cyber campaigns are being launched on these digital treasure troves on a routine basis. Although state-sponsored actors have successfully penetrated databases housed at the US Office of Personnel Management (OPM), Anthem, and Sony, newly released data suggests that many entities continue to disregard this evolving risk.
Alarming Lack of Oversight
An Osterman Research survey, conducted of approximately 200 organizations with an average workforce of 22,000, reveals an astonishing absence of database security. Among the report’s most disturbing statistics, only 20% of those surveyed indicated that they continuously monitor critical databases for the purpose of detecting unauthorized activity. In other words, four out of five either don’t conduct any type of monitoring or only do so intermittently.
Database monitoring, a process by which an organization continuously captures, analyzes, tests and verifies transactions, is the only mechanism by which unauthorized access may be detected. However, there is a common misconception that merely logging database activity constitutes a monitoring program; it does not. This distinction requires emphasis. Although logging is a critical component of the monitoring process, the mere stockpiling of log data, without ongoing analysis, testing and verification of system activity, is meaningless for the purpose of detecting and disrupting the database attacks that have plagued our public and private sectors.
Implementing a Strategy
A central element of an effective monitoring program is the implementation of an automated alert mechanism. Without a process to generate real time alerts, the program will eventually stall due to the massive volume of database transactions. An alerting process allows an organization to instantaneously sift through the din of database noise and focus upon the events that may actually pose a risk to the data housed within.
The alert may be in the form an email, text message or automated telephone call to the cyber security auditor on duty. Upon receiving an alert, it is imperative that the auditor immediately evaluate and resolve any potential threat to the database. There are certain conditions that are known harbingers of an imminent database attack and must be alerted on. When these events occur, the alerting process will simultaneously notify the appropriate staff and facilitate a real time investigation. For example:
- Modification of a table, column or row: Indicative of a data manipulation attack
- Disabling of an audit log: Precedes a database attack
- Accessing the database from an unrecognized IP address: Indicates access from suspect location
- Attempt to access a restricted segment of the database: Indicates escalation of privileges
- Access at unconventional times or dates: Indicator of a stolen user credential being used off hours
- Copying of information: Indicator of attempted theft of data
- Attempts to transfer or export large amounts database information: Indicator of data theft
These events are often associated with unauthorized access, therefore each must be immediately addressed through analysis and verification.
Database attacks are among today’s most serious cyber threats. Unfortunately many organizations have yet to implement a basic monitoring process to timely detect this expanding form of electronic malice. Organizations that fail to deploy an ongoing database monitoring program remain at an imminent risk of unauthorized access and the financial, reputational and legal consequences that will result.
John Moynihan, CGEIT, CRISC, is President of Minuteman Governance, a Massachusetts cybersecurity consultancy that provides services to public and private sector clients throughout the United States. Prior to founding this firm, he was CISO at the Massachusetts Department of … View Full Bio